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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Supreme Court hands a big win to Monsanto on GMO seeds


In a blow to opponents of GMOs and Monsanto, the Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that an Indiana soybean farmer violated the company’s patent by saving its trademark Roundup Ready seeds.

Every time a farmer buys seeds from Monsanto, she or he must sign a contract agreeing not to save seeds from the crop. Monsanto’s many vociferous critics condemn this practice for the way it traps farmers in a costly cycle of dependence on the company’s products. The farmer in this case, Vernon Bowman, signed such an agreement when he originally bought Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. But he found a clever way to get around the restrictions. Tom Laskawy explains:

For years, Bowman would grow a first crop of Monsanto seed, which he would purchase legally, and then would buy some commodity seed from his local grain elevator for his second crop. While aware he could not save seeds from the first crop he grew, Bowman would later plant the commodity seeds, spray the plants with Roundup, and was then able to identify which were resistant to the herbicide when they didn’t die. Bowman saved those seeds and saved money, since he had bought the commodity seeds for his second crop at a steep discount without paying Monsanto or signing its licensing agreement.

Farmers can sell saved seed to local grain elevators, which often resell the mixed seed packs for animal feed or industrial uses. In buying these so-called commodity seeds from the grain elevator, Bowman rightly assumed, as The Washington Post explains, that “those beans were mostly Roundup Ready — resistant to the weedkiller glyphosate — because that’s what most of his neighbors grow.” Bowman saved and replanted the Roundup Ready seeds from his second crop for eight years before Monsanto caught on and sued.


Lots of people, animals, and plants will be homeless thanks to climate change

homeless sign
The Digital Story

The historic rise of carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million in the atmosphere has many people thinking about climate change’s Brobdingnagian impacts. And right on cue, new research indicates that huge numbers of people, animals, and plants can expect to find themselves ejected from their homes because of global warming over the coming years and decades.

An estimated 32.4 million people were forced to flee their homes last year because of disasters such as floods and storms, according to a new report released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre -- and 98 percent of that displacement can be blamed on climate- and weather-related events. That includes not just people in poor countries but also many Americans displaced by Hurricane Sandy and other disasters.

Also picking up the homeless theme is Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist famous for a groundbreaking 2006 report on the costs of climate change. He warns that hundreds of millions of people will likely be displaced in the near future. From The Guardian:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Obama may delay Keystone decision until 2014

foot kicking can
Jim Barber
Kick ... kick ... kick ...

The Obama administration has been procrastinating on its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for years -- and now comes word that it may kick the can even further down the road. From Reuters:

The Obama administration is unlikely to make a decision on the Canada-to-Nebraska Keystone XL pipeline until late this year as it painstakingly weighs the project's impact on the environment and on energy security, a U.S. official and analysts said on Friday.


Monster ice sheets destroy homes, terrorize residents

Melting glaciers might have been the farthest thing from some lakeshore-dwelling Minnesotans' and Manitobans' minds these past few days.

ice surge destroys homes
Twitter user Jill Coubrough, @coubroughCBC
A home destroyed by an ice surge in Manitoba, Canada.

Fast-growing sheets of ice, marching steadily forward as if out of a horror film, destroyed homes near Dauphin Lake in Manitoba, Canada, and caused damage along the southeastern shores of Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota. They rose from melting lakes and were blown by powerful winds up foreshores into yards and homes.

Amateur video of the advancing ice was captured Saturday by anxious residents in Minnesota and posted to YouTube:

Read more: Climate & Energy


CO2 crosses dreaded 400 ppm milestone, and science is very disappointed in you

"Del Boca Vista is underwater, thanks to you!"
"Del Boca Vista is underwater, thanks to you!"

We already told you that carbon dioxide could pass a daily average of 400 parts per million (ppm) sometime this May -- an atmospheric concentration not seen in human history, and generally a sign that we're passing into the climatological period known as "the gnashing of teeth." The New York Times now reports that we've Usain Bolted past that milestone:

Scientific monitors reported that the gas had reached an average daily level that surpassed 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

Read more: Uncategorized


$1.9 billion wind project coming to Iowa

This wind turbine in Iowa is going to get a lot more company.
Shutterstock / David Lee
This wind turbine in Iowa is going to get a lot more company.

America's wind energy boom is about to deliver the biggest economic investment in Iowa's history -- and blow a whole lot of cheap, clean electricity into the appliances and lightbulbs of the state's residents.

Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Co. announced it would spend $1.9 billion building new wind turbines in the state, increasing the amount of wind energy generated in Iowa to about 6,000 megawatts, up from 5,000 megawatts today, according to a report in the Des Moines Register. The state aims to have 10,000 megawatts of wind operating by 2020. From the article:

The company said the project would “be built at no net cost to the company’s customers.” The added wind generation is expected to cut consumer rates by $3.3 million in 2015 and grows to $10 million annually by 2017, the company said. “This is real money back in the pockets of Iowans,” [Lt. Gov. Kim] Reynolds [R] said. ...


Shell to drill world’s deepest offshore oil well in Gulf of Mexico

It's getting harder to find the oil needed to fill 'er up.
Shutterstock / Tupungato
It's getting harder to find the oil to fill 'er up.

Royal Dutch Shell plans to stick its oil-extracting tentacles deeper under the Gulf of Mexico than any oil company ever has.

Shell is preparing to drill 9,500 feet -- nearly two miles -- beneath the surface of the sea to suck oil out of a reserve that was discovered eight years ago, 200 miles southeast of New Orleans. The deepest oil well currently in operation, at 8,000 feet deep, is operated nearby in the Gulf, also by Shell.

The quest for deeper wells reflects advancing technology and increasing desperation as shallower reserves dry up. From Reuters:


America wants Kyoto Protocol replaced with peer-pressure campaign

Can peer pressure save the planet?
Can peer pressure save the planet?

America never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and it doesn't want the rest of the world ever signing anything like it again.

As world climate delegates try (not very successfully, mind you) to thrash out a new agreement to replace the protocol, which expired last year, the U.S. is pushing a very different approach to reducing the world's greenhouse gas emissions: international peer pressure.

Instead of agreeing to a set of emissions goals, America wants each country to set its own targets -- in the hopes that the glare of the international community will encourage governments to make those targets meaningful. America's goal appears to be to agree to not agree.


Coal-export plans going off the rails in Pacific Northwest

You shall not pass.
Scott Granneman
You shall not pass.

Plans for two Oregon coal-export terminals have gone up in smoke in the last two months. That makes for a total of three scrapped terminals in the Pacific Northwest, after a proposed facility in Grays Harbor, Wash., bit the coal dust last year. Three others in the region remain in the works, but they face many of the same challenges -- permitting and zoning issues, stalled negotiations, and delayed environmental reviews, not to mention fierce public opposition.

A spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, which announced Wednesday it was abandoning plans for a coal-export terminal at Oregon's Port of St. Helens, “blamed site logistics for stopping the project, not the intense controversy over exporting coal from the green Northwest,” reports The Oregonian. He said Kinder Morgan would continue to explore options for a West Coast terminal.

The abrupt announcement came barely a month after the Port of Coos Bay ended negotiations with a California company looking to build a terminal there. There's a chance the port could consider coal-export options with other companies, but the expensive rail improvements any project would require make a coal deal unlikely, said David Petrie, founder of Coos Waterkeeper.


Tesla sedan gets best Consumer Reports auto review of all time

Tesla's sexy Model S
Tesla Motors
Tesla's sexy Model S.

The good news just keeps flowing -- like electricity from a renewables-infused grid -- for electric-auto maker Tesla Motors.

Consumer Reports just gave the Tesla Model S Sedan its highest-ever score for an automobile. The glowing review and sky-high score of 99 out of 100 came in the same week that the 10-year-old auto manufacturer enjoyed its first profitable quarter.

Some highlights from the breathless review:

This electric luxury sports car, built by a small automaker based in Palo Alto, Calif., is brimming with innovation, delivers world-class performance, and is interwoven throughout with impressive attention to detail. It’s what Marty McFly might have brought back in place of his DeLorean in  “Back to the Future.” The sum total of that effort has earned the Model S the highest score in our Ratings: 99 out of  100. That is far ahead of such direct competitors as the gas-powered Porsche Panamera (84) and the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid (57).