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Friday, June 18, 2004

Donella Meadows

There is a new valuable sustainability resource -- the Donella Meadows electronic archive, filled with e-versions of her Global Citizen columns, which are also searchable. Well written, thoughtfully argued, filled with facts -- it is as if we have an archive of her own 'blogging' from the late '80s until the year 2000. Meadows, one of the original voices behind the Limits to Growth project, sadly died in 2001. Even though the Limits to Growth has come up for some critique decades later, there can be no doubt that Meadows' wide-range of vision, her ability to search out the systemic and economic connections underlying environmental and political problems, combined with her writerly style, made her a powerful champion for Vegan Blog-related issues. Importantly, Meadows was an intellectual that understood she needed to practice what she preached -- she left a tenure at Dartmouth College as a result to live on and improve a small, collective organic farm in NH and work tirelessly for sustainability issues as an organizer. One of the final comments she made that will stick with me is that if we are serious about ending global warming as an industrial by-product then we need not Kyoto, but rather to cut our fossil fuel use to 80% of pre-1900 levels! What follows is a piece in which she takes up factory farms and gives her blessing to animal rightists, and uses the language of concentration camps -- though she doesn't call for vegetarianism.

Consumer Power Reforms Chicken Factories -- but Not Enough

According to the rules of the World Trade Organization, governments cannot block the import of a product on the basis of how it is produced. So what if a rainforest has been cut down or a stream polluted or an animal tortured or workers paid pitiful wages? That's the concern of the producing country, not the consuming one. Consumers should care only that they get what they want as cheaply as possible.

Of course consumers everywhere recognize the ridiculousness of this proposition. We are not robots who just want to plunk down money, get stuff and take no responsibility for the consequences. Whatever the WTO or any government says, we can exert amazing power by refusing to buy things that are made in ways that violate our values.

Nike, Starbucks, and Home Depot have learned that lesson. Nike found out the hard way that we don't want athletic shoes made by people who labor under intolerable conditions for pennies per hour. Starbucks has agreed to supply us with organic, shade-grown coffee. (The shade-grown part is to provide winter homes for migrating songbirds.) We have convinced Home Depot not to sell anything made by cutting down old-growth forests.

European supermarkets, pushed by consumer demand, are not only refusing to shelve foods made from genetically modified crops, but are going organic storewide. Frito-Lay has asked suppliers of potatoes and corn for its chips to avoid gene-splicing.

McDonald's has been hit by consumer protests so often that the company is downright jumpy trying to foresee our next principled protest. First we refused to buy hamburgers packaged in styrofoam that contains ozone-destroying chemicals. Next it was South American beef whose pastures were carved from rainforest. Now McDonald's has joined Frito-Lay in asking its suppliers to phase out genetically engineered spuds. They will still be fried in oil from gene-spliced soybeans; apparently McDonald's hasn't noticed that yet, or hopes that we haven't.

Recently McDonald's responded to consumer power in another arena. This one company buys 1.5 billion eggs a year. McDonald's has just asked its egg suppliers to pay attention to the living conditions of their hens. The birds must be kept in larger cages. (A skeptical farmer tells me the cages will be increased from the size of a Kleenex box to the size of a brownie pan.) They must no longer be "debeaked," a practice that keeps closely confined birds from pecking each other. And they must not have food or water withheld to increase egg production.

Animal rights activists have forced these changes. They're out to stop the inhumane practices of factory farms, where calves, pigs, or chickens are treated more like interchangeable machines than like living creatures.

More power to the animal rights folks. But if we're going to direct consumer power toward factory farming, there's still a long way to go. We should aim above all at eliminating the use of antibiotics in animal feed.

When you cram a hundred thousand hens together in Kleenex-box-sized or even brownie-pan-sized cages, you create a perfect environment for the transmission of diseases. The same goes for beef and hog feedlots (and people in airplanes). The solution to this problem has been to lace the feed with antibiotics. About 23 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to animals in the United States every year -- not used for sick animals, but fed to well ones.

Jamming animals together is bound to spread disease. Keeping them in the constant presence of low-level antibiotics is bound to spread antibiotic-resistant disease. Our animal factories are active sources of drug-resistant Salmonella and E. coli and other microbes, some of which infect people. In Europe and America, where animal factories are widespread, people are showing up in hospitals with infections that are resistant to four or five different antibiotics. In the U.S. 14,000 deaths per year are attributed to drug-resistant microbes.

It is crazy to undermine the effectiveness of antibiotics, the greatest health breakthrough of the twentieth century, just to make cheaper meat. Doctors are pleading for the control of antibiotics in the meat industry. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have issued stern warnings, which in the U.S. have not been turned into government regulation. Meat producers are major campaign contributors.

Raising animals in concentration camps is a bad idea for a dozen reasons, ranging from cruelty to drug resistance to unmanageable manure piles. If we don't end this practice, it will end itself, when antibiotics can no longer stave off diseases. If we don't want to wait for that, consumer action is the only way to go (short of campaign reform).

There are still farms that raise animals in natural, healthy conditions without the constant use of antibiotics. Turn your consumer power in their direction. Be willing to ask: Where does your meat come from? How was it raised? Ask loudly. Ask at McDonald's.

Posted by Richard
6/18/2004 10:45:42 AM | PermaLink

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Australia's Koalas Face Extinction, Foundation Says

When will it end?

Via: Reuters
Koalas, an iconic symbol of Australia, face extinction as rapid urbanization along the eastern seaboard destroys their fragile habitat, environmental activists have warned.

The Australian Koala Foundation has written to the government urging it to declare the koala a vulnerable species after a survey of 1,000 koala habitats found 30 percent no longer had a koala in them and 60 percent had suffered widespread destruction.

"I truly believe that in my lifetime the koala will become extinct unless we do something," Deborah Tabarat, executive director of the foundation, told Reuters.

Koalas are protected by law but the eucalyptus trees they call home and which provide their only source of food are not.

There are about 100,000 koalas in Australia, down from an estimated seven to 10 million at the time of white settlement in 1788. In the 1920s three million koalas were shot for their fur.

Tabarat said the major problem facing koalas was that the majority of Australia's 20 million people and the majority of the koala population both call Australia's eastern states home.

She said that with 80 percent of Australia's east coast temperate forests destroyed and continued rapid urbanization, koalas along the eastern seaboard could be extinct in 15 years.

"This animal is in serious trouble," said Tabarat.

"In 15 years you will not see a koala west of the divide," she said, referring to the Great Australian Divide, mountains that divide east coast Australia from its rural outback.

Wild koalas only exist in four of Australia's six states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

The marsupial has no natural predator, but has been in decline for decades due to urban sprawl and from car accidents and dog attacks.

More than 4,000 koalas are killed each year by dogs and cars, said the foundation on its Web site

The most robust koala population on the Australian mainland exists in southeast Queensland and numbers about 10,000, but it too faces extinction in 15 years, said Tabarat.

Southeast Queensland is experiencing the most rapid population growth of any part of Australia. Over the past eight years 16,000 koalas in the area arrived dead or fatally injured in hospital after accidents with cars or dog attacks and another 10,000 injured koalas probably died in the bush, said Tabarat.


Diminishing habitat has a greater affect on koalas than most animals. Koalas live in tall eucalypt (gum) trees and low eucalypt woodlands, but they are fussy eaters.

There are about 600 species of eucalypts in Australia, but koalas only eat about 120, with koalas in specific areas eating only four to six different types.

An adult koala eats up to one kilogram of leaves each night.

Like a pasture for sheep, a eucalypt forest or woodland can only support a certain number of koalas, resulting in starving koalas in over-populated habitats or destroyed habitats.

A koala population explosion on Australia's remote Kangaroo Island off the south coast has prompted calls for 20,000 koalas to be shot to stop them destroying their habitat. The island has some 30,000 koalas struggling to survive.

Koalas are also very social animals, living in stable societies that tend to remain in a small "home range," which means they require habitats large enough to support a healthy population and to allow for expansion by maturing young koalas.

"People knock down all the scrub and leave a couple of trees and think koalas will be okay," said Tabarat.

"We might be looking at koalas who are living happily in the bush but you might actually be looking at an extinct population," she said.

"They haven't got any way of going out of their little home range, mating with someone then coming home pregnant. They just sit there, eke their time out, and then the bush will go silent."

Posted by Richard
6/17/2004 10:02:14 PM | PermaLink

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

DON'T EAT 'EM: Levels of Mercury Found in Some Cicadas

The media should be ashamed of themselves in that they have spent the last month attempting to whip up cicada-eating frenzied spectacle. People who are eating cicadas should be doubly ashamed -- why would you eat something only because the opportunity presents itself a handful of times during one's life? One probably will only have limited opportunities to jump off an extremely high building, but that does not mean that one should do it when the chance comes along. Psychoanalysts should have a field day with this fad -- which involves excitement about something coming up from below the ground, a place of death and shit, and so we engage in collective festivals of eating the insects. That we have completely toxified the soil in which these insects hibernate, however, is something which apparently those interested in cooking cicadas haven't considered. As a result, the same dumb people eating cicadas are now giving themselves further mental deficiencies through mercury poisoning. One for the Einstein list...

Via: Cincy Post
That cicada you're about to chow down on -- you might want to reconsider.

While some local folks have lately been sampling various forms of cicada cuisine, two professors in the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering have found significant levels of mercury in some of the winged, red-eyed insects they've collected in three local communities.

"People should be cautious," said Tim Keener of UC's department of civil and environmental engineering. He and Soon-Jai Khang of the university's department of chemical and materials engineering have found surprising levels of mercury in the insects.

"Our results indicate that there are measurable and, in some instances, significant levels of mercury in the cicadas, with  the majority of the concentrations ranging from 0.02 to 0.20 parts per million, but some at higher levels," Keener said.

He advised against eating anything containing 0.1 parts per million of mercury. He further recommended that pregnant women and young children in particular limit their cicada intake as a result of his findings -- like, to zero.

"We do not believe that eating a small number of these insects will result in irreparable harm, but mercury exposure may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system," Keener said.

The higher levels, he said, approach those in fish that have earned government warnings. Some fish have been found to contain 0.4 parts per million of the element.

Keener and Khang are trying to figure out whether the mercury concentrations in the cicadas they've studied are natural or if man-made factors have contributed to them. Low levels of mercury are natural in soil, according to Khang.

The two began measuring mercury in cicadas as part of a more general study on the levels of the element, especially around power plants.

Khang declined to reveal the locations where the cicadas had been collected.

"We don't want to give a false warning," he added. "We have to make sure this is actually regional -- not a simple variation between individual cicadas.

"We think this is a kind of indicator that the soil they were in would be polluted. That's why we starting catching cicadas."

Keener, Khang and a group of their students were planning to collect more bugs and soil samples at other locations around Greater Cincinnati today.

Ironically, biology students at the UC Clermont College campus in Batavia, Ohio, competed Wednesday to see who could create the tastiest cicada-based grub in an event billed as "Shish-Ka Bug, the Greater Cicada Cookout."

Lisa Haynes-Henry, the college's marketing director, dined on German chocolate cake with cicadas, cicada sauerbraten and curried chickpea and cicada.

She said Friday that she hadn't had any negative effects from those delicacies. "We'd been planning the event for a few months," she said. "Had we known about the (mercury) study, we would have reevaluated and made it part of the curriculum."

Likewise, students in Steve Carson's biology and environmental science class at Mount Healthy, Ohio, High School cooked and ate cicadas Tuesday.

Mount Healthy Principal Jack Fisher said Carson had done "a decent amount" of research on the dangers of ingesting cicadas and believed the students would be safe. Carson also sent home permission slips for parents to sign before students could participate, Fisher said.

"No kids got sick," Fisher said.

For his part, Khang was stern in his warning: "Anything staying underground for 17 years and taking in all the heavy metals -- don't eat it."

Posted by Richard
6/16/2004 01:35:29 PM | PermaLink