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Bee-ware!

Everything we know about neonic pesticides is awful

bee
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Neonicotinoid pesticides are great at killing insect pests, which helps to explain the dramatic rise in their use during the past 20 years. They're popular because they are systemic pesticides -- they don't just get sprayed onto plant surfaces. They can be applied to seeds, roots, and soil, becoming incorporated into a growing plant, turning it into poison for any bugs that might munch upon it.

But using neonics to control pests is like using a hand grenade to thwart a bank robbery.

Which is why the European Union has banned the use of many of them -- and why environmentalists are suing the U.S. EPA to do the same.

The pesticides don't just affect pest species. Most prominently, they affect bees and butterflies, which are poisoned when they gather pollen and nectar. But neonics' negative impacts go far beyond pollinators. They kill all manner of animals and affect all kinds of ecosystems. They're giving rise to Silent Spring 2.0.

"It's just a matter of time before somebody can point to major species declines that can be linked to these compounds," said Pierre Mineau, a Canadian pesticide ecotoxicologist. "Bees have been the focus for the last three or four years, but it’s a lot broader than that."

Mineau contributed to an epic assessment of the ecological impacts of neonics, known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment, in which 29 scientists jointly examined more than 800 peer-reviewed papers spanning five years. Their findings are being published in installments in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, beginning last week with a paper coauthored by Mineau that details impacts on vertebrate animals, including fish and lizards. Here's a summary of highlights:

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Ubuntu for aubergines? Apache for patchouli?

Open-source seeds: While they spread shoots, they plant ideas

Open Source Seed Initiative

Does this seem fair? A plant breeder at a public university manages to grow a long-necked broccoli that, for easy cutting, stands tall above its leaves. Then a company that has used his creation to breed a slightly different broccoli submits it for a patent, claiming ownership over the very idea of long-necked broccoli.

So far, the company, Monsanto subsidiary Seminis, has failed to persuade the U.S. Patent Office to grant it a broad "utility patent.” But Seminis has appealed. If it succeeds, the original breeders, who shared their seeds freely, could be barred from working with their own seeds.

Surely there’s a better way.

This story launches Lisa Hamilton’s beautifully written piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review on open-source seeds: Linux for Lettuce. It’s the kind of longread that both deserves and demands the sort of focus that's hard to achieve if you are connected to the internet.

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Put your spare change to good use with crowdfunded science

laboratory
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Wondering what to do with that $9 burning a hole in your PayPal account? Sure, you could kick it to Indiegogo and help send your old college roommate to his brother’s wedding in Aruba. And there’s always Kickstarter: That kid from the coffee shop is trying to fund her short documentary on the history of philanthropy in the Kansas City Zombie Crawl scene.

On the other hand, you could give to Experiment.com, a crowdsourcing site for science funding, to help uncover fracking’s impact on air pollution, find a better way to clean up oil spills, or figure out what’s killing Caribbean corals.

Nelson Harvey at High Country News focused specifically on the fracking studies finding funding through the site:

A scientist from the University of Missouri who recently found elevated levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in parts of Garfield County, Colo., where spills of wastewater from natural gas drilling occurred is now planning the second phase of her research, but with a surprising funding mechanism this time. Rather than seeking backing from government agencies or private foundations, Dr. Susan Nagel and her team are drumming up donations in the same way that many before them have started small businesses, made documentary films, or produced t-shirts adorned with images of Miley Cyrus twerking: They’re crowdfunding their research through a new website called Experiment.com.

Nagel’s crowdfunding attempt -- she’s seeking $25,000, has raised about $11,000 since March 24 and has 36 days to go -- represents at least the fourth time in recent years that U.S. scientists have turned to the general public for financial help researching the health effects of the gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking ... . Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the University of Washington raised $12,000 through Experiment.com to study how much gas drilling contributes to ozone in Utah’s Uinta Basin, and last year a team from Pennsylvania’s Juniata College raised $10,000 to examine the impact of fracking on stream ecology throughout the state.

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Fracking chemicals could mess with your hormones

fracking chemicals
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Feeling overly hormonal? Not hormonal enough? Just wait for frackers to move into your neighborhood and let them throw the medical dice for you. Fracking chemicals have been found to screw with many of the hormones that control a wide range of important bodily functions.

Last year, a team of researchers reported that fracking chemicals found in water samples from a heavily fracked region of Colorado messed with human estrogen and androgen receptors in laboratory experiments. Those scientists linked Colorado's fracking binge with "moderate levels" of such chemicals in the Colorado River, which is a major source of drinking water. That's screwed up, because those hormones help us maintain sexual health.

But it gets worse. Preliminary findings of a followup study were presented this week by one of the same research team members during a joint meeting of the International Society of Endocrinology and the Endocrine Society. The early findings suggest that it's not just sex hormones that frackers can mess with.

The researchers analyzed 24 chemicals commonly used by frackers -- noting that those chemicals represent a small subset of the hundreds of chemicals used in fracking, many of which are kept secret. Not only were most of the studied chemicals found to mess with our estrogen and androgen systems, but some of them were also found to affect hormones that prepare our bodies for pregnancy (progesterone), that break down sugar (glucocorticoid), and that regulate growth and development (the thyroid system). Only one of the 24 chemicals did not affect any of the hormonal systems studied.

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How to not lose your shirt when the climate goes bust

Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Hank Paulson
Jim Gillooly/PEI; Helloaloe/Wikipedia; Fortune Live Media

Much of the computing power that crunches the data for the Bloomberg financial empire lives in a building on Houston and Hudson, in Manhattan. It won't be there for much longer, though. After Hurricane Sandy, having a data center three blocks from the Hudson River no longer feels like a great idea.

"I own my company," former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference Tuesday morning. "I want to sleep at night. I do some things so I can do that."

Bloomberg was there -- along with Tom Steyer, Henry Paulson, and a bipartisan League of Superfriends-style "Risk Committee" of political and financial heavy hitters -- to announce a project called Risky Business. The project, summarized in a report released today, is an ambitious attempt to spell out, in plainspoken, unvarnished business talk, the threat that climate change poses to the serious work of making money.

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Growing pains

Organic farming is so much harder than just getting stoned and picking tomatoes

Celery harvest at New Morning Farm.
Sarah Bay

This article is part of a mini-series on the plight of the mid-sized farm. Read part 2 on the contrasts between foodies and farmers and part 3 on breaking the cycle of bigger farms and fewer farmers. 

Arlo Crawford's memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is an inside look at one of the iconic organic farms that sprang up in the 1970s, Pennsylvania's New Morning Farm. I spoke with Crawford about his unique perspective: He grew up in the middle of the back-to-the-land movement, but never felt compelled to join it. Here's a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Q. Where did the title come from? A Farm Dies Once a Year -- I was worried right up to the end that the farm was going to fail.

A. Well, it will one day, but don’t hold your breath. That title came from the first essay I wrote about the farm. I just wanted to get across how much you struggle, how much of yourself you pour into a farm. And ultimately the farm dies. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Because I’ve watched my dad my whole life completely invest all of his being into this farm, and every year it dies on him. And every time he’s sort of shocked, like ‘Oh my God, really? It didn’t all work out somehow?’

There’s a lot of books about farms that aren’t by farmers, and a lot of the time the farmer has the least voice. You go to Whole Foods and see these pictures of farmers, and these people have struggled their whole lives to put vegetables on your plate. The farm shouldn’t be put aside by the marketing.

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The shipping blues

Cargo ships carry a lot of climate baggage

Mærsk_Mc-Kinney_Møller.jpg
Slawos

Buying local has become a bit of a mantra. We understand that it takes a heck of a lot of climate-killing carbon to get that hula hoop from China to Chicago, but it’s easy to let the details slip. Here's some perspective: Maersk Triple E’s, the world’s largest container ships, measure 1,312 feet from stem to stern and contain 55,000 tons of steel alone. To put that into more relatable terms, that’s 196 LeBron James long and more than a million Rottweilers in weight.

These giant vessels are giant polluters. The largest vessels burn around 16 tons of low-grade, high-sulphur diesel fuel per hour as they ceaselessly plow the world’s oceans at over 25 knots. One study estimates just one of these gigantic ships spews out as much cancer-causing pollutants as 50 million cars every year, and there are an estimated 90,000 cargo ships around the world. Unfortunately, pending legislation aimed at cleaning up these ships focuses exclusively on sulfur emissions and misses the boat on CO2, one of the driving causes of climate change.

A recent study from the University of Manchester's Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research comes with a dire warning:

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Resistance is fertile

How we can fight back against herbicide-resistant superweeds

A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed
Delaware Agriculture
A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed, one of the plants that has gained glyphosate resistance.

There’s a clear scientific consensus that heavy use of glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Roundup and other brands of herbicide -- has sped up the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. And it’s reasonable to assume that crops genetically engineered to work hand in glove with glyphosate (like Roundup-resistant soy) are part of the problem, contributing to the popularity of the weed killer.

Now crops genetically engineered to work with other herbicides -- such as dicamba and 2,4-D -- look like they will soon come on line. The seed companies' answer to the Roundup-resistance problem is: Let's just fall back on older herbicides. An editorial published by the journal Nature recently criticized this plan. If we do the same thing with dicamba and 2,4-D that we did with glyphosate, the editorial argued, history is likely to repeat itself.

This got me wondering what we should do, then, so I started calling weed scientists. I ended up talking with three from around the country. They all agreed on the basic premise.

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Nebraska utility is phasing out some coal units, and it won’t cost that much

Coal power plant
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The Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska announced on Thursday that it will retire three coal units in the next two years at its North Omaha plant and transition two other units to natural gas within a decade.

The three coal units will be retired by 2016, the public utility said. Another two units at that plant will get updated pollution controls by 2016 as well, and will transition to burning natural gas by 2023. OPPD will similarly retrofit its Nebraska City coal-fired station and implement new energy-efficiency programs to reduce demand.

The utility said the changes would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49 percent, and cut nitrogen and sulfur oxide emissions by 74 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

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What you don't know can hurt you

Pennsylvania ordered its health workers to never discuss fracking

Pennsylvania won't discuss fracking
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In the heavily fracked Keystone State, the economic interests of frackers trump the health concerns of residents.

That much is abundantly clear in the wake of an extraordinary story by StateImpact Pennsylvania, which interviewed two retired state health department workers. The former workers say they were ordered to not return the phone calls of residents who complained that nearby fracking was harming their health. Instead, they were told to pass messages on to their superiors, who apparently never returned the calls either. The health workers were also given a list of fracking-related "buzzwords" to watch out for: