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Crop flops: GMOs lead ag down the wrong path

Harvester rejected GMO corn crop
Martchan / Shutterstock

Editor's note: After we ran What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters, Nathanael Johnson's essay concluding his "Panic-Free GMOs" series, we heard from a lot of people who think that GMOs really do matter. We're publishing three two responses: one from Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet; and -- to kick things off today -- one from Tom Philpott, whose work long graced these pages and who is now at Mother Jones. (We'd planned to run another response from Denise Caruso, author of Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet but that piece did not materialize.)


Before I respond to Nathanael Johnson's assertion that the "stakes are so low" in the debate over GMOs, I want to address a smaller point. "The debate isn’t about actual genetically modified organisms -- if it was we’d be debating the individual plants, not GMOs as a whole," Johnson writes.

That's a good place to start: actually existing GMOs. What traits are on the market today, in use by farmers? First, I'll note that there's no shortage of land devoted to GMOs. Since the novel seeds hit the market in 1996, global GM crop acreage has expanded dramatically, reaching 420 million acres by 2012, reports the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. That's a combined landmass more than four times larger than California. The pro-GMO ISAAA hails this expansion as "fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture."

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These balding coral reefs got seaweed hairplugs

sydney reef
G Crouch

Until a few decades ago, reefs near Sydney, Australia were covered in brown, sinuous macro-algae called Phyllospora comosa, or crayweed. Then Sydney dumped a bunch of sewage in the ocean in the 1970s and 1980s and killed most of it off. Reefs were barren at worst; at best, they were covered in simpler algae. But a group of scientists just tried transplanting a new crop of crayweed onto the reefs, like giving them hairplugs. And it worked.

Live Science reports:

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Plant STD linked to honeybee collapse

bee on flower
Shutterstock

It's time to have a little talk about the flowers and the bees.

Major crops including soybeans and tobacco can suffer from a crippling malady called tobacco ringspot virus. The disease is spread through sex, which in the plant kingdom involves the freaky use of vibrating creatures: bees. Honeybees and other pollinators carry infected pollen from one plant to the other and, in doing so, can spread the virus, which is also called TRSV.

What's really freaky is that scientists have discovered that bees can become infected with the ringspot virus of the plants upon which they feed. The researchers report in the journal mBio that the unusual inter-kingdom host-species jump could be linked to colony collapse disorder. Here's more from Science Codex:

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Canada sued over approval of “toxic” GMO salmon

Atlantic salmon
Shutterstock

Canadian officials ventured into uncharted legal and ecological waters when they approved the cultivation and export of genetically engineered salmon eggs last year. And now environmental groups have sued the government, claiming the approval illegally disregarded the potential for the transgenic fish to become an invasive species.

Quick background: AquaBounty Technologies Inc. has developed Atlantic salmon that grow more quickly than their natural cousins, thanks to the presence of DNA from Chinook salmon and from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout. The company wants to cultivate eggs for this AquAdvantage salmon on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, hatch the eggs and grow the salmon in Panama, then export the meat to the U.S. Approval from the U.S. government is still pending.

Some environmentalists worry that the GMO fish will escape, breed, and outcompete wild species. Under Canadian law, an invasive species can be defined as "toxic" in the environment. Three Canadian nonprofits are claiming that definition of "toxic" could apply to the AquAdvantage salmon and their eggs. Here's the crux of their legal argument, as described by Global News:

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Gorgeous tiny car from the ‘50s is what all cars should look like in the future

microcar1
RM Auctions

In the 1950s, a German inventor named Carl Jurisch built this car from a motorcycle sidecar. It's called the Motoplan, seats just one person, and goes, at its top speed, 55 mph. It's beautiful.

But it was not, as you might have guessed, a particularly popular idea in the '50s (the era of giant car-boats). This was a prototype, and now it’s a collector’s item -- it sold last year at an auction for $103,000.

But there's something compelling about a car this tiny and cute. Sure, it doesn't go as fast as cars can, but maybe it goes fast enough.

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Watch volunteers save 46 beached whales

beached whale
Angie & Steve

On the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island, there's a narrow stretch of sand that stretches out atop Golden Bay. It's called the Farewell Spit, and it's trouble for pilot whales. The whales regularly end up stranded there -- no one knows quite why. But just in the past few weeks, two sets of about 50 whales ended up beached on the spit.

Human volunteers gathered to help refloat the whales -- even as the whales, for whatever reason, were having a hard time figuring out that they might want to head towards the open ocean, instead of back towards the beach. But the volunteers got 46 of them back on the right track. Watch:

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How not to celebrate MLK Day: PETA compares animal cruelty to slavery (again)

peta
Elvert Barnes

I’m all about honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and highlighting the natural connections between civil rights and protecting the environment. But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took it a step too far with this one:

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“Sustainable kidnapping” video is as hilarious and cringe-inducing as you’d expect

Sick of solar-powered taxidermy and fair-trade Febreze? Then this silly video will cure what ails you:

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The kids are alright: Erin Schrode helps teens go green

Teens Turning Green co-founder Erin Schrode.
Courtesy of Erin Schrode
Teens Turning Green co-founder Erin Schrode.

Teens are terrible. I might get flack for saying that, but who among us wasn’t awful? Ask your parents, teachers, and siblings: They’ll confirm you were a raging sack of hormones, sadness, and confusion. (I’m not immune to my own assessment: Picture a Dave Matthews Band superfan in ill-fitting khakis, with the heart of Genghis Khan. See? Total nightmare.)

So expecting paragons of selfishness to care about anything outside of themselves -- much less the fate of an entire planet -- would seem beyond the realm of possibility. It's certainly easier to throw up your hands, grumbling "Kids these days -- amirite?"

But in order for the green torch to be passed down to the next generation, we should make some attempt to appeal to the young’uns. Thankfully, there’s Erin Schrode: She’s been wading into that teenage wasteland for the last nine years as the co-founder of Teens Turning Green. And she believes, contrary to previously stated expert opinions, [deep breath] teens aren’t terrible. Or at least they aren’t any more terrible than the rest of us.

Read more: Living

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Get ready for more “extreme” El Niños

crashing wave
Shutterstock

Batten down the worldwide hatches. Scientists say baby Jesus' meteorological namesake will become a thundering hulk more often as the climate changes.

The latest scientific projections for how global warming will influence El Niño events suggest that wild weather is ahead. El Niño starts with the arrival of warm water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and it can culminate with destructive weather around the world. It was named by Peruvian fishermen after the infant Jesus because the warm waters reached them around Christmas.

We've previously told you that El Niños appear to be occurring more frequently as the climate has been changing. The authors of the latest paper on this subject, published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, don't project that El Niños will become more common in future. What they do project, though, is that twice as many El Niños will be of the "extreme" variety.

Read more: Climate & Energy