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Two websites not to miss

Posted on December 3rd, 2013 in Economy,Government,Technology by Robert Miller
Inequality Website

Inequality Website

There are two websites worth a visit. The first comes from the Economic Policy Institute and consists of a narrative by Robert Reich (Labor Secretary under Clinton) on how Inequality was created (on purpose)

The second website worthy of a visit is from the Guardian describing the history and the players involved in the Eric Snowden NRSA leaks. In my opinion, shared by many others, Eric Snowden is an American hero, putting his own life and future into uncertainty to bring us information that has the entire world wondering if we have gone too far in establishing our securitized state. It seems as though the American objective is if we can do it, let’s for sure do it. As far as we know nothing that Snowden has revealed has prevented the continued assembly of a massive storage system, where all of this data will be stored (what data we are talking about is completely unknown, except it involves emails and phone information) at a site in Utah. We are all waiting for the public conversation that Obama promised (which will never take place). And we are still waiting to hear about the full measure of complicity on the part of those like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and many others. One suspects that the veil of silence from these companies tells us all we need to know about the complicity they share in violating our privacy.


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Altering the DNA of oranges to save them from psyllid-infested Huanglongbing (HLB) disease

Posted on July 30th, 2013 in ecology,Food & Wine,Technology by Robert Miller

Burning Florida orange trees infested with Asian Citrus Psyllid (From New York Times)

Few of us are aware of the destructive forces that have plagued the Florida citrus industry over the last few years. But a few days ago, Amy Harmon, writing in the New York Times published a major article on the problems facing orange growers in Florida, with similar threats beginning to appear in the citrus trees of California and other southern states. This new threat has been created by  the Asian Citrus Psyllid (Diaphorina citri), a new invasive species which lays its eggs in citrus tree leaves and sometimes carries a tree-fatal bacterium: Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, that ultimately causes the citrus disease “Huanglongbing” (HLB), characterized by half green oranges hanging on trees that are obviously diseased and doomed. Trees infected must be destroyed and the accompanying  image illustrates this on-going strategy to combat the infestation. Estimates are that Huanglongbing (HLB) disease has already cost the citrus industry in Florida and is beginning to mount such a threat that many growers can visualize the end of Florida orange juice if something isn’t done quickly to stop this raging contagion.

This new threat began in Asia and India and was first discovered in Florida in 1998. By 2001 the psyllid invasion had spread to 31 counties in Florida, primarily due to the movement of infested nursery plants. In 2001, the psyllid infestation spread to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas on nursery stock (orange jessamine); it also was detected in Louisiana. The insect subsequently spread to other states and now is found in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arizona, California, and Hawaii as well as Mexico. California has been aggressive in trying to identify and destroy trees infested with psyllids, which by themselves inhibit tree growth when the eggs hatch and nymphs feed from tree sap, damaging the tree without killing it. But if the bacterium Candidatus is also injected when the adult feeds and exchanges the bacterium for sap, then the tree will develop HLB disease and eventually die, though it takes several years for this disease to run its full course. HLB is the most serious threat to the citrus industry in history and projections are that if something isn’t done to halt this disease, the Florida citrus industry could be destroyed within a decade.

Closeup of the small psyllid insects on the leaves of an orange tree

Once the devastating nature of this disease became apparent, the citrus industry, aided by the National Academy of Sciences and the Federal government scoured the earth to find trees that had developed a natural immunity to the disease. If a disease has been around for some time, one can usually find trees that have developed a natural resistance, but in the case of HLB, no naturally resistant strain could be found anywhere in the world. Orange trees are not the only target of psyllid attack; they also infest other Citrus trees, including limes, lemons, grapefruit and mandarins as well as kumquats, cherry orange, orange jasmine, Indian curry leaf, Chinese box orange, limeberry and desert-lime. In recent years Florida orange growers have attempted to apply heavy doses of pesticides, but that strategy has also been unsuccessful and growers are increasingly wary of the public reaction to the heavy use of pesticides. Nurseries that supply citrus trees to growers however are warned to use both a systemic and foliar spray before shipping any trees that have signs of infestation. The insecticide carbaryl (Sevin), applied as a foliar spray, has been effective against adult psyllids. The nymphs however are harder to kill with an insecticide spray, because they are tucked inside the small leaves of new growth, which protects them. That is why nurseries use a systemic insecticide to ward off psyllid nymphs. Carbaryl is very toxic to honey bees and to natural enemies of other citrus pests, so growers are warned to only apply it if they are certain of a psyllid infestation.

Psyllid infestation of orange trees illustrating the small nymphs that feed on orange tree sap and the green oranges that have been ruined by the bacteria that causes HLB disease

Florida oranges provide the major source of the nation’s orange juice supply and globally, Florida is second only to Brazil in orange juice production. It is a $ 9 billion industry which provides 76,000 jobs in the state which hosts the Orange Bowl in NCAA football as a fitting recognition to acknowledge the importance of the industry. Last year alone, orange production fell by nine percent, attributed to HLB disease, but there are still 60 million orange trees planted in Florida and all of them are at risk of HLB.  This threat to the Florida orange growers is so alarming that it forced them into something they never imagined they would agree to: search for a genetically modified organism (G.M.O.) to achieve a possible cure against HLB. Given the controversies surrounding genetically modified organisms, it is not in the grower’s personal DNA to consider this strategy unless it is one of last resort, which apparently is the case. Although orange trees are not native to Florida, it is said that they were brought to the state by Ponce de Leon and have thrived there ever since. Already hundreds of thousands of trees have been destroyed and the failure of traditional methods to modify the advance of this scourge, have stimulated the development of genetic modification of the orange tree DNA to find one or more genes that will combat the disease and remove the threat to an agricultural way of life that has existed in Florida for several hundred years.

Whether Florida orange tree farmers are guilty of over investing in monoculture orange trees remains an issue; perhaps more diversity in the orange tree DNA would have provided a resistant hybrid within the farmer’s orchards. In a way, what the farmers are seeking now is more diversity in the orange tree DNA which they might have provided on their own with more diversity and interbreeding among the trees suitable for producing and harvesting oranges.

Several gene candidates for orange DNA modification have been proposed, but the one furthest along was developed by Erik Mirkov of Texas A&M University. The new orange DNA from Mirkov’s laboratory contains a gene from spinach that generates proteins that help ward off bacterial infections. To speed the evaluation of the transgene, shoots from Dr. Mirkov’s plants were grafted onto normal, uninfected trees and so far the result has been successful in eliminating  psyllid infestation. It will take several more years and testing through the Department of Agriculture before this new orange tree DNA can be evaluated and approved for production, but there is hope that this step in bioengineering might lead to a cure for a disease that has threatened a vibrant form of agrarian economy.

Approval for using trees modified by the spinach gene however is only the beginning of an acceptable solution for Florida orange growers. If the spinach gene insertion passes muster with the Department of Agriculture, will it past muster with the public that has expressed increasing concerns about genetically modified organisms? In the past few months Whole Foods yielded to customer demand and announced that it would avoid stocking most G.M.O. food and require labels by 2018. Europeans are generally opposed to genetically modified foods and the public will certainly want to know whether the spinach gene makes orange juice taste like spinach. One cannot help but feel compassion for the orange growers of Florida. Whether they created their own dilemma by not insisting on more genetic diversity in their orange trees, they have adopted a strategy that will hopefully avoid the heavy use of pesticides even though the addition of the spinach gene to orange tree DNA seems more like satisfaction out of desperation rather than a gift from insightful planning.The National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization have both argued that G.M.O. crops are generally safe for consumption, but one worries about secondary actions. For example Monsanto’s genetically modified corn and soy seed produces plants that are immune from their herbicide “Roundup.” In that way farmers can administer the herbicide without fear of damaging their primary crop, but some have argued that this strategy has reduced the milkweed population, the plant source in which the Monarch butterfly lays its eggs and young caterpillars must feed. We are currently experiencing a dramatic reduction in the Monarch butterfly population and while the cause of this decline has yet to be established, many suspect increased use of “Roundup” as the most likely explanation. Are we willing to lose species in order to spread the use of monoculture farming techniques created by a single giant of agribusiness? I have not seen a single Monarch butterfly this summer, though my wife claims to have seen two. We use to see dozens during a summer and our own yard has plenty of milkweed plants, many of which I have searched for evidence of Monarch eggs, but I haven’t seen any such evidence as yet and I have searched beyond my own yard into many regions of the Twin Cities looking for them. No one yet seems to understand the cause of Monarch butterfly depletion.




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A documentary worth seeing: The Last Mountain

Posted on November 25th, 2011 in ecology,Energy,Government,Health,Technology by Robert Miller

Mountaintop removal eliminates the mountain and fills the valley below

I have been waiting for the documentary “The Last Mountain” to be released to my  Netflix streaming queue for sometime and then it suddenly showed up, so I watched it a few nights ago. Directed by Bill Haney, it tells the gripping story of the fight to keep Coal River Mountain West Virginia from being destroyed by the Massey Energy  Company.  The residents of Coal River Valley have been threatened for years by mountain top removal in a region of the state that has breath-taking, tree-covered hills and valleys; this region however has been progressively destroyed by coal mining through the technique of  mountaintop removal, based on massive, mechanized  machinery and explosives. Although Robert Kennedy played a major role as an activist and adviser in the documentary, and clearly adds a sense of national urgency to the issues addressed, the story is also about how local residents of Coal River Valley got together and formed an activist resistance to the Massey Coal Company’s plan to remove Coal River Mountain, a mountain that serves as a watershed for residents of the valleys below.  Many other mountains in the region have already been destroyed by coal mining, such that Coal River Mountain was and is the “last mountain standing”  of significance for the region. The removal of this mountain will destroy the water system of people living downstream and increase the severity of flooding, two well-known, obligatory features of mountaintop removal.  Many residents believe that Massey Coal wants to depopulate the Coal River Valley and eliminate downstream community occupancy, to give them more space for strip-mining. It is a very ugly process.

While the Obama administration has been more sensitive to the destruction of the water supply by mountaintop coal mining and violations of environmental laws, the original permits to remove Coal River Mountain were given during the Bush administration and Massey Coal has proceeded to execute its march towards mountain destruction. However, in a somewhat duplicitous manner, the Obama administration continues to issue permits for more mountaintop removal in the region. An interesting feature of this controversy was revealed in the documentary based on studies  that raise the feasibility of putting windmill generators across the top of Coal River Mountain. Those who have studied this suggest that wind power generation would produce more jobs and give the neighboring communities more long-term income through power generation and improvements in the tax base, when compared to the resources generated by the Massey mountaintop removal project,  which  of course will end at some time in the future. The demonstrations, sit-ins and tree sitting by environmentalists and residents are greeted with hostility by the miners who still have jobs working for Massey Coal. Oddly enough, I didn’t see many of the mountain top removal defenders (50 percent of our electricity comes from coal) argue that the future of the industry depends on the development of new clean coal technologies, none of which were on display or even discussed. Many coal-based power plants claim that they are ready for “carbon-capture” technology when it becomes available. But that possibility is very remote because once in service, the public will not tolerate retrofitting for carbon-capture, even if the technique becomes feasible, as it would add enormous costs to existing energy production. If carbon-capture or some similar clean coal technology ever comes along, it is likely to increase the cost of coal-based power plants to a prohibitively high level. Coal is currently the worst source of air pollution and the long list of its pollution offenses  goes beyond carbon dioxide and includes such things as mercury contamination, which accounts for warnings we get about eating fish too often because of their high mercury content. Mercury is toxic to the brain and impacts on brain development. It might be that Republicans have been eating too much fish.

Robert Kennedy is articulate in pointing out that the impact of Massey Coal has been to increase the poverty of the region, first by destroying the unions in the 1980s (companies close mines, send unionized workers home and then reopened the mines with non-union miners, complete with reduced salary and benefits) and second, by reducing the labor force through automation and modernization of equipment and techniques: strip mining is replacing deep hole mining, with a reduction in the labor force needed.  But if the true cost of coal mining was reflected in the price of coal, including the serious health care costs and safety issues, the cost of this form of energy would be prohibitively expensive. We are not just trapped by the history of the region as a long-standing coal-mining center, but also by the powerful lobbying interests of coal mining and transportation (trains) that thrive on their operations in West Virginia and other coal-intensive states.  One can add that Wall Street has billions invested in these companies because they are profitable and seem to be free from serious regulatory control. Add to that formula the corrupt organization of the state’s environmental protection agency, which allows coal companies to violate water and air quality standards without fines, and you have an updated version of “Love Canal.”

The environmental damage does not stop with a disappearing mountain top. The heavy coal mining leads to toxic waste sites in the mountain regions above the valleys, created from the water used to wash the coal before it is shipped and these sites leak and pollute the water supply downstream, carrying highly toxic material.  Several websites have been put up to monitor the mining operation, but the state and Federal Government seem to collude as obstacles for better environmental regulation. The trouble is that while wind energy might be successful for the future of local inhabitants, how will the energy needs of others be met who receive the coal over long distance railroad shipments? You have to decommission these coal plants one at a time, when you have a suitable alternative and until that can be achieved, the forces promoting mountaintop removal will keep going with few obstacles in sight that can stop them. If you had only two solutions to our energy needs, nuclear power and coal mining, the preferred choice would be obvious.  The solution at hand is to build a new, modern transcontinental power grid that collects electricity from all forms of power generated in different ways and distribute that power efficiently to homes and businesses. This is an infrastructure issue. Yes, it would be better to replace coal-fired power plants with natural gas in the short-run, and it seems obvious that the wind turbine option for the people of Coal River Valley makes far more economic and environmental sense, but how to resolve the challenges of implementing this new technology in place of coal is something we can only achieve through the force of a national government, not a state government, which, in the case of West Virginia seems hopelessly corrupt and entirely devoted to the private, rather than the public interest.


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