Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #908 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, May 24, 2007printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

To Remake the World
Largely unnoticed, the largest social movement in history is developing world-wide, in response to massive ecological degradation and global warming.
Beyond Eco-apartheid
Reversing global warming will require a WW II level of mobilization. It is the work of tens of millions, not hundreds of thousands. In an increasingly non-white nation, that means enlisting the passionate involvement of millions of so-called "minorities" -- as consumers, inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, buzz marketers, voters and workers.
Energy Crops Threaten to Bring Food Shortages and Poverty, Says UN
The UN warns: "Where crops are grown for energy purposes the use of large scale cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and nutrient leaching. Even varied crops could have negative impacts if they replace wild forests or grasslands."
Op-Ed: How to Confine the Plants of the Future?
A new generation of genetically engineered crops that produce drugs and chemicals is fast approaching the market -- bringing with it a new wave of concerns about the safety of the global food and feed supply.
A Plan to Cut Poverty in Half
Reducing poverty would increase the number of people who have what it takes to "fight city hall." Here's a plan to cut poverty in half within 10 years.

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From: Orion Magazine
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TO REMAKE THE WORLD

By Paul Hawken

Something earth-changing is afoot among civil society -- a significant social movement is eluding the radar of mainstream culture.

I have given nearly one thousand talks about the environment in the past fifteen years, and after every speech a smaller crowd gathered to talk, ask questions, and exchange business cards. The people offering their cards were working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. They were from the nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society. They looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, or taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they were trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice.

After being on the road for a week or two, I would return with a couple hundred cards stuffed into various pockets. I would lay them out on the table in my kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage the missions, and marvel at what groups do on behalf of others. Later, I would put them into drawers or paper bags, keepsakes of the journey. I couldn't throw them away.

Over the years the cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at the bags in my closet, I kept coming back to one question: did anyone know how many groups there were? At first, this was a matter of curiosity, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.

I began to count. I looked at government records for different countries and, using various methods to approximate the number of environmental and social justice groups from tax census data, I initially estimated that there were thirty thousand environmental organizations strung around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous organizations, the number exceeded one hundred thousand. I then researched past social movements to see if there were any equal in scale and scope, but I couldn't find anything.

The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb. In trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed tip of a geological formation. I discovered lists, indexes, and small databases specific to certain sectors or geographic areas, but no set of data came close to describing the movement's breadth. Extrapolating from the records being accessed, I realized that the initial estimate of a hundred thousand organizations was off by at least a factor of ten. I now believe there are over one million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice. Maybe two.

By conventional definition, this is not a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. You join movements, study tracts, and identify yourself with a group. You read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tape or in person. Movements have followers, but this movement doesn't work that way. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. There is no manifesto or doctrine, no authority to check with.

I sought a name for it, but there isn't one.

Historically, social movements have arisen primarily because of injustice, inequalities, and corruption. Those woes remain legion, but a new condition exists that has no precedent: the planet has a life- threatening disease that is marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. It crossed my mind that perhaps I was seeing something organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, is it a collective response to threat? Is it splintered for reasons that are innate to its purpose? Or is it simply disorganized? More questions followed. How does it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored?

After spending years researching this phenomenon, including creating with my colleagues a global database of these organizations, I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of history, no one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.

What does meet the eye is compelling: tens of millions of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

Clayton Thomas-Muller speaks to a community gathering of the Cree nation about waste sites on their native land in Northern Alberta, toxic lakes so big you can see them from outer space. Shi Lihong, founder of Wild China Films, makes documentaries with her husband on migrants displaced by construction of large dams. Rosalina Tuyuc Vel?squez, a member of the Maya-Kaqchikel people, fights for full accountability for tens of thousands of people killed by death squads in Guatemala. Rodrigo Baggio retrieves discarded computers from New York, London, and Toronto and installs them in the favelas of Brazil, where he and his staff teach computer skills to poor children. Biologist Janine Benyus speaks to twelve hundred executives at a business forum in Queensland about biologically inspired industrial development. Paul Sykes, a volunteer for the National Audubon Society, completes his fifty-second Christmas Bird Count in Little Creek, Virginia, joining fifty thousand other people who tally 70 million birds on one day.

Sumita Dasgupta leads students, engineers, journalists, farmers, and Adivasis (tribal people) on a ten-day trek through Gujarat exploring the rebirth of ancient rainwater harvesting and catchment systems that bring life back to drought-prone areas of India. Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, who exposed links between the genocidal policies of former president Charles Taylor and illegal logging in Liberia, now creates certified, sustainable timber policies.

These eight, who may never meet and know one another, are part of a coalescence comprising hundreds of thousands of organizations with no center, codified beliefs, or charismatic leader. The movement grows and spreads in every city and country. Virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion is part of it, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils. It is comprised of families in India, students in Australia, farmers in France, the landless in Brazil, the bananeras of Honduras, the "poors" of Durban, villagers in Irian Jaya, indigenous tribes of Bolivia, and housewives in Japan. Its leaders are farmers, zoologists, shoemakers, and poets.

The movement can't be divided because it is atomized -- small pieces loosely joined. It forms, gathers, and dissipates quickly. Many inside and out dismiss it as powerless, but it has been known to bring down governments, companies, and leaders through witnessing, informing, and massing.

The movement has three basic roots: the environmental and social justice movements, and indigenous cultures' resistance to globalization -- all of which are intertwining. It arises spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts, resulting in a global, classless, diverse, and embedded movement, spreading worldwide without exception. In a world grown too complex for constrictive ideologies, the very word movement may be too small, for it is the largest coming together of citizens in history.

There are research institutes, community development agencies, village- and citizen-based organizations, corporations, networks, faith-based groups, trusts, and foundations. They defend against corrupt politics and climate change, corporate predation and the death of the oceans, governmental indifference and pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and farming, depletion of soil and water.

Describing the breadth of the movement is like trying to hold the ocean in your hand. It is that large. When a part rises above the waterline, the iceberg beneath usually remains unseen. When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, the wire service stories didn't mention the network of six thousand different women's groups in Africa planting trees. When we hear about a chemical spill in a river, it is never mentioned that more than four thousand organizations in North America have adopted a river, creek, or stream. We read that organic agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of farming in America, Japan, Mexico, and Europe, but no connection is made to the more than three thousand organizations that educate farmers, customers, and legislators about sustainable agriculture.

This is the first time in history that a large social movement is not bound together by an "ism." What binds it together is ideas, not ideologies. This unnamed movement's big contribution is the absence of one big idea; in its stead it offers thousands of practical and useful ideas. In place of isms are processes, concerns, and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant, and generous side of humanity.

And it is impossible to pin down. Generalities are largely inaccurate. It is nonviolent, and grassroots; it has no bombs, armies, or helicopters. A charismatic male vertebrate is not in charge. The movement does not agree on everything nor will it ever, because that would be an ideology. But it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the Earth, how it functions, and the necessity of fairness and equity for all people partaking of the planet's life- giving systems.

The promise of this unnamed movement is to offer solutions to what appear to be insoluble dilemmas: poverty, global climate change, terrorism, ecological degradation, polarization of income, loss of culture. It is not burdened with a syndrome of trying to save the world; it is trying to remake the world.

There is fierceness here. There is no other explanation for the raw courage and heart seen over and again in the people who march, speak, create, resist, and build. It is the fierceness of what it means to know we are human and want to survive.

This movement is relentless and unafraid. It cannot be mollified, pacified, or suppressed. There can be no Berlin Wall moment, no treaty-signing, no morning to awaken when the superpowers agree to stand down. The movement will continue to take myriad forms. It will not rest. There will be no Marx, Alexander, or Kennedy. No book can explain it, no person can represent it, no words can encompass it, because the movement is the breathing, sentient testament of the living world.

And I believe it will prevail. I don't mean defeat, conquer, or cause harm to someone else. And I don't tender the claim in an oracular sense. I mean the thinking that informs the movement's goal -- to create a just society conducive to life on Earth -- will reign. It will soon suffuse and permeate most institutions. But before then, it will change a sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied self-destruction.

Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. It is a sacred act.

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Paul Hawken is an entrepreneur and social activist living in California. His article in this issue is adapted from "Blessed Unrest," to be published by Viking Press and used by permission.

Orion magazine, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, ($35/year for 6 issues). Subscriptions are available online: www.orionmagazine.org.

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From: Chicago Conscious Choice
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BEYOND ECO-APARTHEID

By Van Jones

In 2005, Americans sat before our television sets, horrified by images of an American city underwater. In 2006, we sat in the nation's movie houses, watching Al Gore make the case for urgent action. In 2007, Americans are finally rising from our seats and demanding action to reverse global warming.

Students are planning marches and protests to push Congress to curb emissions. Consumers and investors are flocking to carbon-cutting solutions like hybrid cars, bio-diesel and solar power. Reporters and editors are moving their environmental stories from the back of the paper to Page 1A, above the fold. Corporations are stampeding each other to showcase their love of clear skies and lush forests. And both the blue Democrats and the red Republicans are suddenly waving green banners.

The climate crisis is galloping from the margins of geek science to the epicenter of our politics, culture and economics. As the new environmentalists advance, only two questions remain: whom will they take with them? And whom will they leave behind?

We know that climate activists will convince Congress to adopt market- based solutions (like "cap and trade"). This approach may help big businesses do the right thing. But will those same activists use their growing clout to push Congress to better aid survivors of Hurricane Katrina? Black and impoverished victims of our biggest eco-disaster still lack housing and the means to rebuild. Will they find any champions in the rising environmental lobby?

We know that the climate activists will fight for subsidies and supports for the booming clean energy and energy conservation markets. But will they insist that these new industries be accessible beyond the eco-elite -- creating jobs and wealth-building opportunities for low-income people and people of color? In other words, will the new environmental leaders fight for eco-equity in this "green economy" they are birthing? Or will they try to take the easy way out -- in effect, settling for an eco-apartheid?

The sad racial history of environmental activism tends to discourage high hopes among racial justice activists. And yet this new wave has the potential to be infinitely more expansive and inclusive than previous eco-upsurges.

Environmentalism's 1st Wave: Conservation

But first, the bad news: no previous wave of US environmentalism ever broke with the racism or elitism of its day. In fact, earlier environmental movements often either ignored racial inequality or exacerbated it.

For example, consider the first wave of environmentalism: the "conservation" wave.

The true original conservationists were not John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt or David Brower. They were the Native Americans. The original Americans were geniuses at living in harmonic balance with their sister and brother species. Before the Europeans arrived, the entire continent was effectively a gigantic nature preserve. A squirrel could climb a tree at the Atlantic Ocean and move branch-to-branch-to-branch until she reached the Mississippi River. So many birds flew south for the winter that their beating wings were like thunder, and their numbers blotted out the sun.

Native Americans achieved this feat of conservation on a continent that was fully populated by humans. In fact, the leading indigenous civilizations achieved world-historic heights of political statesmanship by founding the Iroquois Federation, a model for the US founders.

Unfortunately, those same founders rejected the Indians' example of environmental stewardship. Colonizers wiped out whole species to make pelts, felled forests and destroyed watersheds. Settlers almost exterminated the buffalo just for shooting sport.

The destruction of nature was so relentless, heedless and massive that some Europeans balked. They created the famed "conservation movement," a slogan for which could well have been: "Okay, but let's not pave EVERY-thing!"

Fortunately, the conservationists' enjoyed some success; their worthy efforts continue to this day. But the first and best practitioners of "environmental conservation" were not white people. They were red people. And the mostly-white conservation movement still owes an incalculable debt to the physical and philosophical legacy of indigenous peoples. But it is a debt that conservation leaders apparently have no intention of ever repaying.

Case in point: today's large conservation groups together have countless members, hundreds of millions of dollars and scores of professional lobbyists. But when Native Americans fight poverty, hostile federal bureaucracies and the impact of broken treaties, these massive groups are almost always missing in action. In that regard, Indian-killing Teddy Roosevelt set the enduring pattern for most conservationists' racial politics: "Let's preserve the land we stole."

Environmentalism's 2nd Wave: Regulation

In the 1960s, the second wave of environmentalism got under way. Sparked by Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, this wave could be called the "regulation" wave. It challenged the worst excesses of industrial-age pollution and toxics. Among other important successes, this wave produced the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the first Earth Day in 1970.

But this wave, too, was affluent and lily white. As a result, it developed huge blind spots to toxic pollution concentrating in communities of poor and brown-skinned people. In fact, some people of color began to wonder if white polluters and white environmentalists were unconsciously collaborating. They were effectively steering the worst polluters and foulest dumps into Black, Latino, Asian and poor neighborhoods.

Finally, people of color people began speaking out. And in the 1980s, a new movement was born to combat what its leaders called "environmental racism." Those leaders said: "Regulate pollution, yes -- but do it with equity. Do it fairly. Don't make black, brown and poor children bear a disproportionate burden of asthma and cancer."

Two decades later, that so-called "environmental justice" movement continues to defend the poor and vulnerable. But it functions separately from so-called "mainstream" (white) environmentalism. That movement has never fully embraced the cause of environmentalists of color. In other words, since the 1980s, we have had an environmental movement that is segregated by race.

Given this history of racial apathy, exclusion and even hostility, is there any reason to expect much different from the latest upsurge of eco-activism?

The Third Time's the Charm: Investment

Well, in fact: there is. The reason for hope has to do with the very nature of the present wave. Simply put, this wave is qualitatively different from the previous ones.

The first wave was about preserving the natural bounty of the past. The second wave was about regulating the problems of the industrial present. But the new wave is different. It is about investing in solutions for the future: solar power, hybrid technology, bio-fuels, wind turbines, tidal power, fuel cells, energy conservation methods and more.

The green wave's new products, services and technologies could also mean something important to struggling communities: the possibility of new green-collar jobs, a chance to improve community health and opportunities to build wealth in the green economy. If the mostly- white global warming activists join forces with people of color, the United States can avoid both eco-apocalypse and eco-apartheid -- and achieve eco-equity.

Discussions of race, class and the environment today can go beyond how to atone for past hurts or distribute present harms. Today we can ask: how do we equitably carve up the benefits of a bright future?

And that kind of question gives a powerful incentive for people of color, labor leaders and low-income folks to come back to the environmental table. At the same time, for all their present momentum, the newly ascendant greens cannot meet their short-term objectives or their long-term goals -- without the support of a much broader coalition.

Green Rush = Green-Collar Jobs?

From the perspective of people of color, helping to build a bigger green tent would be worth the effort. Green is rapidly becoming the new gold. The LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) sector is growing like crazy: it was a $229 billion piece of the US economy in 2006. And it is growing on a vertical.

But unfortunately, the LOHAS sector is probably the most racially segregated part of the US economy -- in terms of its customers, owners and employees. Changing that could create better health, more jobs and increased wealth for communities that need all three.

For example, an urban youth trained to install solar panels can go on to become an electrical engineer. Imagine a young adult trained to keep buildings from leaking energy by putting in double-paned glass -- on track to becoming a glazer. Those trained to work with eco-chic bamboo or to fix hybrid engines will find good work.

We need Green Technology Training Centers in every public high school, vocational school and community college. And America needs an Energy Corps, like Americorps and the Peace Corps, to train and deploy millions of youth in the vital work of rewiring a nation.

Beyond that, people of color must also have the chance to become inventors, investors, owners, entrepreneurs and employers in the new greener world. They should also use their political power to influence the scope, scale and shape of the green economy.

It makes sense for people of color to work for a green growth agenda, as long as green partisans embrace broad opportunity and shared prosperity as key values.

Eco-Equity Is Smart Politics

For global warming activists, embracing eco-equity would be a politically brilliant move. In the short term, a more inclusive approach will prevent polluters from isolating and derailing the new movement. In the long run, it is the only strategy that will save the Earth.

In the near term, opponents of change will actively recruit everyone whom this new movement ignores, offends or excludes. California provides a cautionary tale; voters there rejected a 2006 ballot measure to fund clean energy research. A small excise tax on the state's oil extraction would have produced a huge fund, propelling California into the global lead in renewable energy. But the same message that wooed Silicon Valley and Hollywood elites flopped among regular voters.

Clean energy proponents ran abstract ads about "energy independence" and the bright eco-future. But big oil spoke directly to pocket-book issues, running ads that warned (falsely) that the tax would send gas prices through the roof. On that basis, an NAACP leader and others joined the opposition. And the measure's original sky-high support plummeted.

To avoid getting out-maneuvered politically, green economy proponents must actively pursue alliances with people of color. And they must include leaders, organizations and messages that will resonate with the working class.

The Hidden Danger of Eco-Apartheid

But the real danger lies in the long term. The United States is the world's biggest polluter. To avoid eco-apocalypse, Congress will have to do more than pass a "cap and trade" bill. And Americans will have to do more than stick in better light bulbs.

To pull off this ecological U-turn, we will have to fundamentally restructure the US economy. We will need to "green" whole cities. We will have to build thousands of wind farms, install tens of millions of solar panels and retrofit millions of buildings. We will have to retire our car, truck and bus fleets, which are based on combustible engines and oil, replacing them with plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles powered by a clean-energy grid.

Reversing global warming will require a WWII level of mobilization. It is the work of tens of millions, not hundreds of thousands. Such a shift will require massive support at the social, cultural and political levels. And in an increasingly non-white nation, that means enlisting the passionate involvement of millions of so-called "minorities" -- as consumers, inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, buzz marketers, voters and workers.

All For Green & Green For All

It is obvious that eco-chic, embraced by the eco-elite, won't save the planet. Climate change activists may be tempted to try to sidestep the issues of racial inclusion, in the name of expedience -- but the truth is that eco-apartheid is just a speed-bump on the way to eco- apocalypse. Any successful, long-term strategy will require a full and passionate embrace of the principle of eco-equity.

Beyond that, there is the moral imperative. The predicted ecological disasters will hit poor people and people of color -- first and worst. Our society has an obligation to insure equal protection from the peril -- and equal access to the promise -- of our new, ecological age.

So now is the time for the green movement to reach out. By definition, a politics of investment is a politics of hope, optimism and opportunity. The bright promise of the green economy could soon include, inspire and energize people of all races and classes. And nowhere is the need for a politics of hope more profound than it is among America's urban and rural poor.

More importantly, climate activists can open the door to a grand historic alliance -- a political force with the power to bend history in a new direction. Let the climate activists say: "We want to build a green economy, strong enough to lift people out of poverty. We want to create green pathways out of poverty and into great careers for America's children. We want this 'green wave' to lift all boats. This country can save the polar bears and black kids, too."

Let them say: "In the wake of Katrina, we reject the idea of 'free market' evacuation plans. Families should not be left behind to drown because they lack a functioning car or a credit card. Katrina's survivors still need our help. And we need a plan to rescue everybody next time. In an age of floods, we reject the ideology that says must let our neighbors 'sink or swim.'"

Let them say: "We want those communities that were locked out of the last century's pollution-based economy to be locked into the new, clean and green economy. We don't have any throw-away species or resources. And we don't have any throw-away children or neighborhoods either. All of creation is precious. And we are all in this together."

A Green Growth Alliance

Those words would make environmental history.

More importantly, they could begin a complete realignment of American politics. The idea of "social uplift environmentalism" could serve as the cornerstone for an unprecedented "Green Growth Alliance." Imagine a coalition that unites the best of labor, business, racial justice activists, environmentalists, intellectuals, students and more. That combination would rival the last century's New Deal and New Right coalitions.

To give the Earth and her peoples a fighting chance, we need a broad, eco-populist alliance -- one that includes every class under the sun and every color in the rainbow. By embracing eco-equity as their ultimate goal, the climate crisis activists can play a key role in birthing such a force.

Van Jones is the president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in Oakland, California (ellabakercenter.org) and a National Apollo Alliance steering committee member.

Copyright CHICAGO CONSCIOUS CHOICE 920 N. Franklin, Suite 202 Chicago, IL 60610 Phone: 312.440.4373 Fax: 312.751.3973

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From: The Guardian
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ENERGY CROPS THREATEN TO BRING FOOD SHORTAGES AND POVERTY, SAYS UN

By John Vidal

The global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed, says the most comprehensive survey yet completed of energy crops.

The United Nations report, compiled by all 30 of the world organization's agencies, points to crops like palm oil, maize, sugar cane, soya and jatropha. Rich countries want to see these extensively grown for fuel as a way to reduce their own climate changing emissions. Their production could help stabilize the price of oil, open up new markets and lead to higher commodity prices for the poor.

But the UN urges governments to beware their human and environmental impacts, some of which could have irreversible consequences.

The report, which predicts winners and losers, will be studied carefully by the emerging multi-billion dollar a year biofuel industry which wants to provide as much as 25% of the world's energy within 20 years.

Global production of energy crops is doubling every few years, and 17 countries have so far committed themselves to growing the crops on a large scale.

Last year more than a third of the entire US maize [corn] crop went to ethanol for fuel, a 48% increase on 2005, and Brazil and China grew the crops on nearly 50 million acres of land. The EU has said that 10% of all fuel must come from biofuels by 2020. Biofuels can be used in place of petrol [gasoline] and diesel and can play a part in reducing emissions from transport.

On the positive side, the UN says that the crops have the potential to reduce and stabilize the price of oil, which could be very beneficial to poor countries. But it acknowledges that forests are already being felled to provide the land to grow vast plantations of palm oil trees. Environment groups argue strongly that this is catastrophic for the climate, and potentially devastating for forest animals like orangutans in Indonesia.

The UN warns: "Where crops are grown for energy purposes the use of large scale cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and nutrient leaching. Even varied crops could have negative impacts if they replace wild forests or grasslands."

But the survey's findings are mixed on whether the crops will benefit or penalize poor countries, where most of the crops are expected to be grown in future. One school of thought argues that they will take the best land, which will increase global food prices. This could benefit some farmers but penalize others and also increase the cost of emergency food aid.

"Expanded production [of biofuel crops] adds uncertainty. It could also increase the volatility of food prices with negative food security implications", says the report which was compiled by UN- Energy.

"The benefits to farmers are not assured, and may come with increased costs. [Growing biofuel crops] can be especially harmful to farmers who do not own their own land, and to the rural and urban poor who are net buyers of food, as they could suffer from even greater pressure on already limited financial resources.

"At their worst, biofuel programs can also result in a concentration of ownership that could drive the world's poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty," it says.

According to the report, the crops could transform the rural economy of rich and poor countries, attracting major new players and capital, but potentially leading to problems. "Large investments are already signaling the emergence of a new bio-economy, pointing to the possibility that still larger companies will enter the rural economy, putting the squeeze on farmers by controlling the price paid to producers and owning the rest of the value train," it says.

The report also says the crops are not guaranteed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Producing and using biofuels results in some reductions in emissions compared to petroleum fuels, it says, but this is provided there is no clearing of forest or peat that store centuries of carbon.

"More and more people are realizing that there are serious environmental and food security issues involved in biofuels. Climate change is the most serious issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large scale deforestation," said Jan van Aken, of Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.

"Bioenergy provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to address climate change, energy security and rural development. [But] investments need to be planned carefully to avoid generating new environmental and social problems," said Achim Steiner, executive director of UN Environment program yesterday.

Plant power

Biomass energy can be obtained from just about any plant or tree but is most commonly obtained from maize, soya beans, oil palms, sugar cane, sunflower and trees. The carbohydrates in the biomass, which are comprised of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, can be broken down into a variety of chemicals, some of which are useful fuels. At its simplest, plant matter is simply burned but much of the energy is wasted and it can cause pollution. So, the plant is either heated and refined to break down into gases, fermented and turned into grain alcohol or ethanol, or chemically converted to make into biodiesel.

Copyright 2007 The Guardian

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From: New York Times
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OP-ED: HOW TO CONFINE THE PLANTS OF THE FUTURE?

By Denise Caruso


A new generation of genetically engineered crops that produce drugs and chemicals is fast approaching the market -- bringing with it a new wave of concerns about the safety of the global food and feed supply.

The plants produce medicinal substances like insulin, anticoagulants and blood substitutes. They produce vaccine proteins for diseases like cholera, as well as antibodies against tooth decay and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Enzymes and other chemicals from the plants can be used for a range of industrial processes.

As in past debates over genetically modified crops, biotech developers say that the benefits outweigh the risks, and that the risks are manageable. Critics question the benefits, and say the risk of a contaminated and potentially toxic food supply is untenable.

In the middle, balancing economic benefit and public safety, are our appointed arbiters of risk, the government regulators.

Controversies over biotech risk are caused by a crisis in "official scientific expertise," according to Jerome Ravetz, an associate fellow at the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at the University of Oxford.

The crisis, he said, stems from the conflicting roles of government. On one side, businesses provide regulators with scientific evidence about the risk and safety of their product innovations. On the other, suspicious citizens demand that regulators challenge that evidence.

The side whose expertise is accepted as "official" calls the shots.

So far, the business sector has tipped the scales in its favor. Despite science-based concerns voiced by farmers, environmentalists and even its own researchers, the United States Department of Agriculture has approved more than 100 applications to grow so-called biopharma crops of corn, soybeans, barley, rice, safflower and tobacco in the United States.

Developers say these crops are the best way to achieve the economies of scale and cost savings that will let them meet rising demand for drugs like human insulin.

They acknowledge that growing pharmaceutical crops is riskier than making drugs in factories. They know that the plants contain potentially toxic drugs and chemicals, and because they look like ordinary crops, they can be mistaken for food, both before and after harvest.

The most important thing, then, is to keep biopharma plants, pollen and seeds confined to the fields where they are planted. Otherwise, they may contaminate other crops, wild relatives and the environment.

Developers say they have worked with the Agriculture Department to develop containment procedures for biopharma crops.

"Under our system, the degree of oversight is commensurate with the risk of the crops," said John Turner, director of the policy coordination program for the agency's Biotechnology Regulatory Services. "We take extraordinary measures to make sure these pharma and industrial crops are kept separate and confined."

To this end, some developers use plants like rice and safflower that self-pollinate, reducing the risk of contaminating nonpharma plants by wind and insect pollination.

They also provide regulators with data on the potential health and environmental effects of the special chemicals in their crops.

For example, SemBioSys, a Canadian company, has applied to the U.S.D.A. for permits to grow safflower-based human insulin. It is already field-testing safflower crops in the United States and Chile that produce carp growth hormone for aquaculture feed, to bolster the weak immune systems of farmed shrimp.

The company's chief executive, Andrew Baum, says "categorically" that the insulin derived from its plants has no biological effects while in plant form, and is activated only after processing. And the evidence his company has gathered indicates that its carp growth hormone affects only shrimp.

The new methods, Mr. Baum said, can cut capital costs by 70 percent, and "reach levels of scale easier than any other system."

But there is some scientific evidence not acknowledged in biopharma risk assessments that casts a dark cloud over this silver lining.

For starters, the "system" under discussion is nature, and despite our best efforts it always manages to elude our puny attempts at controlling it. The containment practices used by developers assume an ability to control living and propagating organisms, which scientific evidence does not support.

One scientist familiar with some of the issues raised by pharma crops is Norman C. Ellstrand, a professor in the department of genetics at the University of California, Riverside, and director of its Biotechnology Impacts Center. Professor Ellstrand is known as a fair and credible critic of various aspects of agricultural biotechnology.

He is deeply skeptical that efforts to confine biopharma genes in open fields will work.

"I don't think that engineering plants for pharma is a bad idea, with two caveats," Professor Ellstrand said. One, he says he thinks that planting should be done in greenhouses rather than in open fields. "The other issue is food," he said. "Why do we have to do this in food crops? It doesn't matter what you're squeezing the compound out of. It could be a carnation, a corn plant or a castor bean."

Professor Ellstrand also said that self-pollination does not eliminate gene flow between plants, and that cross-pollination is not the only way that pharma crops can escape confinement. Once harvested, seeds can move easily, accidentally or deliberately, across and beyond borders. As a result, valuable biopharma crops may well end up growing in fields far from the controlled environment on which developers depend for safety. And what happens from there is anyone's guess.

Once the rogue seeds are replanted, could the plants thrive in their new home and possibly overtake native varieties or wild relatives? Could the pharma trait increase in frequency and concentration, until it reaches a "dose" that causes health effects in those who consume it unwittingly? The probability for any one of these situations may be low, Professor Ellstrand said, but the scientific answer to each question is yes.

What is most worrisome is that the Agriculture Department seems to reject such reasonable, science-based public safety concerns. Agency policy allows developers to withhold data on pharma crops from the public as confidential business information, and the public is not allowed to comment on biopharma planting applications until after an official risk evaluation is completed.

Such behavior has raised the hackles of many farmers and food producers who are concerned about biopharma crops. Rice farmers, in particular, know what happens when a food crop is contaminated with unapproved genes. The U.S.D.A has presided over two such scares in less than a year, and the rice industry has suffered greatly as it tries to purge contaminants from crops.

At the end of March, the Agriculture Department approved a permit allowing a California biotech company, Ventria Bioscience, to plant its pharmaceutical rice in open fields in Kansas.

Ventria's pharma rice is engineered to produce two of the human proteins found in breast milk and other body fluids. Once harvested, the proteins will be used in treatments for diarrhea and infections, as well as in nutritional supplements.

In a public comment demanding that the Agriculture Department withdraw the Ventria approval, the U.S.A. Rice Federation wrote: "If Ventria's pharmaceutical rice were to escape into the commercial rice supply, the financial devastation to the U.S. rice industry would likely be absolute. There is no tolerance, either regulatory or in public perception, for a human gene-based pharmaceutical to end up in the world's food supply."

So whose market is more important: the farmers' or the drug makers'? Whose health matters more: people who need drugs or people who eat food?

Scientists often dismiss the idea that people without technical knowledge can help them make risk assessments. As a result, biotech scientists and regulators have long made safety determinations from within an opaque system of their own design, using only the evidence they accept as valid.

But scientific evidence is not a constant, like the speed of light or pi. Especially in biology, where we still know so little, "evidence" is often just a small circle of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown. Decisions about risk cannot safely be made in a private club that accepts only its members' notions of scientific evidence.

The best research on risk declares the opposite to be true: that risk evidence is particularly subject to distortion by conflicting interests, and that the best foil for such distortions is to ensure that the people whose fate is at stake participate in the analysis.

We need a new policy framework for scientific evidence that is built on this foundation. If developers want to sell their products, they must subject their inventions to the helpful scrutiny of people outside the club -- before radical technologies like biopharma are brought to market.

==============

Denise Caruso is executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute, which studies collaborative problem-solving. E-mail: dcaruso@nytimes.com.

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From: Washington Post
[Printer-friendly version]

A PLAN TO CUT POVERTY IN HALF

By Mark Greenberg and Elisa Minoff

For too many years, political leaders in both parties have had too little to say about poverty in America. There are some important signs that things are changing. Today, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing devoted to discussing solutions to poverty. It will be their fourth poverty-focused hearing this year, and it's clear that they want to do more than just talk.

Why now? The answer goes beyond last year's election returns. In 2006, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg created an Economic Opportunity Commission and charged it with developing strategies to expand opportunity and reduce poverty. The U.S. Conference of Mayors established a Task Force on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, led by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In the faith community, Catholic Charities USA and Sojourners/Call to Renewal have launched poverty reduction campaigns.

This week, the Center for American Progress issued "From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half." The report is the result of the work of an expert task force over the past year. The task force was guided by new research finding that the annual cost to the United States of children growing up in persistent poverty is half a trillion dollars. It was also guided by the recognition that one quarter of U.S. jobs do not pay enough to support a family of four at the poverty line, and the number of families struggling to make ends meet far exceeds the number officially in poverty.

The task force calls for setting a national goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years, and recommends steps to meet the goal. The goal is ambitious but attainable. We have had periods of dramatic poverty reduction in U.S. history -- in fact, poverty fell by 50 percent between 1959 and 1973.

The report offers a four-pronged strategy to accomplish the goal, centered around the need to promote decent work, provide opportunity for all, ensure economic security and help people build wealth. The report outlines 12 principal action steps. For example, it calls for restoring the minimum wage to 50 percent of the average wage -- about $8.40 in 2006. It calls for a dramatic expansion of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and for efforts to connect the 1.7 million poor and near-poor out of school, out of work youth with employment and training. It notes that 600,000 prisoners are now being released to their communities each year, and calls for states and localities to do more to help former prisoners reenter their communities with stable employment. And it calls for addressing holes in the unemployment insurance system that have meant that only about one-third of the unemployed -- and far fewer unemployed low-wage workers -- receive benefits.

Other recommendations would help people move to communities with better job opportunities; expand child care, early education, and access to higher education; and increase tax-based assistance for families with children and lower-income workers saving for homeownership, education, retirement and children's needs.

Many low-income communities face higher prices for basic goods and services -- from tax preparation services and mortgages to cars and groceries. Thousands of low-income homeowners with subprime loans and exotic mortgages are now being pushed toward foreclosure. The task force calls on governments to address the foreclosure crisis and curb unscrupulous and predatory practices. It also recommends the creation of a Financial Fairness Innovation Fund to broaden access to mainstream goods and services in low-income communities.

Implementing the recommendations would raise employment and cut poverty. The Center for American Progress commissioned the Urban Institute to estimate the effects of raising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC and child tax credit, and increasing child care assistance. The analysis found that these steps alone would reduce poverty by 26 percent and help millions of other low- and moderate- income families. With the additional steps recommended by the task force, we can cut poverty in half.

Implementing these recommendations will not be cheap. But bringing better balance to the federal tax system and recouping part of what has been lost by the excessive tax cuts of recent years could easily pay for these policies.

The challenge before the nation is not that we don't know what to do: We have decades of research about successful, effective approaches. We simply must decide to act. We understand that some members of Congress prefer just to talk about the needs of the middle class. But that approach is short-sighted. Thirty-seven million Americans live below the official poverty line; tens of millions more struggle to make ends meet. A national strategy to cut poverty would lead to stronger families, stronger communities, and a stronger nation.

Mark Greenberg is the Executive Director and Elisa Minoff is a Research Associate for the Task Force on Poverty at the Center for American Progress.

Copyright 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

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