GMO Labeling is gaining momentum

Connecticut recently made history by being the first state to pass a bill that will require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, and just today we heard the great news that Maine followed. Massachusetts might be next, possibly followed by New York.

The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Health heard with great interest what over sixty scientists and consumer advocates had to say yesterday at a public hearing in the Boston State House.

The H2037 bill would simply require foods that contain genetically modified organisms to be labeled as such, nothing more, nothing less. No warnings or negative connotations, just a simple label that would inform the consumer of the presence of GMOs.

All EU countries, China, Japan, Brazil and Russia already require GMO foods to be labeled. But opponents state that there is no need for labeling because genetically engineered foods are virtually the same as non GMOs, and it would only cause unfair rejection and confusion.

But if something is so different from nature that it needs a patent, why not also label it?

Even though the FDA states that GMOs are safe for human consumption, there are still a lot of unknowns. In reality we are still figuring out the effects of genetically engineered organisms on human health, therefore transparency in the food supply is of vital importance.

The two major concerns about genetically modified foods are the strong correlation between GMOs and food allergies, and the high levels of glyphosate found in them.

Several testimonies revealed a connection between certain GMOs and food allergies. A woman explained how she and her children had a severe allergic reaction to a soy based food containing no nuts, even though they are only allergic to peanuts. With GMOs consumers can never be certain if the tomato they purchased has a fish gene in it, or the soy based veggie burger a peanut gene lurking inside.

Also, over 90% of GMO crops have been engineered to be Roundup ready (glyphosate resistant) so heavy amounts of this well known toxic herbicide is sprayed constantly over them.

Scientists showed results linking glyphosate with autism, obesity, depression, endocrine disruption, and alzheimer if consumed over a long period of time.

I’m confident that our representatives will make the right choice, and follow CT and Maine in this GMO labeling wave which will empower consumers to make more informed decisions about what’s best for them and their families.

Al Gore: “Our Democracy has been hacked and the GDP measure of growth is insane, but I’m still optimistic about our future”.

algoreAl Gore gave an inspiring talk last night at Harvard University titled “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” in honor of the late Dr. Paul R. Epstein, the brilliant scientist who shared the Nobel Peace prize with him in 2007.

Gore started the night by acknowledging Dr. Epstein’s work in connecting the dots between climate change and its impact on global human health.

Warming temperatures will allow disease carrying mosquitoes to spread out of the tropics, bringing malaria, dengue fever, and other currently tropical diseases to higher latitudes. “Global warming will also prolong mosquitoes reproductive and life cycles, and enable deadly viruses to survive in places that were too hostile for them before” Gore explained.

Gore also mentioned the connection between the uprising of diseases like cholera and global warming. “Communities have learned to deal with cholera by investing in infrastructure and building better sewer systems. The last thing they would have done is turn their streets into an open sewer. But that is exactly what we are doing to our atmosphere. We are using it as an open dumping ground, dumping over 35 billion metric tones of carbon per year”.

Gore quoted James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute to illustrate the severity of the situation “the amount of extra heat being trapped in our atmosphere is like exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year, that is insane”.

He continued by explaining how the weather patterns are also being severely disrupted by global warming. “We will have more floods, stronger hurricanes, and more intense droughts in the upcoming years. Communities all around the world are experiencing one in a hundred, one in a thousand events every two or three years. Extreme weather will become the new normal.” Gore said.

The audience broke into laughter when Gore mentioned that “When Inconvenient truth came out I repeatedly heard from my detractors that I was exaggerating when I talked about water flooding the World Trade Center memorial site. After Sandy, I don’t get that anymore”.

Gore talked about the two pillars supporting the weight of our society. “Democracy, the best known way to govern a nation, and capitalism, an efficient way to organize wealth. But these two pillars have now been corrupted, they are too intertwined, and an urgent reform is needed”.

“Our democracy has been hacked, our operating system has been turned into something very different our founders intended. What our founders gave us was amazing, and I’ve watched it degrade over time.” Gore said.

“Our elected representatives today are not worried about their constituents, they spend their time begging for money, it’s a race of who can put more ads on TV. This deeply affects the way they think and make decisions.” Gore said.

Even if corruption is evident, Gore remains optimistic in our democratic system. “But I am hopeful because of the internet. Not today, not tomorrow but soon the internet will replace TV and people will have an open space for debate and conversation, internet is the public square for democracy”.

Gore explained how our economic system needs to be redefined. According to Al Gore, one of the main problems our current system faces is our definition of growth. “The definition we are using for growth is literally insane” Gore said.

Gore argued that GDP, the main tool for measuring a country’s economy is terribly flawed.

Simon Kuznets, the economist who first developed GDP in 1934 warned that it should not be used to measure a country’s wealth. But of course, nobody listened.

Since GDP was implemented in 1937, almost 95% of the US income goes to the top 1% of the country.

Gore, like Kuznets and many others believe that GDP fails to take into account major aspects of a country’s economy, such as externalities, depreciation of resources, positive externalities or distribution of income.

Costs related to pollution or environmental degradation are not accounted for (externalities), and contributions to science, mental health or arts (positive externalities) are also ignored in this economic model.

“Our GDP tells us, hey we are doing great, the US is just fine, but in reality we are not. Only the top 1% is doing well. We must be more accurate, or this economic model will drive us over the edge of the cliff.” Gore said.

But despite all this, Al Gore remains hopeful.“I am optimistic because President Obama in his acceptance speech addressed Global warming in an urgent manner, more than any other president before him. Obama now has no choice but to address global warming and act. And I know he welcomes this challenge” Gore said.

Al Gore is hopeful that renewable energies will pick up soon as the cost reduction and increased implementation will make them more accessible. He also recommends putting a price on carbon and regulating CO2 emissions from power plants.

Gore ended his talk praising young people’s passion and desire for change. “Young people that don’t succumb to the temptation of being cynical, and are passionate about what they do is what gives me hope for the future”.

The Genetically Modified “Frankenfish” Salmon soon in a plate near you

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has partially approved the AquAdvantage Salmon, a genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as normal. The FDA states that the GM salmon is “safe and unlikely to harm the health of the consumers or the environment”.

The AquaAdvantage salmon has been developed by AquaBounty a biotech company based in Waltham, Massachusetts. Their GM salmons have an added growth hormone from the Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from an ocean pout that allows the fish to produce growth hormone all year long instead of only during the Spring and Summer months. The fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.

Genetically modified Salmon next to normal Atlantic salmon

Genetically modified Salmon next to normal Atlantic salmon

Aquabounty has reassured this salmon is safe for consumption and poses no threat to the environment as they intend to only develop sterile females.

Environmental and advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or Food and Water Watch oppose what they call the “Frankenfish”. They are concerned that it could cause human allergies and the eventual contamination or decimation of the natural salmon population if it escapes and breeds in the wild.

The Monterey Aquarium revealed that current methods used to produce sterile fish are less than 99% accurate. That would mean that one fish in every hundred would not be sterile and could be reproductively viable. Another concern is that production of GE salmon, even in its early stages, is likely to involve the production, shipping and growing of hundreds of thousands of eggs and fish which could also be accidentally released into the wild.

 According to its opponents, the escape of reproductively viable GE salmon into the wild is very likely to occur. If this were to happen, the consequences are very hard to predict.

 Another unsettling aspect of the commercialization of the modified salmon is that consumers would not necessarily know how to distinguish it from regular farm raised salmon. Labeling of GM foods is not required by federal law, so consumers would not know how to spot the modified salmon in their grocery stores or restaurant menu.

 If the AquaAdvantage salmon is finally approved, it would be the first genetically modified animal approved for food consumption anywhere in the world.

The FDA has opened its report for public comment and will review the situation before making a final decision. The consultation will finalize at the end of February 2013, so now its the time for the public to state any concerns here.

 

Ideas for greener and more meaningful holiday gifts

This is one of the least environmentally friendly times of year, the epitome of rampant consumerism.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We seem to be forced to buy as many gifts as we can possibly afford. We spend so much money during the holidays, it seems a little unnecessary. Why not make something yourself? If you are artistic or crafty go for it, people will love receiving something made by you, even if you think you are not that good at it. And if you are not that artistic, there are plenty of DIY ideas here and there. Who knew soap was so easy to make.

granolaYou can also make foods, like granola (recipe under green kitchen), or countless other yummy things like pesto sauce, lemon curd or cookies, put them in a pretty container, and voila. If you want some cool ideas for homemade food gifts check this post from Grist.

And there are many wonderful NGO’s that offer amazing gift ideas which can have a significant impact on someone else’s quality of life or improve our environment. With these gifts you receive much more than what you give. Why not gift your mom with a child sponsorship or help towards a girl’s education , adopt a baby orangutan under your dad’s name, a life changing goat under your best friend’s name, and give your sister a piece or rainforest ? These are amazing to give under your friends and families names, and they are also tax-deductible for you.

oxfam_goat

If you decide to buy something, take a close look at where it comes from and how it was made. Second hand or thrift stores are also great places to find hidden gems.

And if you can, ditch the store bought wrapping paper. You can avoid wrapping a gift altogether, or use something you already have lying around your house. Newspaper, a silk scarf, a paper bag, an old comic or magazine make wonderful gift wrapping materials.  Check out these stylish ideas from Treehugger.

Happy ChristmaHanuKwanzika Solstice!

Lessons from Sandy: extreme weather will be the new normal

In a recent forum held at the Harvard School of Public Health four expert panelists discussed the most important lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy.

Daniel Schrag, climate scientist and Director of the Harvard Center for the Environment said that “Hurricane Sandy has been connected by the public to climate change in a way that other storms have not”.

This storm has brought the conversation of our vulnerability and need for adaptation to climate change back to the table.

Schrag explained that even if Sandy was thought to be an unusual event, storms like this one will become more frequent due to global warming and climate change. “Sandy got stronger as it moved from the Carolinas up to New Jersey, when it should have been the opposite”. Normally storms weaken when they move north. Water at that time of year is usually pretty cold and storms should disperse when coming into contact with the chilly waters. But the water temperature off the coast of New Jersey on October 29th was 4C warmer than normal. This pool of warm water gave the storm and extra kick bringing it from 75 mph to 90mph.

Hurricane Sandy's Path

Hurricane Sandy’s Path

The panel also explained that super storms like Sandy might hit the Northeastern US more frequently that before due to increased melting of the Greenland ice caps.

The hurricane took a left turn at the Jersey shore, which is quite rare. Less than 10% of storms move from east to west, normally they would head north and move eastwardly out to the sea. The hypothesis is that the retreat of Arctic sea ice and melting of Greenland are in fact steering storms towards the Northeastern coast of the US.

“If this proves to be the case, if  we really are starting to steer storms towards the East coast, that’s a much bigger deal than any kind of intensification. We have a lot of storms per year, so this could be really bad.”  Schrag said.

Jerold Hayden, professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University agreed with Schrag that after natural disasters “we rebuild, but we don’t necessarily rebuild better”. We  need to start spending money today if we want to prepare for the next storms and sea level rise of the future, and we need to tell people not to develop where they where developing before.

The panel agreed that “immediate post Sandy is an incredible opportunity in terms of thinking of what kind of investments to make in order to make our systems more robust.”  Many of these measures can be simple and localized. Rising power supplies to higher floors, or adding pumps in place so that we can pump out water from flooded areas in a day or two after a storm are local ways to achieve more resilience.

Schrag warned to those relying too much on technology and predictions that “however good our models are in predicting storms, I promise there will be surprises. No matter how well prepare, there are going to be brakes”.

Sandy is just the beginning of a new climate era. Extreme weather is going to be the new normal, and we must adapt to this new reality if we don’t want to end up with water up our necks.

Move over palm oil, make room for the vegetable oil of the future: Algae oil.

If we open our fridge, pantry, bathroom cabinet or laundry room and take a close look at all the products we keep in there, we have a very high chance of finding palm oil in at least half of them. In most ingredient lists, palm oil often hides behind the“vegetable oil” pseudonym which makes it hard to identify.

Palm oil has taken over most of our every day products, it’s in our shampoos and soaps, cleaning agents, in our chocolate, margarine, spreads, soft drinks, baked goods, ice creams, chips and potato fries and even in our powder milk.

PalmOilProducts

OK, so what is so bad about Palm oil? Well, the problem is that it comes with a side of deforestation.

In a previous article linking palm oil and deforestation, I explained how huge palm oil monocultures are rapidly substituting Indonesia’s old growth forests, pushing the Orangutan and countless other species to the brink of extinction and placing Indonesia to one of the top CO2 emitters in the world (not from burning fossil fuels, but from the massive CO2 levels released from deforestation).

The last orangutan populations in the world are found in Indonesia and Malaysia the two largest producers of palm oil in the world. Over 80% of the palm oil produced in the world comes from Indonesia, and the vast majority has been produced at the expense of some of some of the last old growth tropical rain forest in the world.

It looks like our thirst for vegetable oil is just going to increase, but maybe we can feed it with a different and more sustainable type of  oil.

And here is where Solazyme, a San Francisco based biotech company comes into play. Solazyme produces high quality algae oil that is not only much more sustainable but also healthier than palm oil.

As stated in Solazyme’s website,

“Solazyme has pioneered an industrial biotechnology platform that harnesses the prolific oil-producing ability of microalgae. We use standard industrial fermentation equipment to efficiently scale and accelerate the microalgae’s natural oil production time to just a few days. Our platform is feedstock flexible and can utilize a wide variety of plant-based sugars, such as sugarcane-based sucrose, corn-based dextrose, and sugar from other biomass sources including cellulosics. By growing our proprietary microalgae in the absence of light using fermentation tanks to convert photosynthetic plant sugars into oil, we are in effect utilizing “indirect photosynthesis.”

solazyme

In March 2010, Solazyme entered into a research and development agreement with Unilever, the world’s largest consumer of palm oil, to develop oil derived from algae for use in soaps and other personal care products. The agreement followed the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between Solazyme and Unilever, in which Solazyme’s renewable algal oils were tested successfully in Unilever product formulations.

What is more, Solazyme algae based oils have been proven to offer superior health benefits when used as substitutes for vegetable oils in food products, including reduced calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, and functional benefits such as enhanced taste and texture for low-fat formulations, while also providing lower cost handling and processing requirements.

Many experts regrettably say that orangutans and Sumatran tigers are walking extinctions, but if companies like Solazyme are able to turn sustainability into profit, they might still have a chance after all.

Climate Change is a ticking bomb: Reducing our emissions won’t be enough to stop it

Dan Schrag, Harvard University Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment and Scientific advisor for President Obama recently explained that “the situation of climate change is much scarier and darker than we want to acknowledge”.

Carbon_Dioxide400k

This graph shows the CO2 concentration (parts per million) in the atmosphere starting 400 thousand years ago to present time. We have data from ice cores dating back 400,000 years, and never in the history of the planet we have observed more than 300 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Today we are over 350 ppm. Schrag predicts that we will hit 400 ppm by 2014. Eventually we will hit 500 ppm, 600 ppm, and probably more, the question is when, not if, and what will the limit be?

Furthermore, these changes in the atmosphere are happening 400 times faster than ever before. Which makes the consequences even more unpredictable.

Another key point to consider is the enormous cumulative power of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane. If we completely stopped dumping CO2 and methane into the atmosphere today, there would already be enough to last thousands of years. The emissions we put up today will stick around for a long time.

This large time scale problem is precisely why reducing emissions will just not be enough if we want to solve the problem of climate change. According to Schrag “we need to stop using fossil fuels and have Zero carbon emissions if we want to fight climate change”.

The current CO2 concentrations and speed at which they are increasing has never been observed before in the history of the earth. Who knows what the consequences will be, but they have the potential of being catastrophic beyond our imagination.

But how do we shift away from burning coal, oil, and natural gas? According to Schrag “alternative energies need to be financially competitive in order to eliminate our dependence in fossil fuels”. Electric cars need to be more efficient, cheaper and faster. That’s when consumers will switch to more responsible vehicles, not before.

Schrag also argued that governments have a very hard time dealing with climate change in a long time scale. Politicians mostly think in short time frames, and sometimes lack the motivation to invest in long-term goals.

In the economic and political establishment’s  minds, fossil fuels are still imperative to the health of our economy and societal structures. Schrag brought up an analogy made by professor Andy Hoffman between fossil fuels and slavery. “Slavery in North America was seen as an economic issue. It was believed to be crucial for the economic and social structure of the country. It was just like fossil fuels not seen as a moral issue, but purely economical”.

Will future generations see our current use of fossil fuels as horrific, irresponsible and narrow minded? No doubt.

As Schrag described, “we do have  the obligation of not compromising the capability of future generations to have similar or more freedoms than we have now”.

If we really care about our future generations we have to act now. Before it’s too late and the climate change bomb explodes in front of our children and grand children’s faces .We owe it to them.