Sunday, September 17, 2006


Self-righteous vandals at work

Striding purposefully down a pristine white sand beach in northeastern Australia, Hugh Spencer ignores the bikini-clad sunbathers and instead heads straight for a thick grove of coconut palms. "Look at this - there are no native plants left. They've all been pushed out by the coconuts," says Dr. Spencer, who heads the Australian Tropical Research Foundation. "The national parks service won't lift a finger - they're seriously underfunded, and they don't want to deal with the issue because it's so contentious."

Swaying coconut trees may symbolize the laid-back lifestyle of the tropics, but in northern Queensland, they are the focus of an acrimonious public debate which has left locals anything but relaxed. Tourism operators say Cocos nucifera palms are essential to the state's tropical ambience, offering the promise of long lazy days spent swinging in hammocks, sipping cool drinks, and gazing out at the azure waters of the Coral Sea. But local governments (known as councils) take a dimmer view, fearing hefty lawsuits if the trees drop their hairy harvest on the heads of unsuspecting, and increasingly litigious, tourists. Conservation groups loathe the coconut palm, saying it is an alien, invasive species that is encroaching on native vegetation and crowding out a narrow band of littoral rain forest - one of the rarest types of forest in the world.

"Coconut palms are a particularly aggressive nonnative," says Spencer. "Of the nuts that fall to the ground, a large majority germinate. Coconuts, urban development, fires, all mean that the littoral rain forest in Australia is vanishing." To some ecologists, the trees are public enemy No. 1, on a par with the hated cane toad, which was introduced to Queensland from Hawaii in the 1930s to control a type of beetle but has since bred in millions and spread across the continent.

So passionate is the debate that Spencer and a band of volunteers are poisoning the trees in a covert campaign of sabotage. Digging through the leaf litter in a particularly dense stand of palms, he points out a tiny hole at the base of a particularly tall specimen. "We put poison in there. We have to do it on days when the weather is bad and there's no one on the beach."

Poisoning the palms is not strictly illegal because they are not a protected species. But at the very least it is "illicit and unauthorized," according to the environmental biologist, who says he would welcome some form of prosecution by the Queensland national parks service because it would raise the profile of the issue. The group's guerrilla tactics have made them enemies. Spencer says he's received hate mail for leading the counter-coconut charge. "Some members of the local council would like to hang me from the nearest coconut tree. But others would like to give me a knighthood," he says.

Coconut palms are one of hundreds of thriving plant species introduced to Australia since British settlement in 1788. Coconuts were first planted here by 19th-century pioneers and later spread along the remote coastline of northern Queensland by postwar settlers and, in the 1970s, bands of hippies.

The problem of nonnative trees is not unique to Australia. For example, Greece and South Africa are infested with Australian eucalyptus trees. Fast-growing, rot-resistant eucalyptus were planted as windbreaks and for their timber. British woodlands are choked with rhododendrons, an ornamental species originally from the Himalayas. In the US, Chinese tallow trees have invaded forests of Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina; while Florida struggles to control the Brazilian pepper tree, mimosas, and two fast-growing Australian imports: melaleucas and casuarina pines.

In Queensland, many people now consider coconut palms an irreplaceable part of the state's tropical appeal. Towns like Cairns and Port Douglas, gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, have boomed in the past decade thanks to resorts with enticing names like Palm Cove and Paradise Palms. "This is a tropical destination, and people expect to see coconut palms, especially on the beaches," says Barry O'Brien, of Preserve Our Palms, a community group set up to challenge any threat to the spindly trees. "We have other dangerous things up here like crocodiles and snakes and stinging jellyfish, but no one is suggesting we kill them. I've lived here 13 years and to my knowledge there's been no one killed or seriously injured by a coconut."

Local authorities say the lack of injuries is testimony to their readiness to remove dangerous trees. Their vigilance is prompted by a growing culture of US-style litigiousness in Australia. Douglas Shire Council, which administers a swath of idyllic coastline north of Cairns, is one of the local authorities to have taken such precautionary measures, chopping down dozens of trees overhanging footpaths or playgrounds over the past three years.

The effort did not please the local tourism industry. "When the council chopped down 100 palm trees at a local beach, everyone was outraged," Mr. O'Brien says. Less offensive to local businesses is the twice yearly "de-nutting," when contract workers climb the palms in spiked boots or use cherry pickers and long saws to remove the dangling fruit. (A coconut palm can produce up to 75 fruit a year.) But for cash-strapped local councils, it is an expensive business - coconut maintenance costs about A$80,000 a year (US$61,500) in Douglas Shire alone, one of a dozen or more local authorities in Queensland that have to manage the problem. Other councils are experimenting with "coco-nets," specially designed nets that catch the coconuts before they crash to the ground. But that, too, is pricey, because the nets have to be emptied on a regular basis.

Eradicating the palms altogether is not an option, however. "Having coconut palms scattered along the coastline adds to the tropical appeal of our beaches," says Bob Jago, the Douglas Shire Council's environmental officer, striking a conciliatory note in the debate. "I would only support removing them where they are growing in national parks."

Meanwhile Spencer and his volunteers feel they have right on their side. In a survey of visitors to the Cape Tribulation wilderness area carried out by the group in 2004, 650 tourists were asked whether they preferred seeing native tropical vegetation or a South Pacific-style coconut palm landscape. Ninety percent said they favored native vegetation. The next stage in the great coconut confrontation will be a fresh assault on the palms by the conservationists. As with earlier campaigns, they will rip out germinating nuts, cut down smaller trees, and poison the big ones. "We've done a huge amount of coconut removal already," Spencer says. "If they're left to their own devices, you end up with a monoculture. But if you tell people [coconut palms are] a weed, they go berserk."



The World Health Organization on Friday called on more developing countries, particularly in Africa, to begin spraying the controversial pesticide DDT to fight malaria. The difference: DDT, longed banned in the United States because of environmental damage, is no longer sprayed outdoors. Instead it's used to coat the inside walls of mud huts or other dwellings and kill mosquitoes waiting to bite families as they sleep.

A small number of malaria-plagued countries already use DDT, backed by a 2001 United Nations treaty that set out strict rules to prevent environmental contamination. But the influential WHO's long-awaited announcement makes clear that it will push indoor spraying with a number of insecticides -- and that DDT will be a top choice because when used properly it's safe, effective and cheap. "We must take a position based on the science and the data," said Dr. Arata Kochi, the WHO's malaria chief. "One of the best tools we have against malaria is indoor residual house spraying. Of the dozen insecticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT." "It's a big change," said biologist Amir Attaran of Canada's University of Ottawa, who has long pushed for the guidelines and described a recent draft. "There has been a lot of resistance to using insecticides to control malaria, and one insecticide especially. ... That will have to be re-evaluated by a lot of people."

The U.S. government already has decided to pay for DDT and other indoor insecticide use as part of President Bush's $1.2 billion, five-year initiative to control malaria in Africa.

Kochi has positioned indoor spraying as an important but neglected third weapon -- along with insecticide-treated bed nets and new medications -- in the war on malaria, which infects half a billion people each year and kills more than 1 million, most of them children. While some well-known environmental groups have signed on to WHO's decision, it has generated some concern from groups like the Pesticide Action Network, which says there are questions about its effects on developing children. But proponents argue that until better strategies are developed, carefully controlled DDT use is warranted because in recent years, nothing else has succeeded in lowering deaths from malaria. "Indoor spraying is like providing a huge mosquito net over an entire household for around-the-clock protection," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a physician who has urged stronger international anti-malaria programs.

DDT is easily history's most notorious insecticide. While it isn't classified a human health hazard, it was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after decades of widespread agricultural spraying led to environmental damage around the globe. [Baseless assertion!]

DDT never disappeared in developing countries, although political pressure and lack of funding meant few continued to use it. Then a 2001 United Nations treaty that aims to wipe out a dozen of the world's most dangerous chemicals carved out one exception for DDT: indoor anti-malaria spraying, under strict conditions to prevent environmental contamination. Why? When small amounts are sprayed on interior walls, DDT forms a residue that both repels mosquitoes -- discouraging them from flying into the house -- and kills those that rest on the walls, explained Clive Shiff, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Malaria Research Institute. It has to be applied only about once a year.

Bednets soaked in different insecticides already are used to protect sleeping families. But if the nets are torn or aren't used every night, a mosquito can infect someone. Plus, mosquitoes can develop resistance to those nets' chemicals, Shiff added, pointing to a 2002 malaria outbreak in part of South Africa using bednets. DDT in those houses quelled the outbreak. "It would be naive to say DDT is a magic bullet for malaria. It isn't," stressed Attaran. It won't work in some places where mosquitoes already are resistant to a range of insecticides, he noted. He suspects DDT will be of most use in eastern Africa, where that problem hasn't yet emerged. Attaran called for research "to make sure we're using insecticides and DDT not in a willy-nilly way but in an optimal way in the right places."

Nor, scientists cautioned, is indoor spraying alone a solution, as mosquitoes bite everywhere. Countries are being encouraged to adopt comprehensive malaria programs that also include newer, more effective medications, as Bush's malaria chief, Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer, was to outline Friday. "President Bush has directed Admiral Ziemer to use the most safe and effective tools available to control and combat malaria in Africa," said White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. Indoor spraying "programs are an important part of his Presidential Malaria Initiative to save thousands of people from a highly treatable and preventable disease."


The Snap, Crackle and Pop of doom?

In August, Bayer Cropscience reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that some of the American long grain rice crop had been commingled with its genetically modified (GM) LL-601 rice. LL-601 is the abbreviation for the gene that confers resistance to the Liberty Link herbicide. LL-601 rice, which has not been approved for human consumption, was field tested between 1998 and 2001 and was dropped by Bayer when other varieties proved more productive and it judged that the time was not ripe for introducing GM rice. No one currently knows how the LL-601 rice got commingled at a rate of six grains of LL-601 to about 10,000 grains of conventional rice.

The announcement by the USDA and Bayer produced a predictable furor. Japan immediately banned imports of American long grain rice (but not short grain rice). The European Union restricted U.S. rice imports to only those that have been tested for the offending gene. Ireland banned U.S. rice exports outright. Gleeful anti-biotech activists called for imposing a worldwide ban on imports of U.S. rice.

Before the flap over "contaminated" U.S. rice could die down, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth declared that they had tested Chinese rice products in Britain, France and Germany and had detected the presence of rice genetically modified to resist insects. The Chinese government responded that no genetically modified rice varieties had yet been approved for commercialization. Which is true, but recent research shows that genetically modified rice offers a potentially great benefits to China's farmers and commercialization appears to be only a matter of time.

So should you dump the boxes of Rice Krispies and Uncle Ben's in your pantry into a biohazard receptacle? Nope. First, keep in mind that you've probably already have been eating foods made with ingredients from Liberty Link crops. The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have found that LL-601 gene and the protein it produces are safe for consumers and the environment in such crops as corn, soybeans and canola. As USDA Secretary Mike Johanns declared, "It is important to note that the protein found in this regulated rice line, LL Rice-601, is approved for use in other products. It has been repeatedly and thoroughly scientifically reviewed, and used safely in food and feed, cultivation, import and breeding in the United States. It is also approved for use in nearly a dozen other countries around the world." Of course, inevitably some American rice farmers are suing Bayer over their lost sales to the regulation-happy Europeans and Japanese. It's a pity they can't sue foreign regulators for lost sales due to stupid directives.

What about that Chinese rice? My guess is that if Europeans are finding traces of GM rice in food products imported from China, it's likely that enterprising anti-biotech activists will soon announce the same allegedly dire findings here. The Chinese rice has apparently been modified using the long familiar technology of incorporating a gene from bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which acts as anti-caterpillar insecticide. Bt is non-toxic to humans and animals and does not kill insects that leave crop plants protected by it alone. So it unlikely that whatever traces of GM rice that make it into foods imported from China will harm Americans who have been eating foods made from ingredients derived from crops protected by Bt for more than a decade now. It is estimated that at least 70 percent of all processed foods on American grocery shelves are made using ingredients from biotech crops.

However, both the Bayer and Chinese cases point up how activists misuse the current case-by-case regulatory approval system.There has to be a better way to protect public health while permitting the swift introduction of safe and beneficial agricultural technologies. In fact, Drew Kershen, a professor of law at University of Oklahoma, offers a three point plan for wending our way out of the current international biotech regulatory morass.

First, GM crops and non-GM crops should be regulated in the same manner for similar or identical risks. If a regulatory system would cover a specific trait were it in a conventionally bred crop, then it should also regulate that same trait in a GM crop. If not, then it should not be regulated in a GM crop either.

Second, once a trait has been approved, it should be approved for all varieties and all crops. There is no need to make a trait go through the regulatory system again and again and again. This would clearly apply to the Liberty Link case.

And third, comparable science-based regulatory systems should mutually recognize one another's approvals of the same traits by either direct recognition or by means of a short, fast-track recognition process. Obviously, just how much confidence to repose in European, Chinese or Indian regulatory systems is subject to debate, but the principle is sound.

In any case, the rest of the world outside European Union will soon be awash in safe biotech crop varieties. The EU will eventually have to choose between stopping all imports and growing all its own food or adopting a more reasonable science-based regulatory system. However, until something like Kershen's sensible suggestions are implemented, the world's consumers will continue to enjoy periodic bogus food scares conjured up by anti-biotech activists.



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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