World Watch Magazine: May/ June 2004

STRANGE SCIENCE: A U.S. CORPORATION ENGINEERS RICE WITH HUMAN GENES

world watch magazine cover Washington, D.C.—A California-based biotechnology company has been growing experimental fields of rice engineered with human genes to produce two proteins found naturally in human breast milk. According to the May/June issue of World Watch magazine, these test plots present significant risks to the environment, to people, and to the California rice industry.*

In “Silent Winter,” Claire Hope Cummings describes how state and federal regulators are failing to address the unprecedented agricultural, legal, environmental, economic, and ethical questions posed by newly created organisms. Ventria Bioscience, which plans to use its transgenic rice in poultry feed as an alternative to antibiotics and as a supplement in infant formula, has been free to plant experimental crops without taking sufficient precautions against exposing wildlife or other rice fields to these novel and untested transgenes. Under current law, the company can hide flaws in its products and the location of open-air test plots under the cloak of “confidential business information.”

“Wildlife and people are the lab animals in this giant, uncontrolled environmental experiment,” Cummings says. “There is a lack of independent research on how genetically engineered crops affect wildlife, and we don’t know how genetic contamination, especially these new pharmaceuticals being grown in food crops, will affect birds, the environment, and ourselves.“

Ultimately it may be economic issues, not environmental ones, that determine if any genetically modified rice will be grown in California. Transgenic rice threatens the $500 million California rice industry—especially the organic sector. The industry has worked hard to develop a high quality product and an environmentally friendly image. Moreover, farmers are getting a premium for going organic—not transgenic—with their rice. And the California rice industry is selling to discerning domestic customers who do not want genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and to Asian markets that already reject GMOs. As with any GMO crop, contamination of the food supply is practically unavoidable. That’s a risk the rice industry can’t afford.

* Since this article was written, Ventria Bioscience obtained permission from the rice industry to grow pharmaceutical transgenic rice commercially in California. But they have yet to obtain the required federal permit for planting this year. Both their commercial plots and their test plots are required to be farmed and harvested carefully under the protocols approved for commercialization, which Ventria obtained by promising to move its operations to Southern California. But there still are not sufficient protections to prevent harm to other farmers and wildlife, or the spread of the grains into the food supply. And rice growing requires huge amounts of water, a resource Southern California doesn't have. Ventria asked the State of California to approve its commercialization plans on an emergency basis, but there is no emergency. Many rice farmers, consumers, and environmental groups are demanding that the state take time to review this proposal, allow sufficient time for public comment, and conduct an environmental assessment.

UN PROGRAMS IMPROVE ENVIRONMENT AND LIVES IN KENYA

A ring of United Nations (UN)-sponsored development projects circling Mount Kenya are proving that international efforts to cooperate on the environment and sustainable development can add up to real on-the-ground preservation of delicate ecosystems and poverty reduction. In “Sacred Mountain,” Hilary French, director of the Globalization and Governance Project at Worldwatch, writes of her travels in Kenya, where she visited a number of these efforts.

“I’ve been tracking UN agreements, programs, and conferences through my research for over a decade,” says French. “My mission in Kenya was to learn how the rhetoric of sustainability translates into reality in the Mount Kenya region.”

With her guide, Nancy Chege, a coordinator of Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation (COMPACT) projects in Kenya as well as a former Worldwatch researcher, French toured a series of projects circling Mount Kenya. She saw first-hand how destructive practices including illegal logging and settlements are being replaced with new programs that provide fresh water, reforest slopes, stop illegal logging, introduce more efficient cooking stoves, provide new jobs in beekeeping or ecotourism, and keep elephants out of farmers’ fields.

“I was surprised and pleased to hear of mutual respect and collaboration across different UN agencies during my travels in Kenya,” says French. “It gave me hope that while the world may be deeply divided on issues like war in Iraq, when it comes to protecting the environment and improving people’s quality of life, international cooperation is not only possible, but well under way.”

LIFE-CYCLE STUDIES: THE UBIQUITOUS CELL PHONE

Cell phones have been praised for bringing huge benefits to rural Africans who formerly had to walk long distances to a telephone, to stranded motorists, injured hikers, and travelers in transit. But this handy new appendage is coming to us at great ecological and social cost. Cell phone disposal is adding tons of toxic chemicals to landfills. They also fuel a resource war that has killed 3 million people in seven African nations due to coltan, a heat-resistant mineral used in cell phone circuitry that is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the same time, cell phones may pose health threats that are still not known or understood.

MATTERS OF SCALE: THE HIDDEN COST OF EMBODIED ENERGY

Energy used to heat a conventionally built house in Vancouver, Canada, for one year 101 million Btu
Energy used to make and transport the materials to build that conventional house (embodied energy) 948 million Btu

Energy used to heat an energy-efficient house in Vancouver for one year 57 million Btu
Energy used to make and transport the materials to build that energy-efficient house (embodied energy) 1,019 million Btu

Therefore, total energy used to build and then heat a conventional house in Vancouver as of the end of its first year of occupation 1,049 million Btu
…and total energy used to build and then heat an energy-efficient house in Vancouver as of the end of its first year of occupation 1,076 million Btu

But…total energy used to build and then heat a conventional house in Vancouver as of the end of its 30th year of occupation [948 + (30 x 101)] 3,978 million Btu
…and total energy used to build and then heat an energy-efficient house in Vancouver as of the end of its 30th year of occupation [1,019 + (30 x 57)] 2,729 million Btu

Energy required to produce one cubic meter of air-dried lumber 1.2 million Btu
Energy required to produce one cubic meter of plywood 9.4 million Btu

Energy efficiency of a one-mile urban trip by a 2003 Honda Civic, in miles per gallon 32 mpg
Energy efficiency of a one-mile urban trip by bicycle, when the cyclist is fueled by meat (which contains the embodied energy required to produce and transport one mile’s worth of meat energy to the cyclist’s home), according to one analysis 31 mpg
But…energy efficiency of a one-mile urban trip by bicycle when the cyclist is fueled by bread 300 mpg

OTHER STORIES: ENVIRONMENTAL INTELLIGENCE

If It’s Not Politically Helpful, It Must Not Be “Sound Science”: The term “sound science” is popping up more and more often as corporations, lobbying groups, and the Bush administration use the term to conveniently dismiss any research it doesn’t like for ideological reasons. Among the examples of this: In March 2003, Bush reversed a move Clinton had made to reduce the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water stating, “We pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based on sound science.”

New Treaty Fights Invasive Marine Species: The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted a treaty aimed at combating the spread of invasive species by shipping vessels. When a ship unloads its cargo, its hull must be filled with water to maintain the ship’s stability. On arrival at a destination port, the ship then discharges “ballast water,” often introducing thousands of foreign organisms into the port’s waters. Recent increases in global trade have pushed this problem to a devastating level. Once ratified, the treaty will ensure that ships built after 2009 are fitted with equipment for treating ballast water.

Pentagon Report Suggests Global Warming Could Trigger Catastrophic Freezing: A report released by the Pentagon in January suggests that “abrupt climate change”—a kind of disruption that could occur in as short a period as a decade—could trigger a series of horrific destabilizing effects. An ice-melt-driven collapse or disruption of the “Ocean Conveyor,” a global current that circulates warmer, saltier water from the equator to the colder polar regions, could lead to megadroughts, an increase in demand on fossil fuels, political instabilities, immense transfers of refugees in destabilized areas, and even wars over increasingly taxed resources. The Pentagon report is not the only group thinking about climate change as it relates to security. David King, the chief scientific advisor to the UK government warned in January that “climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today—more serious than the threat of terrorism.”

—END—