agriculture

Arctic seed bank -- should we be comforted, or alarmed?

Today comes news that a seed bank set up on a frosty Arctic island in Norway to preserve the possiblity of feeding the world after a nuclear or climate disaster has reached the half-million mark for seed samples.

I'm confused: Should we be comforted, or alarmed? I mean, if the likelihood of nuclear or climate disaster is high enough to necessitate this kind of thing, that's bad. But then again, it seems like a prudent move, right?

I live just about an hour down the road from the lush Skagit River valley, which is a source of seeds used around the world for a variety of crops (not to mention a major producer of veggies that land on my plate on a regular basis.) Can't we keep getting our seeds there?  

Hmmm... it turns out they're calling this facility on the Norwegian island a "doomsday" seed vault.

Sigh. My stomach hurts.

-- Robert McClure

New study shows Roundup pesticide kills fish; U.S. heading toward OKing more 'Roundup-Ready' genetically engineered farm acreage

Roundup is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world. But it increases the incidence of disease in fish, a new study shows. And yet it looks like the government is about to greatly expand the U.S. acreage where it is applied by approving planting of vast swaths of genetically engineered alfalfa. These “Roundup-Ready” hayfields worry opponents of GE foods, and this latest news about the effect on fish is bound to stir the pot some more. (The opportunity for public comment on allowing GE alfalfa ends soon, btw.)

The new fish study, out of New Zealand, showed that when applied at recommended rates on fields near a freshwater stream, Roundup didn’t kill young freshwater fish outright. Score one point for Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer.

However, what Roundup did at this relatively dilute concentration was to increase the production of worm that’s a parasite of the fish, and comes from a particular snail. And the combination of more parasites and moderate levels of Roundup – aka “glyphosate” – produced what scientists called “significantly reduced fish survival.” They concluded:

"This is the first study to show that parasites and glyphosate can act synergistically on aquatic vertebrates at environmentally relevant concentrations, and that glyphosate might increase the risk of disease in fish. Our results have important implications when identifying risks to aquatic communities and suggest that threshold levels of glyphosate currently set by regulatory authorities do not adequately protect freshwater systems."

Honeybees' colony collapse disorder threatens our food supply

[caption id="attachment_5252" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Dateline Earth trying to bee all we can bee. Photo courtesy pdphoto.org"]Dateline Earth trying to bee all we can bee. Photo courtesy pdphoto.org[/caption]

After bemoaning the loss of Gourmet magazine and its environmental reporting a few weeks ago, I found it encouraging to hear a pretty good enviornmental story over the weekend on the foodie-focused radio program The Splendid Table.

Host Lynn Rosetto Casper had on the show author and journalist Rowan Jacobsen, who was flogging his new book "Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis." (Jacobsen's tucked in way at the end if you don't want to listen to the rest of the show. But I'm warning you: About midway through Casper has some great ideas for using green tomatoes and apples with character, like winesaps, as savory side dishes.)

I was surprised to learn the colony collapse disorder, which we wrote about on several occasions when honeybees started dying en masse in 2007, is continuing to this day.

In fact, Jacobsen said about 31 percent of the commercial honeybees -- used to pollinate scads of American crops -- died over the autumn and winter of 2007 to 2008, and 37 percent of the remaining ones died over last fall and winter.

Having heard little about this recently, I assumed the problem was easing. But no. And researchers still aren't sure what is causing it. Some blame a pesticide. And there's also a new bee virus at work.