Weekly Mulch: Monsanto’s Mutant Alfalfa and the Feral Pig Invasion

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Agribusiness giant Monsanto is strengthening its hold over the food system both in this country and abroad, with some help from the U.S. government.

Food safety advocates have been trying to derail the roll-out of the company’s newest product, Roundup Ready alfalfa, or at least limit its use, Mike Ludwig reports at Truthout. But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced recently that use of the alfalfa seeds would be fully deregulated and available for use across the country.

“The decision squashed a proposed compromise between the biotech industry and its opponents that would have placed geographic restrictions on Roundup Ready alfalfa to prevent organic and traditional alfalfa from being contaminated by herbicide sprays and transgenes spread by cross-pollination and other factors,” Ludwig reports.

Home and away

President Barack Obama’s food safety and agriculture team includes quite a few Monsanto supporters. Michael Taylor, the deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, worked on public policy for the company for three years, for instance. And the agriculture department’s chief scientist, Roger Beachy, came to administration from a research organization co-founded by Monsanto.

Obama administration officials are also working with Monsanto on a plan called “New Visions for Agriculture,” which promotes global food security, Kristen Ridley reports at Change.org.

“This particular plan uses taxpayer dollars through Obama’s Feed the Future initiative to ‘advance market-based solutions’ to increase yield in the developing world,” she writes. “In other words, these companies will be exporting the Big Ag system to developing nations in the name of ‘feeding the world,’ but the only thing they’ll really be feeding is their profits.”

International impacts

For the developing countries involved, the pitch for food security might sound good now. But the United States doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to international interventions on behalf of corporate interests. In Colombia, for instance, local activists are pushing back against a new Canadian goal mining project in part because their communities have already experienced environmental destruction at the hands of U.S.-based mining interests, Inter Press Service’s Helda Martinez reports.

While GreyStar, the Canadian company pushing the project, has promised it will not harm the environment, leaders like former environment minister Manuel Rodríguez are pointing to similar claims made by U.S. coal companies in the past.

“The U.S. firm ‘Drummond told me the same thing 20 years ago,’ Rodríguez said,” according to Martinez.

“The former minister was referring to the proven environmental damages caused in the northern province of Cesar by Drummond’s coal mining — a disaster compounded by serious allegations of violations of the human rights of local residents and mineworkers,” she writes.

Unwelcome visitors

As Eartha Jane Melzer reports for The Michigan Messenger, here in the United States, some lawmakers are pushing back against Canadian interests, as well. Bruce Power, a Canadian nuclear energy company, wants to to ship “16-school bus sized steam generators from the Bruce Nuclear Station on Lake Huron to Sweden for reprocessing and reintroduction to the commercial metals market,” Melzer writes.

The generators would pass through U.S.-controlled portions of the Great Lakes. A cadre of senators from states touching the Great Lakes (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and New York) have asked the agency responsible for approving the trip, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to take a close look at Bruce Power’s application.

Pest control

Here’s a different strategy for dealing with unwelcome visitors: Kiera Butler is chronicling her encounters with invasive species at Mother Jones. When the problem is feral pigs, however, the strategy is not diplomacy: it’s hunting them. As Butler explains,

Jackson Landers, a.k.a the Locavore Hunter, aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like lionfish, geese, deer, boar, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. As Landers recently told the New York Times‘ James Gorman, “When human beings decide that something tastes good, we can take them down pretty quickly.”

Check out Butler’s account of her hunt in Georgia. She also learns that the attitude towards the pigs—and invasive species in general—goes beyond a desire to simply be rid of them. “In Florida, the spiny iguanas are pests, but they’re also kind of pretty, so some people kind of like having a few of them around and object when people try to get rid of them,” she writes.

Home turf

Of course, not all negative environmental impacts happen abroad, or on account of invaders. Henry Taksier has a sad piece in Campus Progress showing the long-term problems that a wood-treatment factory has created in Gainesville, Florida:

For 93 years, Koppers, Inc. operated a wood-treatment facility at 200 NW 23rd Ave, releasing industrial toxins—including arsenic, hexavalent chromium, creosote, and dioxins—into Gainesville’s air, water, and soil. The area is now ranked as one of the nation’s top-100 polluted sites. It has been designated a Superfund site—a place so heavily polluted with toxic waste that it poses a threat to human health and the environment—for 27 years.

Even so, the area has yet to be fully cleaned up, and families live in close proximity to the site, worrying about their health and warning kids to stay away from the area.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

START Vote Postponed by Senator Kerry

Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed a vote on the new START arms control treaty (pdf) with Russia today after Republican Senators requested more time to review documents and hear comments from the Armed Services Committee.

The treaty was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. Both the US Senate and Russian parliament must approve the treaty before it enters into force. There have been nearly 20 hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees but getting the 67 votes required to ratify the treaty has proved elusive. The Democrats need the 59 members of their caucus plus 8 Republicans to assure passage. To date, only one Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, is on the record in favor of the new START agreement.

Since the original START treaty expired in December 2009, no treaty and no verification mechanisms are in place to manage the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. This fact alone should spark haste but in today's partisan ad absurdum Senate, most of the GOP would rather play political games than to work on issues of compelling strategic importance.

Under the new START treaty, the United States and Russia will be limited to significantly fewer strategic arms within seven years from the date the treaty enters into force. Each party has the flexibility to determine for itself the structure of its strategic forces within the aggregate limits set by the treaty.

These limits were established on the American side by a rigorous analysis conducted by Department of Defense planners in support of the Obama-mandated 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (pdf).   
 
Aggregate limits:

  • 1,550 warheads. Warheads on deployed ICBMs and deployed SLBMs count toward this limit and each deployed heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments counts as one warhead toward this limit. This limit is 74% lower than the limit of the 1991 START Treaty and 30% lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

  • A combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

  • A separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. This limit is less than half the corresponding strategic nuclear delivery vehicle limit of the START Treaty. 

Verification and Transparency: The START treaty has a verification regime that combines the appropriate elements of the 1991 START Treaty negotiated by the first Bush Administration with new elements tailored to the limitations of the treaty. Measures under the new START include on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring. To increase confidence and transparency, the treaty also provides for the exchange of telemetry, a technology that allows remote measurement and reporting of information.
 
Treaty Terms: The treaty’s duration will be ten years, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement. The Parties may agree to extend the treaty for a period of no more than five years. The treaty includes a withdrawal clause that is standard in arms control agreements. The 2002 Moscow Treaty terminates upon entry into force of the new START Treaty.

No Constraints on Missile Defense and Conventional Strike: The new START does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs or current or planned United States long-range conventional strike capabilities.

The New York Times notes what the delay means:

The delay means that the Senate will not consider the treaty until the fall, during a hotly contested campaign season. The timing distresses the treaty’s supporters, who worry that it will get caught up in the partisan crossfire. Unlike other elements of Mr. Obama’s legislative priority, he cannot push it through with just one Republican vote; because a treaty requires a two-thirds vote, he needs at least eight Republicans.

Mr. Kerry plans to call a vote in mid-September, but even if that vote occurs on time, it remains uncertain whether it will be considered by the full Senate before the November election. Democrats could bring it to the floor after that, but doing so would entails risks. If Republicans pick up a sizable number of seats, they may argue that a lame-duck Senate should not approve something of such magnitude.

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Weekly Mulch: Green products, green energy

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Ed. note: This week’s Mulch is pint-sized and will run on Monday rather than Friday. We’ll be back to our regular schedule next week.

Some people live off the grid, eat local food, and have an energy footprint so minuscule that even the canniest hunter couldn’t track them down. But the rest of us buy from supermarkets, get our energy from at least in part from traditional sources like coal, and occasionally forget to turn off the lights when we leave the house. For those of us who are still living with one foot in the old energy world, here are a few helpful hints about what you should buy and what the consequences of shifting to “clean energy” sources like natural gas and nuclear energy are.

Green consumption

Mother Jones’ Julia Whitty points out a useful tool for correcting any misconceptions about how green a company actually is. It’s an assessment that graphs public perception of a company’s environmentalism against its practices. Besides making sure you’ve got the right idea about Starbucks or Nike, Whitty writes, “You can also get a pretty good sense of how sectors perform in relation to other sectors: food and beverage, bad overall; technology, better overall.”

One of the biggest energy expenditures that many of us indulge in is airplane travel. Just one flight can enlarge your carbon footprint dramatically. Although flying may never be truly green, Beth Buczynski reports at Care2 that one airline is moving in the right direction. British Airways is planning the first “sustainable jet fuel” plant.

The plant will make a biofuel, which generally has plenty of drawbacks, but this one sounds pretty good. The company says it will source its raw materials from local waste management facilities and produce relatively harmless waste products.

Hot air from natural gas companies

But the hazards of many “clean energy” sources make going off the grid sound better and better. More and more information is coming out about the environmental hazards that accompany the mining of natural gas, one of Washington’s new energy fascinations. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report on natural gas late last week, and Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones that Halliburton, a major player in this industry, admitted to using 807,000 gallons of diesel-based chemicals in the extraction process, which involves pumping large amounts of water deep into the ground.

“Even though the natural gas industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, it’s still required to limit the amount of diesel used in fracturing, under a December 2003 agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency,” Sheppard writes. “Halliburton and BJ Services appear to have violated the agreement, according to yesterday’s disclosure.”

That doesn’t inspire confidence in these companies’ assurances that their techniques will not contaminate water sources.

Another meltdown

Nuclear power sounds better than ever to the government, investors, and even some environmentalists. If you need a rundown of the issues involved in nuclear energy production, Grist’s Umbra Fisk has answers to questions like “is nuclear really better than coal?”

One of the strongest objections to nuclear power, however, is the financial risk of investing in nuclear infrastructure. “Nuclear power offers all the fiscal risks of a “too big to fail” bank, with the added risk of being too dangerous to fail as well,” writes Sam McPheeters for The American Prospect.

“And although current nuclear defenders love to crow about the free market…the industry operates with an exponential financial handicap over all other energy technologies, gas and coal included,” McPheeters explains. “Factor in overruns, plant cancellations, and chronic mismanagement, and the only genuine advantage nuclear holds over renewable energy sources is that its infrastructure currently exists.”

Maybe it’s time to invest in solar panels after all.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Mulch: Nuclear Plants will go up in Georgia

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

If you were to look out to the horizon of the clean energy field right now, you would see the hazy outlines of nuclear reactors.  President Barack Obama announced this week that two new nuclear plants will go up in Georgia, built on the promise that the federal government will guarantee $8.3 billion in loans—nearly the entire estimated cost of the project.

“It is a slap in the face to environmentalists,” says Matthew Rothschild at The Progressive. “Though these will be the first nuclear reactors constructed in more than three decades, Obama still labeled them, somehow, as part of the “technologies of tomorrow.””

The president’s announcement wasn’t the only environmental downer this week. Expectations for the next international climate negotiations, to be held in Mexico at the end of 2010, are already low, and yesterday Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ top climate negotiator, said he would step down this summer and join the private sector. To top it all off, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now faces sixteen lawsuits that would block its ability to decrease carbon emissions, including one backed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

A nuclear error

Although the Georgia reactors would be the first new nuclear construction in the country in decades, they mark the beginning of what the Obama administration hopes will be a shift towards nuclear energy. In the 2011 budget, President Obama proposed an expansion of the loan guarantee program that funds projects like these from $18.5 billion to $54.5 billion.

These nuclear projects deserve close scrutiny. At AlterNet, Harvey Wasserman details the problems with the Georgia reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) already rejected the initial designs for the plant. That means the estimated cost could well exceed the projected $8.5 billion, which Wasserman says, was low at the start.

“Over the past several years the estimated price tag for proposed new reactors has jumped from $2-3 billion each, in some cases to more than $12 billion today,” he explains.

Risky business

In the past, energy firms like The Southern Company, the Atlanta-based group that is building the plants, could only imagine securing funding for new nuclear projects. These projects have a high risk of failure, and private investors do not dream of touching them.

Inter Press Service’s Julio Godoy reviewed several European studies on the feasibility of financing nuclear plants. One study from Citibank concluded that “the risks faced by developers … are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially,” Godoy reports. These risks include uncontrollable construction costs, long delays, and the possibility of low power prices that would not support that plants’ operation.

That’s one reason that green advocates disapprove of nuclear energy: The money could be better spent elsewhere. “People tend to think that environmentalists have some sort of allergic reaction to nuclear because they’re scared of radioactive waste and unsecured nuclear materials,” writes Aaron Wiener at The Washington Independent. “But when it comes down to it…It’s simply a bad investment to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into a nuclear sinkhole when proven technologies such as wind and solar would provide guaranteed benefits.”

Wind to fly on

While the administration lavishes attention on nuclear, other clean energy industries are trying to move forward. In Wisconsin, a Spanish company is opening up a plant to build wind turbine components, which will bring much-needed jobs to the Milwaukee area, as Kari Lydersen reports for Working In These Times.

There’s always the threat, however, that gains like this will be rolled back by competition from China. Clean energy jobs can still be sent overseas, Lydersen points out. She argues that the United State could be providing a boost to the solar and wind industry in order to keep jobs here.

“Manufacturing in the United States could be driven both with incentives to the actual producers – like the tax break to Ingeteam [the Spanish company building the Wisconsin plant] and support for renewable energy through renewable energy portfolio (RPS) standards and other incentives,” she writes.

China as competition

From a purely environmental perspective, China’s headway into green technology is not a problem. Mother JonesKevin Drum reminds us that the whole world can benefit from advances in clean energy, wherever they happen. Climate change is, after all, a global crisis. But Drum concedes that fear of Chinese competition does serve some purpose:

“I’ve lately become more receptive to the idea that, for better or worse, the only way to get Americans to take this stuff seriously is to kick it old school and start hauling out that old time Cold War evangelism,” he says. “Frame green tech as a matter of vital economic and national security superiority over the Reds and quit worrying overmuch about whether that’s really technically accurate. Just figure that it’s close enough, it’s language everyone understands, and it’ll do a better job of motivating development than a couple hundred more PowerPoints about receding glaciers.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

The Precise Problem with Palin

There is an article in today's Salon called "The pastor who clashed with Palin"By David Talbot which concerns itself with Sarah Palin's religious fundamentalism as it relates to government.

The primary focus of the article is the interactions between Palin and Howard Bess, a retired Baptist preacher from Wasilla's nearby neighbor town Palmer, Alaska. Bess, the author of a book entitled "Pastor, I am gay," originally came into conflict with Palin over book banning, and eventually on other social issues as well.

One issue was abortion. This from the article:

Soon after the book controversy, Bess found himself again at odds with Palin and her fellow evangelicals. In 1996, evangelical churches mounted a vigorous campaign to take over the local hospital's community board and ban abortion from the valley. When they succeeded, Bess and Dr. Susan Lemagie, a Palmer OB-GYN, fought back, filing suit on behalf of a local woman who had been forced to travel to Seattle for an abortion. The case was finally decided by the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled that the hospital must provide valley women with the abortion option.

The thing that shook me up the most in the article was a quote from another local progressive that raises the issue of Palin's knowledge, beliefs and clear danger if she were to become president:

Another valley activist, Philip Munger, says that Palin also helped push the evangelical drive to take over the Mat-Su Borough school board. "She wanted to get people who believed in creationism on the board," said Munger, a music composer and teacher. "I bumped into her once after my band played at a graduation ceremony at the Assembly of God. I said, 'Sarah, how can you believe in creationism -- your father's a science teacher.' And she said, 'We don't have to agree on everything.'

"I pushed her on the earth's creation, whether it was really less than 7,000 years old and whether dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time. And she said yes, she'd seen images somewhere of dinosaur fossils with human footprints in them."

Munger also asked Palin if she truly believed in the End of Days, the doomsday scenario when the Messiah will return. "She looked in my eyes and said, 'Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth in my lifetime.'"

And this from Bess:

Forget all this chatter about whether or not she knows what the Bush doctrine is. That's trivial. The real disturbing thing about Sarah is her mind-set. It's her underlying belief system that will influence how she responds in an international crisis, if she's ever in that position, and has the full might of the U.S. military in her hands. She gave some indication of that thinking in her ABC interview, when she suggested how willing she would be to go to war with Russia.

It is the clear danger of extreme religious views combined with the age and health history of John McCain that should make all voters review the potential of a radical creationist with a finger on the nuclear (noo-clee-ar) button.

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