Friday, April 17, 2015

Clkimate Change: Judges To Rule on New Standards.

                             Comments due by April 25, 2015
WASHINGTON — A panel of federal judges appeared inclined on Thursday to dismiss the first legal challenge to President Obama’s most far-reaching regulation to slow climate change.
But in the arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, lawyers for the nation’s two largest coal companies, more than two dozen states and the Environmental Protection Agency offered a preview of what is expected to be a protracted battle over a regulation Mr. Obama hopes to leave as his signature environmental achievement.
At stake is the environmental agency’s proposed rule, issued under the authority of the Clean Air Act, to curb planet-warming carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The rule, which would require all states to draft plans to restructure their electricity sectors and would push them to transition from coal power to cleaner forms of energy, could ultimately shut down hundreds of coal plants.
The plaintiffs in two cases before the court, Murray Energy Corporation v.E.P.A. and West Virginia v. E.P.A., say that as states prepare to meet the requirements, their moves are already wreaking economic havoc. They also say that once finalized, the rule will not stand up to additional legal challenges.
These plaintiffs — 14 states and the coal companies — contend that the agency lacks the authority to issue the regulation. In a highly unusual move, they have petitioned the court to block it from finalizing the proposed rule.
Two of the three judges on the panel, Thomas B. Griffith and Brett M. Kavanaugh, appeared highly skeptical of the coal companies’ efforts to stop the regulation before it was final, noting that there was no legal precedent for such an effort.
“Do you know of any case in which we’ve halted a proposed rule-making?” Judge Griffith asked. “Why in the world would we resort to extraordinary writ, which we’ve never used before?”
He added: “It’s a proposed rule. We could guess what the final rule will be. But we’re not in the business of guessing. We typically wait to see what the final rule will be.”
Elbert Lin, the solicitor general of West Virginia, responded that states and utilities were being hurt as they began to restructure their energy systems in anticipation of the rule. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a program like this,” he said. “This is about fundamentally reordering the way we use energy, from plant to plug.”
He added, “There are ongoing harms incurred by the states which cannot be adequately addressed.”
Judge Kavanaugh, noting that the E.P.A. has said it intends to revise the rule before releasing a final version, said: “Maybe they’ll still tweak it. For us to get in the middle of it before it happens seems highly unusual.”
Judge Kavanaugh also appeared skeptical of the argument that preparations could harm states in the handful of months before the rule is expected to be finalized this summer. “It could take as much time for us to write this opinion as it will for E.P.A. to release the final rule,” he said.
Among the lawyers arguing on behalf of the coal companies was Laurence H. Tribe, a well-known Harvard scholar of constitutional law who was a mentor to Mr. Obama when he attended law school. Republicans who oppose the rule have cheered Mr. Tribe’s role in the case.
In court on Thursday, Mr. Tribe laid out a broad, sweeping argument against the rule as unconstitutional, echoing spirited arguments that he has been making for months in legal briefs, congressional testimony and an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal.
By requiring states to enact new policies to change their energy economies, Mr. Tribe told the court, “the E.P.A. is coloring outside the lines. They’re trying to make law, not execute law. They are commandeering the states.”
“States are not to be treated as puppets,” he added.
Mr. Tribe also engaged in the narrow legal argument over two ambiguously worded amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act that is at the heart of the dispute between the E.P.A. and the coal companies.
Under those amendments, legal experts say, it is not clear whether the agency has the authority to use one section of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from power plants when it has already used a different section of the law to regulate other kinds of pollutants from the plants.
When the law was passed, the House version appeared to prohibit such “double regulation,” experts say, but the Senate version appeared to allow it. The final version of the legislation left the matter unclear.
In arguing that it has the authority to regulate different pollutants from the same sources, the E.P.A. points to the Senate language. In arguing that the agency lacks the authority, the coal companies point to the House language.
Mr. Tribe argued that a constitutional reading of the law would not give weight to the language that appears to allow double regulation.
“They’ve tried to create the illusion that there are two different provisions you have to reconcile,” Mr. Tribe said. That reading, he said, “would upturn the entire constitutional system.”
Amanda Berman, representing the E.P.A., told the judges, “I think he’s flat-out wrong.” She cited legal precedent in which, if there is ambiguity in a law, the agency enacting the law is given deference to interpret it.
“E.P.A. should be given the chance to reconcile these amendments,” Ms. Berman said.
The third judge on the panel, Karen L. Henderson, who said she held a different view from her colleagues, appeared less inclined to wait for the final regulation. She noted that the E.P.A. administrator, Gina McCarthy, had frequently said that she intended to finalize the rule much as it stands now.
“I see a closed mind as far as the legal issue,” Judge Henderson said. “They’ve already stated their position on the legality, unless a court says they’re wrong.”

It was less clear where the three judges, who were all appointed by Republican presidents, stood on the merits of the rule itself. If the panel dismisses the case because the regulation is not yet finalized, the petitioners are expected to return to the court once the final version is released.
While those broader questions of constitutionality were not at issue in Thursday’s case, they are almost certain to re-emerge.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia are backing the Obama administration’s proposal.
NYT 4/17/2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pope Francis and Climate Change.

                                  Comments due by April, 17, 2015
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics not only says the world must try to protect against an environmental catastrophe regardless of its cause, but he is preparing the first ever papal letter to the church’s bishops focused on the environment.
He hopes it will encourage U.N. negotiators meeting in Paris in December to make courageous decisions about protecting the world from global warming, he told reporters traveling with him to the Philippines.“I don't know if (human activity) is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face," he said in January before visiting with survivors of 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, according to federal weather experts. “We have in a sense taken over nature."
Pope Francis is exceptionally well regarded at the end of his first two years as pontiff, a tenure during which he has rejected ostentatious trappings of the Vatican, embraced the poor and criticized a church that he says has become obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released in March found that only 6 percent of Americans viewed him negatively, while 55 percent had positive feelings about him.
Now with his papal letter, or encyclical, he is expected to tie together the environment, development and concern for the poor. It will be published over the summer, in time for the U.N. General Assembly’s discussion on sustainable development in September and the Climate Change Conference meeting on reducing global warming in Paris in December.
Some scholars at Catholic universities hope that given Francis' popularity, Americans will pay close attention to what he says in the encyclical and during his visit to the United States in September, when he will address Congress and the United Nations.Adorable Boy Crashes Pope's Speech
that I’ve heard of in the last 10 years,” said Daniel P. Scheid, an assistant professor of theology at Duquesne University, a Catholic school in Pittsburgh.
Catholics might be more open than others to Francis’ message. They are more convinced than other Christians that global warming is happening, are more worried about it, and are more supportive of taking action, Yale University found ina survey. Seventy percent of Catholics, for example, believe the Earth is warming compared to 57 percent of other Christians, according to the survey.
A Vatican official who helped to write the first draft of the encyclical, Cardinal Peter Turkson, said in a recent speech that Francis was “compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change” while acknowledging the debate over its causes.
“What is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer,” Turkson said in a lecture last month at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynoor Ireland.
Rather than provide a narrow agenda for greening the church or a comparison of the merits of capitalism versus communism, the encyclical will emphasize caring for people and the environment, Turkson said.
"The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are interrelated; and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today," Turkson said in what was regarded as a preview of the encyclical.
Some encyclicals have covered purely religious topics, others issues of broader interest such as birth control.
Francis’ predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, also spoke out about the environment: John Paul II in 1990 called for protecting creation and the poor and Benedict XVI in 2011 urged delegates to climate change negotiations to reach a strong agreement. But by devoting an encyclical to ecology Francis makes the topic a core one for the church, Scheid said.
“Benedict tended to write like an academic, making arguments, which is good, he’s a professor,” he said. “But I think Francis will speak more as a pastor, as someone trying to speak to the heart, not just the mind.”
Jessica Hellman, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said she expected the pope to frame the problem as a moral one. Developed countries will likely be called on do what they can to lessen global warming without regard to what others are doing, she said.
“I think that’s a pretty powerful argument and something different from what you hear in the regular political U.N. discourse so I think it could make a difference,” she said.
She and others at the Catholic university have compiled the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index or ND-GAIN, which measures the vulnerability of each country to climate change and ways they can adjust.
“It’s time to think of climate change not as a scientific issue but as a humanitarian crisis,” she said.
The goal of the conference in Paris is to limit warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over preindustrial levels. The United States and China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters, have announced that in Paris they would commit to targets for cuts in their countries’ carbon emissions. At the end of last month, the White House described how by relying on President Obama’s executive authority it would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third over the next decade.
The plan is opposed by Republican lawmakers in Congress, who often dispute human contribution to climate change and oppose any accord in Paris.
Francis’ popularity has not made him immune to criticism on the issue. In an editorial in December, the publication Investor’s Business Daily, argued that initiatives such as limiting the use of fossil fuels were actually regressive taxes that would hurt the poor.
“The radical climate change agenda he has made peace with would make the poor poorer and income inequality worse,” it wrote.
Patrick J. Michaels, the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, makes a similar argument, saying the more affluent a society, the more it protects its environment.
“So I would think that the pope should come down on the side of economic development as a way of promoting environmental justice," he said.
The Cato Institute argues that global warming is real but that current technologies cannot accomplish legislative goals for reducing emissions.
Michael points to a recent Gallup poll showing that among noneconomic problems, the environment and pollution rank well below dissatisfaction with government, terrorism and other issues for Americans. Despite respect for Francis, Americans are more likely to challenge statements with policy or political implications with which they disagree, he said.
"What I’m thinking is that he’s going to have to be very careful in the words that he chooses when he is the United States," he said.
Environmentalists counter that action is needed now.
Dan Misleh, the director of the Catholic Climate Covenant — launched in 2006 and intended to help Catholics address climate change — agrees that Americans pay too little attention to environmental problems. But he hopes the pope will spur people to act.
"I think there will be some challenges in the encyclical that will make people stand up, pay attention and through that reflect on their own lives and lifestyles," he said.
Duquesne University will inaugurate an annual conference on the "Integrity of Creation" in September by exploring the topic of climate change. Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, meanwhile, will hold a conference on climate investing, also in September, with the goal of developing a set of principles to guide investments.
Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science, and ethics in Fordham University's Department of Theology, said she doubted that Francis would convince doubters in the U.S. Congress to change their minds.
"But I think it is good to have people who are respected as moral leaders and powerful ones at that remind powerful politicians that in a globalizing world a lot more is at stake than might be discerned in election cycles or fiscal quarters," she said.(CNBC) 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Which is more Important: Climate Change or Environmental Protection?

Comments due by April 10, 2015

Does the need to mitigate the effects of man-made climate change override the need to protect nature? 
Climate change is with us, and is one of nine reasons why scientists are now concerned that the rate of environmental degradation is a threat to the future of human life on Earth. The loss of biodiversity, dubbed the Sixth Green Extinction by some, is another threat to humanity, with nearly half of the world’s amphibians and a fifth of its plants at risk of extinction.
We do not have the luxury of choosing which of these nine challenges to tackle; they are all critical to our survival.
Yet last week, here in West Dorset, the council unanimously approved the development of a 25MW solar farm on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rampisham Down was designated as a SSSI because it is nationally important for wildlife. There are 70ha of heathland and nature-rich grassland, known as lowland acid grassland at Rampisham.
Natural England estimate that there is only 5000ha of this lowland acid grassland type left in England. Rampisham is in the top ten largest surviving fragments in England. It is especially rich in grassland fungi, for which Britain has an international responsibility. It is also highly unusual in that the underlying chalk influences the plant communities, creating areas of the extremely rare habitat known as “chalk heath”.
Rampisham Down escaped the “green revolution” that wiped away most other nature in England, because it was a wartime and cold-war radio transmitting station, a piece of strategic infrastructure. West Dorset residents have lived with the “Rampisham Masts” for 70 years, and these radio masts have dominated the West Dorset landscape, with many feeling they are an eyesore and wishing them away.
After the radio station closed in 2011 it was acquired by a solar farm developer.
British Solar Renewables (BSR) and its supporters have continually claimed that the grassland at Rampisham is of little or no value and by building a solar farm they will actually enhance the environment. To counter the concerns that erecting over 100,000 solar panels across over half of the area of Rampisham Down would damage the grasslands, BSR instituted an experiment, involving a few solar panels, some with “windows” in them, to let more light through.
The results of their own experiment has showed that under the panels, even with windows, the grass was darker, damper and cooler. Natural England’s view is that this would be enough to change the plant community from the valuable one for which the site was protected, to a more common community akin to what might be found growing along a hedgerow.
The West Dorset planning committee met last weeky to decide whether to give the Solar Farm planning permission. They listened to the evidence against it from Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust, and for it, from the developers, their witnesses and local councillors. They discounted the nature value of the Down, viewed it as brownfield land which would benefit from being developed, and decided that the production of renewable energy and the small number of jobs the development would bring were of greater benefit to society than protecting the wildlife.
The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that SSSIs should not be destroyed, unless the benefit outweighs the harm. This is a classic cost-benefit analysis approach, which wilfully ignores all the intangible benefits nature provides us. Even so, as the Planning Officer laid out in his analysis, the costs of developing Rampisham Down far outweigh the benefits. And in any case, there is a perfectly good location for a slightly smaller solar farm on arable land adjacent to the SSSI, where BSR has already applied for planning permission.
Another large SSSI is also under threat from development – Lodge Hill, in Kent. There are many parallels between the two sites: they are both ex-strategic infrastructure, publicly-owned land that has been sold off for development; they were both notified as SSSI on account of their nationally important wildlife; and in both cases local authority planning committee have unanimously approved their development.
Both Lodge Hill and Rampisham Down are tests of the National Planning Policy Framework and whether it is capable of protecting nature from development. But there is a bigger challenge, to society. Protecting nature is no more an option, than tackling climate change – both are necessary and one cannot outweigh the other.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Deadly Games that Nations Play.

                                                Comments due by April 3, 2015

Japan is at it again. Back in December, the country got caught trying to pass off $1 billion worth of investments in coal-fired power plants in Indonesia as "climate finance"—that is, funding to fight climate change. Coal plants, of course, are the world's single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Japanese officials now say they are also counting $630 million in loans for coal plants in Kudgi, India, and Matarbari, Bangladesh, as climate finance. The Kudgi project has been marred by violent clashes between police and local farmers who fear the plant will pollute the environment.
Tokyo argues that the projects are climate-friendly because the plants use technology that burns coal more efficiently, reducing their carbon emissions compared to older coal plants. Also, Japanese officials stress that developing countries need coal power to grow their economies and expand access to electricity.
Putting aside Japan's assumption that developing countries need coal-fired power plants (a view still under much debate by energy-focused development economists), the real issue here is that there isn't an official, internationally recognized definition of "climate finance." In broad strokes, it refers to money a country is spending to address the problem of climate change, through measures to either mitigate it (i.e., emit less carbon dioxide from power plants, vehicles, etc.) or adapt to it (building sea walls or developing drought-tolerant seeds, for example). But there remains little transparency or oversight for what exactly a country can count toward that end.
The reason that matters is because climate finance figures are a vital chip in international climate negotiations. At a UN climate meeting in Peru late last year, Japan announced that it had put $16 billion into climate finance since 2013. Likewise, President Barack Obama last year pledged $3 billion toward the UN's Green Climate Fund, plus several billion more for climate-related initiatives in his proposed budget. Other countries have made similar promises.
Each of these commitments is seen as a quantitative reflection of how seriously a country takes climate change and how far they're willing to go to address it, and there's always pressure to up the ante. And these promises from rich countries are especially important because in many cases the countries most affected by climate change impacts are developing ones that are the least equipped to do anything about it—and least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that caused global warming in the first place. But the whole endeavor starts to look pretty hollow and meaningless if it turns out that "climate finance" actually refers to something as environmentally dubious as a coal plant.
These numbers will take on increasing significance in the run-up to the major climate summit in Paris in December, which is meant to produce a wide-reaching, meaningful international climate accord. So now more than ever, maximum transparency is vital.   (Mother Jones, Blue Marble) 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Look Ma, no plow!!

                                                    Comments due by March 29, 2015

— Gabe Brown is in such demand as a speaker that for every invitation he accepts, he turns down 10 more. At conferences, like the one held here at a Best Western hotel recently, people line up to seek his advice. “The greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind,” he tells audiences. Mr. Brown, a balding North Dakota farmer who favors baseball caps and red­striped polo shirts, is not talking about disruptive technology start­ups, political causes, or the latest self­help fad. He is talking about farming, specifically soil­conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil­enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor. Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. Brown told more than 250 farmers and ranchers who gathered at the hotel for the first Southern Soil Health Conference, he has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000­acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding. He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said. Neatly tilled fields have long been a hallmark of American agriculture and its farmers, by and large traditionalists who often distrust practices that diverge from time­honored methods. But soil­conservation farming is gaining converts as growers increasingly face extreme weather, high production costs, a shortage of labor and the threat of government regulation of agricultural pollution. Farmers like Mr. Brown travel the country telling their stories, and organizations like No­Till on the Plains — a Kansas­based nonprofit devoted to educating growers about “agricultural production systems that model nature” — attract thousands. “It’s a massive paradigm shift,” said Ray Archuleta, an agronomist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the federal Agriculture Department, which endorses the soil­conservation approach. Government surveys suggest that the use of no­tillage farming has grown sharply over the last decade, accounting for about 35 percent of cropland in the United States. For some crops, no­tillage acreage has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. For soybeans, for example, it rose to 30 million acres in 2012 from 16.5 million acres in 1996. The planting of cover crops — legumes and other species that are rotated with cash crops to blanket the soil year­round and act as green manure — has also risen in acreage about 30 percent a year, according to surveys, though the total remains small. Farmers till the land to ready it for sowing and to churn weeds and crop residue back into the earth. Tilling also helps mix in fertilizers and manure and loosens the top layer of the soil. But repeated plowing exacts a price. It degrades soil, killing off its biology, including beneficial fungi and earthworms, and leaving it, as Mr. Archuleta puts it, “naked, thirsty, hungry and running a fever.” Degraded soil requires heavy applications of synthetic fertilizer to produce high yields. And because its structure has broken down, the soil washes away easily in heavy rain, taking nitrogen and other pollutants with it into rivers and streams. Soil health proponents say that by leaving fields unplowed and using cover crops, which act as sinks for nitrogen and other nutrients, growers can  increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, making it better able to absorb and retain water. “Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre,” said Claire O’Connor, a staff lawyer and agriculture specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. In turn, more absorbent soil is less vulnerable to runoff and more resistant to droughts and floods. Cover crops also help suppress weeds. Environmental groups like the Defense Council have long been fans of soilconservation techniques because they help protect waterways and increase the ability of soil to store carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the air, where it contributes to climate change. One recent study led by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested that the widespread use of cover crops and other soil­health practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” of oxygen­depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico. The Defense Council, Ms. O’Connor said, has proposed that the government offer a “good driver” discount on federal crop insurance for growers who incorporate the practices. But the movement also has critics, who argue that no­tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive for many growers. A farmer who wants to shift to no­tillage, for example, must purchase new equipment, like a no­till seeder. Tony J. Vyn, a professor of agronomy at Purdue, said the reasons growers cite for preferring to fully till their fields vary depending on geography, the types of crops they grow and the conditions of their soil. But they include the perception that weed control is harder using no­tillage; that the method, which reduces water evaporation, places limits on how early in the year crops can be planted; and that the residue left by no­tilling is too difficult to deal with, especially when corn is the primary cash crop. Even farmers who enthusiastically adopt no­till and other soilconservation methods rarely do so for environmental reasons; their motivation is more pragmatic.  “My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” said Terry McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of droughtstricken cropland in North Texas. “If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.” For years, Mr. McAlister plowed his fields, working with his father, who began farming outside the town of Electra in the 1950s. But he began having doubts about the effects of constant tilling on the soil. “We were farming cotton like the West Texas guys were, just plow, plow, plow,” he said. “And if you got a rain, it just washed it and eroded it. “It made me sick,” he said. “You’re asking yourself, ‘Is there not a better way?’ But at the time, we didn’t know.” Mr. McAlister said that he switched to no­tillage in 2005, when an agricultural economist calculated that the method offered a $15­per­acre advantage over full tilling. Now he is a convert. Standing in a field of winter wheat, he pointed proudly at the thick blanket of stubble sprinkled with decaying radishes and turnips. “One of the toughest things about learning to do no­till is having to unlearn all the things that you thought were true,” he said. Mr. McAlister grows cotton, wheat, hay, grain sorghum and some canola as cash crops, using a GPS­guided no­till seeder that drills through residue, allowing him to plant precisely and effectively. He credits no­tillage for one of his biggest wheat crops, in 2012, when extreme drought left farmers throughout the region struggling to salvage any harvest. His healthier soil, he believes, made better use of the tiny amount of rain that fell than did the fully tilled fields of other farmers. But few growers go as far as Mr. Brown in North Dakota, who produces grass­fed beef and has given up most agricultural chemicals. Mr. McAlister, for example, still uses nitrogen fertilizer. He plants seeds that are genetically modified for drought or herbicide resistance. And he depends on herbicides like Roundup to kill off his cover crops before sowing the crops he grows for cash. The philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, a proponent of soil­conservation practices, said that the drought and flooding that have plagued much of the country in recent years have drawn more farmers to no­till. “When you get into a drought, that gets everybody’s attention,” said Mr. Buffett, the middle son of Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor. “Farmers don’t really change their behavior until they see that they have to, which is pretty much human nature.” The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay under the Clean Water Act in 2010, Mr. Buffett said, should also be “a wake­up call that the E.P.A. is coming soon” and if farmers do not address fertilizer runoff, the government will do it for them. Still, he said, reaping the benefits of no­tillage farming demands patience, given that it may take several years for deadened soil to recover. Some farmers try no­tilling for one season and then get discouraged. And there is no onesize­fits­all solution: Farmers must adapt what they have learned to their own land and crops. Mr. McAlister and other no­till farmers said that perhaps the biggest barrier to the spread of no­till is the mind­set that farmers must do things the same way as earlier generations did them. “We have a saying in our area: ‘You can’t no­till because you haven’t buried your father yet,’” Mr. McAlister said. “You can’t take on an endeavor like this with someone leaning over your shoulder every day telling you you’re wrong and it’s not going to work,” he said.
NYT March10, 2015)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

How Safe Is GM/GE food?

                                         Comments due by March 15, 2015
Robert Goldberg sags into his desk chair and gestures at the air. “Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab,” he says. “This the most depressing thing I've ever dealt with.”
Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is not battling psychosis. He is expressing despair at the relentless need to confront what he sees as bogus fears over the health risks of genetically modified (GM) crops. Particularly frustrating to him, he says, is that this debate should have ended decades ago, when researchers produced a stream of exonerating evidence: “Today we're facing the same objections we faced 40 years ago.”
Across campus, David Williams, a cellular biologist who specializes in vision, has the opposite complaint. “A lot of naive science has been involved in pushing this technology,” he says. “Thirty years ago we didn't know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later.” The result, he insists, could very well be potentially toxic plants slipping through testing.
Williams concedes that he is among a tiny minority of biologists raising sharp questions about the safety of GM crops. But he says this is only because the field of plant molecular biology is protecting its interests. Funding, much of it from the companies that sell GM seeds, heavily favors researchers who are exploring ways to further the use of genetic modification in agriculture. He says that biologists who point out health or other risks associated with GM crops—who merely report or defend experimental findings that imply there may be risks—find themselves the focus of vicious attacks on their credibility, which leads scientists who see problems with GM foods to keep quiet.
Whether Williams is right or wrong, one thing is undeniable: despite overwhelming evidence that GM crops are safe to eat, the debate over their use continues to rage, and in some parts of the world, it is growing ever louder. Skeptics would argue that this contentiousness is a good thing—that we cannot be too cautious when tinkering with the genetic basis of the world's food supply. To researchers such as Goldberg, however, the persistence of fears about GM foods is nothing short of exasperating. “In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth,” he says, “and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we've gone back to being ignorant.”
So who is right: advocates of GM or critics? When we look carefully at the evidence for both sides and weigh the risks and benefits, we find a surprisingly clear path out of this dilemma.
Benefits and Worries
The bulk of the science on GM safety points in one direction. Take it from David Zilberman, a U.C. Berkeley agricultural and environmental economist and one of the few researchers considered credible by both agricultural chemical companies and their critics. He argues that the benefits of GM crops greatly outweigh the health risks, which so far remain theoretical. The use of GM crops “has lowered the price of food,” Zilberman says. “It has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it. If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.”
In the future, Zilberman says, those advantages will become all the more significant. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world will have to grow 70 percent more food by 2050 just to keep up with population growth. Climate change will make much of the world's arable land more difficult to farm. GM crops, Zilberman says, could produce higher yields, grow in dry and salty land, withstand high and low temperatures, and tolerate insects, disease and herbicides.
Despite such promise, much of the world has been busy banning, restricting and otherwise shunning GM foods. Nearly all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, but only two GM crops, Monsanto's MON810 maize and BASF's Amflora potato, are accepted in the European Union. Eight E.U. nations have banned GM crops outright. Throughout Asia, including in India and China, governments have yet to approve most GM crops, including an insect-resistant rice that produces higher yields with less pesticide. In Africa, where millions go hungry, several nations have refused to import GM foods in spite of their lower costs (the result of higher yields and a reduced need for water and pesticides). Kenya has banned them altogether amid widespread malnutrition. No country has definite plans to grow Golden Rice, a crop engineered to deliver more vitamin A than spinach (rice normally has no vitamin A), even though vitamin A deficiency causes more than one million deaths annually and half a million cases of irreversible blindness in the developing world.
Globally, only a tenth of the world's cropland includes GM plants. Four countries—the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Argentina—grow 90 percent of the planet's GM crops. Other Latin American countries are pushing away from the plants. And even in the U.S., voices decrying genetically modified foods are becoming louder. At press time, at least 20 states are considering GM-labeling bills.
The fear fueling all this activity has a long history. The public has been worried about the safety of GM foods since scientists at the University of Washington developed the first genetically modified tobacco plants in the 1970s. In the mid-1990s, when the first GM crops reached the market, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader, Prince Charles and a number of celebrity chefs took highly visible stands against them. Consumers in Europe became particularly alarmed: a survey conducted in 1997, for example, found that 69 percent of the Austrian public saw serious risks in GM foods, compared with only 14 percent of Americans.
In Europe, skepticism about GM foods has long been bundled with other concerns, such as a resentment of American agribusiness. Whatever it is based on, however, the European attitude reverberates across the world, influencing policy in countries where GM crops could have tremendous benefits. “In Africa, they don't care what us savages in America are doing,” Zilberman says. “They look to Europe and see countries there rejecting GM, so they don't use it.” Forces fighting genetic modification in Europe have rallied support for “the precautionary principle,” which holds that given the kind of catastrophe that would emerge from loosing a toxic, invasive GM crop on the world, GM efforts should be shut down until the technology is proved absolutely safe.
But as medical researchers know, nothing can really be “proved safe.” One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying hard to find it—as is the case with GM crops.
A Clean Record
The human race has been selectively breeding crops, thus altering plants' genomes, for millennia. Ordinary wheat has long been strictly a human-engineered plant; it could not exist outside of farms, because its seeds do not scatter. For some 60 years scientists have been using “mutagenic” techniques to scramble the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals, creating strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that have become agricultural mainstays. The practice has inspired little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health problems.
The difference is that selective breeding or mutagenic techniques tend to result in large swaths of genes being swapped or altered. GM technology, in contrast, enables scientists to insert into a plant's genome a single gene (or a few of them) from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal. Supporters argue that this precision makes the technology much less likely to produce surprises. Most plant molecular biologists also say that in the highly unlikely case that an unexpected health threat emerged from a new GM plant, scientists would quickly identify and eliminate it. “We know where the gene goes and can measure the activity of every single gene around it,” Goldberg says. “We can show exactly which changes occur and which don't.” [For more on how GM plants are analyzed for health safety, see “The Risks on the Table,” by Karen Hopkin; Scientific American, April 2001.]
And although it might seem creepy to add virus DNA to a plant, doing so is, in fact, no big deal, proponents say. Viruses have been inserting their DNA into the genomes of crops, as well as humans and all other organisms, for millions of years. They often deliver the genes of other species while they are at it, which is why our own genome is loaded with genetic sequences that originated in viruses and nonhuman species. “When GM critics say that genes don't cross the species barrier in nature, that's just simple ignorance,” says Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at U.C. Riverside. Pea aphids contain fungi genes. Triticale is a century-plus-old hybrid of wheat and rye found in some flours and breakfast cereals. Wheat itself, for that matter, is a cross-species hybrid. “Mother Nature does it all the time, and so do conventional plant breeders,” McHughen says.
Could eating plants with altered genes allow new DNA to work its way into our own? It is theoretically possible but hugely improbable. Scientists have never found genetic material that could survive a trip through the human gut and make it into cells. Besides, we are routinely exposed to—we even consume—the viruses and bacteria whose genes end up in GM foods. The bacterium B. thuringiensis, for example, which produces proteins fatal to insects, is sometimes enlisted as a natural pesticide in organic farming. “We've been eating this stuff for thousands of years,” Goldberg says.
In any case, proponents say, people have consumed as many as trillions of meals containing genetically modified ingredients over the past few decades. Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations. Mark Lynas, a prominent anti-GM activist who last year publicly switched to strongly supporting the technology, has pointed out that every single news-making food disaster on record has been attributed to non-GM crops, such as the Escherichia coli–infected organic bean sprouts that killed 53 people in Europe in 2011.
Critics often disparage U.S. research on the safety of genetically modified foods, which is often funded or even conducted by GM companies, such as Monsanto. But much research on the subject comes from the European Commission, the administrative body of the E.U., which cannot be so easily dismissed as an industry tool. The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, on the safety of GM crops. None of those studies found any special risks from GM crops.
Plenty of other credible groups have arrived at the same conclusion. Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a science-based consumer-watchdog group in Washington, D.C., takes pains to note that the center has no official stance, pro or con, with regard to genetically modifying food plants. Yet Jaffe insists the scientific record is clear. “Current GM crops are safe to eat and can be grown safely in the environment,” he says. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have all unreservedly backed GM crops. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with its counterparts in several other countries, has repeatedly reviewed large bodies of research and concluded that GM crops pose no unique health threats. Dozens of review studies carried out by academic researchers have backed that view.
Opponents of genetically modified foods point to a handful of studies indicating possible safety problems. But reviewers have dismantled almost all of those reports. For example, a 1998 study by plant biochemist Árpád Pusztai, then at the Rowett Institute in Scotland, found that rats fed a GM potato suffered from stunted growth and immune system–related changes. But the potato was not intended for human consumption—it was, in fact, designed to be toxic for research purposes. The Rowett Institute later deemed the experiment so sloppy that it refuted the findings and charged Pusztai with misconduct.
Similar stories abound. Most recently, a team led by Gilles-Éric Séralini, a researcher at the University of Caen Lower Normandy in France, found that rats eating a common type of GM corn contracted cancer at an alarmingly high rate. But Séralini has long been an anti-GM campaigner, and critics charged that in his study, he relied on a strain of rat that too easily develops tumors, did not use enough rats, did not include proper control groups and failed to report many details of the experiment, including how the analysis was performed. After a review, the European Food Safety Authority dismissed the study's findings. Several other European agencies came to the same conclusion. “If GM corn were that toxic, someone would have noticed by now,” McHughen says. “Séralini has been refuted by everyone who has cared to comment.”
Some scientists say the objections to GM food stem from politics rather than science—that they are motivated by an objection to large multinational corporations having enormous influence over the food supply; invoking risks from genetic modification just provides a convenient way of whipping up the masses against industrial agriculture. “This has nothing to do with science,” Goldberg says. “It's about ideology.” Former anti-GM activist Lynas agrees. He recently went as far as labeling the anti-GM crowd “explicitly an antiscience movement.”
Persistent Doubts
Not all objections to genetically modified foods are so easily dismissed, however. Long-term health effects can be subtle and nearly impossible to link to specific changes in the environment. Scientists have long believed that Alzheimer's disease and many cancers have environmental components, but few would argue we have identified all of them.
And opponents say that it is not true that the GM process is less likely to cause problems simply because fewer, more clearly identified genes are switched. David Schubert, an Alzheimer's researcher who heads the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., asserts that a single, well-characterized gene can still settle in the target plant's genome in many different ways. “It can go in forward, backward, at different locations, in multiple copies, and they all do different things,” he says. And as U.C.L.A.'s Williams notes, a genome often continues to change in the successive generations after the insertion, leaving it with a different arrangement than the one intended and initially tested. There is also the phenomenon of “insertional mutagenesis,” Williams adds, in which the insertion of a gene ends up quieting the activity of nearby genes.
True, the number of genes affected in a GM plant most likely will be far, far smaller than in conventional breeding techniques. Yet opponents maintain that because the wholesale swapping or alteration of entire packages of genes is a natural process that has been happening in plants for half a billion years, it tends to produce few scary surprises today. Changing a single gene, on the other hand, might turn out to be a more subversive action, with unexpected ripple effects, including the production of new proteins that might be toxins or allergens.
Opponents also point out that the kinds of alterations caused by the insertion of genes from other species might be more impactful, more complex or more subtle than those caused by the intraspecies gene swapping of conventional breeding. And just because there is no evidence to date that genetic material from an altered crop can make it into the genome of people who eat it does not mean such a transfer will never happen—or that it has not already happened and we have yet to spot it. These changes might be difficult to catch; their impact on the production of proteins might not even turn up in testing. “You'd certainly find out if the result is that the plant doesn't grow very well,” Williams says. “But will you find the change if it results in the production of proteins with long-term effects on the health of the people eating it?”
It is also true that many pro-GM scientists in the field are unduly harsh—even unscientific—in their treatment of critics. GM proponents sometimes lump every scientist who raises safety questions together with activists and discredited researchers. And even Séralini, the scientist behind the study that found high cancer rates for GM-fed rats, has his defenders. Most of them are nonscientists, or retired researchers from obscure institutions, or nonbiologist scientists, but the Salk Institute's Schubert also insists the study was unfairly dismissed. He says that as someone who runs drug-safety studies, he is well versed on what constitutes a good-quality animal toxicology study and that Séralini's makes the grade. He insists that the breed of rat in the study is commonly used in respected drug studies, typically in numbers no greater than in Séralini's study; that the methodology was standard; and that the details of the data analysis are irrelevant because the results were so striking.
Schubert joins Williams as one of a handful of biologists from respected institutions who are willing to sharply challenge the GM-foods-are-safe majority. Both charge that more scientists would speak up against genetic modification if doing so did not invariably lead to being excoriated in journals and the media. These attacks, they argue, are motivated by the fear that airing doubts could lead to less funding for the field. Says Williams: “Whether it's conscious or not, it's in their interest to promote this field, and they're not objective.”
Both scientists say that after publishing comments in respected journals questioning the safety of GM foods, they became the victims of coordinated attacks on their reputations. Schubert even charges that researchers who turn up results that might raise safety questions avoid publishing their findings out of fear of repercussions. “If it doesn't come out the right way,” he says, “you're going to get trashed.”
There is evidence to support that charge. In 2009 Nature detailed the backlash to a reasonably solid study published in the Proceedingsof the National Academy of Sciences USA by researchers from Loyola University Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. The paper showed that GM corn seemed to be finding its way from farms into nearby streams and that it might pose a risk to some insects there because, according to the researchers' lab studies, caddis flies appeared to suffer on diets of pollen from GM corn. Many scientists immediately attacked the study, some of them suggesting the researchers were sloppy to the point of misconduct.
A Way Forward
There is a middle ground in this debate. Many moderate voices call for continuing the distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops. They advocate keeping a close eye on the health and environmental impact of existing ones. But they do not single out GM crops for special scrutiny, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Jaffe notes: all crops could use more testing. “We should be doing a better job with food oversight altogether,” he says.
Even Schubert agrees. In spite of his concerns, he believes future GM crops can be introduced safely if testing is improved. “Ninety percent of the scientists I talk to assume that new GM plants are safety-tested the same way new drugs are by the fda,” he says. “They absolutely aren't, and they absolutely should be.”
Stepped-up testing would pose a burden for GM researchers, and it could slow down the introduction of new crops. “Even under the current testing standards for GM crops, most conventionally bred crops wouldn't have made it to market,” McHughen says. “What's going to happen if we become even more strict?”
That is a fair question. But with governments and consumers increasingly coming down against GM crops altogether, additional testing may be the compromise that enables the human race to benefit from those crops' significant advantages.
(Scientific American 2013)