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License to till

Now available: 29 flavors of open source seeds, sans patents

quinoa
Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho

There's been an argument going on for at least 100 years over seeds. Should they be free? Or should the people who develop them control, and profit from, their use? If they were shared, we'd have a more fluid development of agricultural technology, because all plant breeders could experiment with the best stuff. On the other hand, maybe breeders wouldn't want to engage in the hard work of experimenting if they couldn't sell their inventions for lots of money.

It used to be that those who bred new varieties of plants shared them freely, in part because it was almost impossible to control them: As soon as someone buys one of your new tomato seeds, he can use it to make a hundred more.

As Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told NPR reporter Dan Charles, plant breeders used to have a code of ethics that mandated sharing:

"If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us," he says. "That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us."

All that changed after seed companies began producing hybrids, which lose their superpowers if you try to grow more of them, and as cash-strapped universities have begun patenting more and more of their seeds. But on Thursday the Open Source Seed Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released the first set of seeds with an open-source license. It is distributing 29 varieties, including broccoli, celery, kale, and quinoa.

Read more: Food

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A surprisingly pleasant song about plastic pollution

plastic problem

If you're like the Amazing Mr. Smashing, you're probably singing and chucking water bottles at sea otters. If so, why don't you kick some puppies while you're at it? If not, phew -- you're off the hook.

Or not. It turns out that most of the junk in the ocean is plastic, and chances are, some of it's yours. Don't worry, some of it is mine, too. The stuff just never goes away! Sure, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over a coupla years, but then fish and barnacles and birds and maybe even weird new microbial ecosystems eat it.

The video, by illustrator Edward Ward, was produced by Seas at Risk, a Brussels-based group fighting the good fight against ocean trash. This week, the European parliament passed a resolution to reduce single-use plastic bag use by 80 percent in the next five years. (Sorry, American Beauty fans, get your sublime litter fix before it runs out.) It's not a perfect victory, since problematic "biodegradable" bags get a pass; still, it could save a lot of choked sea turtles in the long run.

Nice work, Europe. Now you'll have something to hum while you're bringing your goldfish home from the pet store in a Klean Kanteen.

Read more: Living

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It's not all bad

Three Gulf Coast victories scored since the BP spill

"Save our Gulf" rally
Infrogmation of New Orleans

You will hear a lot of gloomy reports about the state of the Gulf Coast as we approach the fourth-year commemoration of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster on April 20. And that’s fair. BP deserves little cheer in the face of widespread health problems across the Gulf, for both humans and marine animals, and the disappearance of entire fishing communities. Despite what BP is telling us, it ain’t all good. But it ain’t all bad, either.

Gulf Coast communities from the Florida Panhandle to Texas’s right shoulder had been through a few disaster rodeos before the BP spill. They’ve survived hurricanes named for just about every letter of the alphabet. And they’ve endured careless and reckless decisions from every level of government, way more than one time too many. Given those past experiences, residents and activists along the Gulf corralled together after the BP disaster to make sure their most immediate concerns would be heard this time around. Region-wide networks like the Gulf Future Coalition and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health were formed immediately after the spill to harness the expertise of Gulf citizens who often historically were excluded from recovery processes. Through guiding documents like the Unified Action Plan for a Healthy Gulf and media projects like Bridge the Gulf, community members were able to voice their concerns and demands, free of bureaucratic or political filters.

These projects gave Gulf residents the opportunity not only to frame the Gulf recovery narrative, but also to influence government-led recovery plans. The result has been three demonstrable victories:

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Making the road safe for biking’s nervous Nellies

little-boy-bicyclist.jpg
Shutterstock

I used to bike like everyone was trying to kill me. I was fresh out of college and had moved to San Francisco to seek my fortune, only to discover that the city’s public transit system was more of a simulacrum of a system than something that actually got me reliably on time to my job -- or, let's be honest, jobs. Living in the city required a lot of jobs, and sometimes the bus came and sometimes it didn’t. So I started biking.

Even if drivers didn’t bear any malice towards me -- and almost none of them did -- I learned to regard them with caution. They were bored. They were tired. They were steering 3,000+ pounds of metal powered by a combustion engine, but they spent so much time there that they behaved like it was their living room. (I looked over, once, and saw a woman in huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, eating corn on the cob and driving with her elbows.)

It is because of this experience that I view the recent news that California’s Department of Transportation has signed on to the National Association of City Transportation Officials guidelines for street design with unmitigated delight. NACTO is the kind of agency that rarely makes the news -- probably because it’s dead boring. But to those interested in the future of our cities, NACTO is also an illustration of how local governments can have much more power than they initially seem to.

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics

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Big Victory for Public Health – Court Upholds Mercury, Toxic Air Pollution Protections

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld limits on dangerous emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution from power plants. This was a big victory for clean air, clean water, and the health of our families. The court decision keeps in place the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) standard, which is on track to eliminate as much as 90 percent of the mercury and air toxics currently released into our air by coal-fired power plants. As the mom of a young daughter, I know that mercury pollution is of special …

Read more: Uncategorized

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Science of filmmaking

These biologists created a gorgeous film about African glaciers

Nate&Neil
Day's Edge Productions

Chasing Ice launched a new sub-genre of horror films: Watch big beautiful glaciers melt. OK, that might not sound as date-night friendly as a slasher flick, but, hey, if a kid talking to a wagging finger named Tony can be scary, watching the Arctic melt away is downright terrifying. Filmmakers Neil Losin and Nathan Dappen recently joined the field with Snows of the Nile, a visually stunning documentary about the disappearing glaciers in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains (you can watch the trailer here). Losin and Dappen brought a twist to their ice-gazing short by focusing on glaciers where you might not expect them: the tropics. The emerging …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Chris Christie is still trying to force a pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands

Chris Christie
Gage Skidmore

In January, on the heels of the embarrassing revelation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) staffers created a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish an obscure political rival, Christie and his allies were handed a defeat. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline that would go through a national reserve of forests and wetlands. Though Christie went so far as to bully a commissioner who was skeptical of the pipeline into recusing himself from the decision, that wasn't enough to secure approval.

But now the pipeline is back. The state’s leading power brokers want the commission to reconsider and are pressuring commissioners to change their votes, working both behind the scenes and through public statements and symbolic votes in county and town legislative bodies. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “A growing number of elected officials from Gov. Christie to lawmakers including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have joined county freeholders and township officials in support of the project. They are considering ways of returning the issue to the Pinelands Commission, possibly as a ‘compelling public need’ for energy security and scores of jobs.”

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Gnamesakes

Newly discovered gnat species named after Bill McKibben

billmckibben_gnat2
Background photo: Axel Hartmann. Photo illustration: Eve Andrews

If you had the power to name a living creature, would you use that power wisely? Would you name it after one of your heroes? Let’s be real: Beyoncemus knowlesi does have a pretty nice ring to it!

Peter Kerr, a scientist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s State Collection of Arthropods, recently discovered a species of gnat. Through a great feat of willpower, he was able to avoid the temptation of christening it Gnat King Cole, Jr. (There’s a reason that Grist staff members aren’t scientists.) Instead, he decided to name it after foremost green activist, author, and Grist board member Bill McKibben, honoring McKibben’s commitment to protecting the health of the planet and all of its forms of life.

The Megophthalmidia mckibbeni makes its home in California. It enjoys fungi, forests, and following 350.org on Twitter. Just kidding about the last one – gnats can’t use smartphones, guys!

We reached out to McKibben to find out how he felt when he learned about his new spirit animal. He was predictably modest:

Read more: Living

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Featured Friend: Andrea Devon Bertoli

Each month, we showcase one of our beloved Friends with Benefits -- folks who have donated to support our work. Want to take your relationship with Grist to the next level? Just donate any amount to join the fun. 

Andrea Devon Bertoli is an editor and blogger in Oahu, Hawaii.
Andrea Devon Bertoli is an editor and blogger in Oahu, Hawaii.

Andrea Devon Bertoli

"I donated to Grist because it's the first site I check each day for funny, enlightening and intellectual green news. It's fodder for my social media sites, blog articles, and for conversations with my friends. I'm finally making enough money to share the love, and I'm so happy to share it with you."

Mahalo, Andrea! At the risk of lei-ing it on thick, without supporters like you, we'd be pau.

Already a FWB? Send your photo and 3-4 sentences about you and why you give to Grist to jmacdonald@grist.org. Featured Friends will receive a complimentary Klean Kanteen. Thanks for your support! 

Read more: Uncategorized

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Is climate change the new slavery?

a crowd of poor people
Shutterstock

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, with its layers of deadening bureaucratic prose. Climate watchers have had their latest chance to make out, as best they can, what biblical futures await us on a hotter, drier, stormier planet. Two sentences from the report's second installment struck me with the force of a storm surge: “Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand.” Translation: We’ll have smaller harvests in the future, less food, and 3 billion more mouths to feed.

The IPCC has done an heroic job of digesting thousands of scientific papers into a bullet-point description of how global warming is shrinking food and water supplies, most drastically for the poorest of Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants. Being scientists, though, they fail miserably to communicate the gravity of the situation. The IPPC language, at its most vivid, talks of chronic “poverty traps” and “hunger hotspots” as the 21st century unfolds. The report offers not a single graspable image of what our future might actually look like when entire populations of people — not only marginalized sub-groups — face perennial food insecurity and act to save themselves. What decisions do human communities make en masse in the face of total environmental collapse? There are no scientific papers to tell us this, so we must look to history instead for clues to our dystopian future.

The last global climate crisis for which we have substantial historical records began 199 years ago this month, in April 1815, when the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia cooled the Earth and triggered drastic disruptions of major weather systems worldwide. Extreme volcanic weather — droughts, floods, storms — gripped the globe for three full years after the eruption.

In the Tambora period from 1815 to 1818, the global human community consisted mostly of subsistence farmers, who were critically vulnerable to sustained climate deterioration. The occasional crop failure was part of life, but when relentless bad weather ruined harvests for two and then three years running, extraordinary, world-changing things started to happen. The magnitude and variety of human suffering in the years 1815 to 1818 are in one sense incalculable, but three continental-scale consequences stand out amid the misery: slavery, refugeeism, and the failure of states.

Read more: Climate & Energy