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John Upton's Posts


Monsanto is currently testing GMO wheat in two states

Monsanto protest GMO wheat
John Novotny

Last week, when the USDA announced that an unauthorized strain of GMO wheat was recently discovered on an Oregon farm, it was widely reported (by us, among others) that Monsanto had stopped field-testing its genetically modified wheat in 2005.

Now Bloomberg reports that the biotech giant actually resumed field tests of GMO wheat in 2011:

The world’s largest seed company planted 150 acres of wheat in Hawaii last year that was genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate weedkiller, which the company sells under the brand name Roundup, according to a Virginia Tech database administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another 300 acres of wheat engineered with Roundup tolerance and other traits are being tested in North Dakota this year.

Were these recent field trials linked to the outbreak of unwanted GMO wheat in Oregon? We don’t know that yet. Monsanto, which you may or may not choose to trust, told Bloomberg in an email that the Roundup Ready wheat in the new trials is “an entirely different event” than the escaped crop discovered in Oregon.


Famous storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado

Tim Samaras
Penn State
Tim Samaras.

Three researchers including a father and son who starred on the TV reality show Storm Chasers died doing what they loved on Friday night: venturing treacherously close to killer tornadoes to help the rest of us understand how they work.

Tim Samaras, founder of the tornado research company Twistex, and his son Paul Samaras were killed after a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on Friday. Their partner, Carl Young, also died.

"They all unfortunately passed away doing what they LOVED," wrote Tim Samaras's brother, Jim, in a post on Facebook. "I look at it that he is in the 'big tornado' in the sky."

"As far as we know, these are the first documented storm intercept fatalities in a tornado," NOAA said in a statement. "Scientific storm intercept programs, though they occur with some known measure of risk, provide valuable research information that is difficult to acquire in other ways."

The tornado researchers were among 13 people killed when five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma on Friday night. Three more people drowned in floods triggered by the storms.

Read more: Climate & Energy


California, Illinois lawmakers welcome frackers

Lawmakers rolled out red carpets for frackers last week in California and Illinois.

red carpet

California's Assembly rejected, by a 37-24 vote, AB 1323, which would have imposed a moratorium on fracking until state regulators issue environmental and safety guidelines. Apparently the rush to cash in on oil and gas deposits just cannot wait for such trivial matters. "Let's unleash this magnificent potential for jobs," Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R) said, according to the AP.

A separate bill requiring scientific studies, water testing, and public notification of chemicals used by frackers -- but imposing no moratorium -- passed California's Senate and will now move on to the Assembly for a vote.

Fracking for gas and oil is well underway beneath private land in California, though there are no requirements for energy companies to tell anybody what they're up to, meaning it's difficult to know how widespread the practice is. (Fracking for oil on federal lands in the state, meanwhile, is on hold pending an environmental review ordered by a federal judge.)


British Columbia opposes big tar-sands pipeline

A rally held to oppose the proposed Northern Gateway in Prince Rupert, B.C.
Pipe Up Against Enbridge
Protesters in B.C. rally against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project.

The Canadian province of British Columbia has come out in formal opposition to a plan for a massive pipeline system that would carry bitumen from Alberta's tar-sands fields to a coastal port, pointing out the significant dangers of oil spills.

But we're not talking about the Keystone XL pipeline here.

We're talking about Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, a pair of pipelines proposed to carry tar-sands oil west across B.C. to a port in the town of Kitimat -- effectively a backup system in case America rejects Keystone XL. A new shipping terminal in Kitimat would feed oil onto ships headed for Asia.


Study: Climate change a death knell for most Californian fish

Lead researcher Peter Moyle studying native fish in the Sierra Nevada.
Jacob Katz, UC Davis
Lead researcher Peter Moyle studying native fish in the Sierra Nevada.

Cold-water-loving fish will find California's rivers and streams to be increasingly inhospitable -- and deadly.

A study published in the online journal PLOS ONE finds that rising water temperatures may drive many of the state's native species extinct, while helping invasive fish flourish. From the study:

Most native fishes will suffer population declines and become more restricted in their distributions; some will likely be driven to extinction. Fishes requiring cold water [less than 72 degrees] are particularly likely to go extinct. In contrast, most alien fishes will thrive, with some species increasing in abundance and range.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Court orders feds to review oil dispersant risks

Humpback whales are a protected species that migrates along the California coastline.
Humpback whales don't like oil dispersants.

A legal victory for environmentalists this week means that sea turtles, whales, and other endangered species may be sheltered from the use of oil dispersants off the California coastline.

Dispersants, which are used to dissolve oil spills, can cause crippling injuries to cleanup workers and wildlife, but regulations governing their use are extremely lax. The EPA successfully fended off a lawsuit recently that tried to force it to regulate where dispersants can be used and in what quantities.

But on Thursday, conservation groups clinched a settlement that will force the federal government to measure and find ways to minimize impacts from dispersants when they are used to battle oil spills under the California Dispersants Plan.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Colorado to get its own climate czar

Colorado's capitol building in Denver.
Wally Gobetz
The state capitol building in Denver.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed legislation [PDF] this week that directs him to hire a staff member for his energy office whose job will be to track climate-change issues, help the state brace for global warming's impacts, and offer advice on lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

As the climate changes, the state faces growing hazards from wildfires, bark beetle infestations, declining snowpacks, and drought.

But not all of the debate over the bill in the legislature focused on such germane issues. From the Associated Press:

In pitching his bill to his colleagues, [Rep. Paul] Rosenthal [D] cited a story from the Bible.


It’s hard to sea, but the globe is still warming

Ocean Beach, Cancun
Mr. Thomas

Evidence of climate change is all around us, manifesting in superstorms, wildfires, and melting ice. But temperature spikes recorded by weather stations over the past 15 years have been more muted than was previously the case, and lower than climate models had predicted.

That’s leading many people to wonder: Is global warming less of a threat than we had feared?

Climate scientists have been noting for years that the atmosphere is heating up less quickly than expected. Since last year, a growing number have been suggesting that we adjust our warming projections downward. Just last week, 17 scientists called for exactly that in a letter published in the journal Nature Geoscience; they wrote that their latest projections for rising temperatures remain “in agreement with earlier estimates, within the limits of uncertainty," but at the lower end of that range.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Japan and other nations say no to U.S. wheat, worried about GMOs

Japan wants to make sure that its noodles remain free of GMO wheat.
Japan wants to make sure its noodles remain untainted by GMOs.

Japan cancelled a bid on 27,500 tons of Pacific Northwest wheat on Thursday -- the first bite taken out of America's wheat export market after a rogue genetically engineered strain was discovered growing like a weed on an Oregon farm.

Other international buyers also reacted negatively to the news, with South Korea suspending its tenders to import U.S. wheat and European Union countries being urged to step up genetic testing of American imports. Taiwan said it may seek assurances that all imported wheat from the U.S. is GMO-free, the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch reports.

From Agence France-Presse:

"As long as the situation remains unchanged, we have no choice but to avoid bidding for the product," [a Japanese government] official said ...


Frankensalmon could breed with trout, produce frankentrout

Brown trout.
Brown trout sans frankengenes.

Interspecies hanky-panky is a thing, in case you didn't know. Sometimes love, or perhaps a blindly primeval desire to reproduce, can lead one species of animal to breed with another. Think of a liger, for example -- a hybrid of a lion and a tiger. Or a mule, which has a donkey for a father and a horse for a mother. And, every once in a while, an Atlantic salmon will mate with a brown trout.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears poised to approve the sale of genetically engineered AquAdvantage® salmon this year, despite significant aversion to the very idea of the frankenfish. If the transgenic Atlantic salmon escapes into the wild, environmentalists worry that the fast-growing fish could breed with wild Atlantic salmon and throw natural populations into unpredictable turmoil. Which got scientists to wondering: What if transgenic Atlantic salmon got loose and bred with wild brown trout? Could AquAdvantage fish sow their freaky oats over a species barrier?

The answer, according to scientists who ran experiments with the fish, is yes. Yes they can. Not only that, but the hybrid offspring can inherit the turbo growth genes and grow at a remarkable pace, outcompeting both natural salmon and transgenic salmon for food.

From a paper published Wednesday by Canadian researchers in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B (the "B" stands for biology, by the way):

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of environmental impacts of hybridization between a GM animal and a closely related species.