Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Biofuel" idiocy now causing great hardship in poor countries

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Soaring soybean prices that have prompted mass demonstrations and a prominent suicide have forced Indonesia to act. Prices for the legume, an ancient plant with cultural significance throughout Asia, have tripled in the past year in Indonesia, as skyrocketing biofuels demand drives worldwide production away from soy towards the more profitable maize. Two of Indonesia's most loved soy-derived foodstuffs, tofu and tempeh, provide 22 per cent of the nation's dietary protein, according to government statistics. However, many people are going without both as prices for the raw bean hit more than 8000rupiah (98c) a kg, up from 2700 rupiah 12 months ago.

After riotous protests by desperate smallholders and traders, Jakarta this week abolished its 10per cent duty on all soybean imports - which, at more than 1million tonnes last year, made up more than half the nation's requirement. (Despite its reliance on the crop, Indonesia has been a net importer for 30 years.) The unrest was the latest symptom of a growing biofuels-linked food crisis, following agflation-driven outbursts such as last year's violent Mexican tortilla rallies.

Subsidies of up to 1000 rupiah a kg are also being considered, according to Industry Minister Fahmi Idris, who held a crisis meeting on Wednesday with his counterparts from the departments of agriculture, trade and small to medium enterprises. Trade Minister Mari Pangestu emphatically denied evidence of cartel activity by Indonesia's four main soybean importing companies, adding the Government could not push the price of soybeans too far below world levels. "Our task is only to smooth out the sharp price fluctuations in order to reduce their effect," Dr Pangestu said.

Stallholder Slamet, from the West Java city of Banten, starkly illustrated that effect - and made himself a symbol of what is being seen as a national policy failure - when he committed suicide by hanging last week. Typical of many small-scale tofu and tempeh dealers, Slamet, 49, turned over just enough product each day to survive, leading him increasingly into debt as soy prices rose. He succumbed to despair alone and at home: an outcome contrasted by poet Goenawan Mohamad to the lingering and melodramatic death of former president Suharto, still in intensive care.


Australian economists put the heat on the Stern report

A Productivity Commission paper has criticised the influential Stern review on global warming for making value-laden assumptions that inflated estimates of the economic costs of warming. The internal staff working paper, released as Australia prepares its own version of the Stern review, called the original British review's conclusions "as much an exercise in advocacy as it is an economic analysis of climate change".

It acknowledged Nicholas Stern's contribution to the field, but said it was impossible to say whether some assumptions were "definitively right or wrong". The former World Bank chief economist's review had "erred" in not making key value judgments explicit, or testing different parameters in his modelling, the paper said.

The commission paper, originally prepared for internal use in response to the Stern review's October 2006 release, was published yesterday. It was given to the Labor-initiated Garnaut review, which is modelled on the Stern review, over the Christmas break.

When then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd announced Labor's review last year, headed by Australian National University economist Ross Garnaut, he said Australia needed its own version of the Stern review. "The Stern report to the British Government sent a clear warning that, left unchecked, climate change will have catastrophic economic consequences," Mr Rudd said. Sir Nicholas found the cost of global warming, estimated at between 5 and 20 per cent of global GDP a year, far exceeded the annual cost of mitigation measures, estimated at 1 per cent of global GDP. But his conclusions have been dogged by controversy since their release, the harshest critics calling them biased and alarmist.

The commission paper said some criticisms of the report were justified. The use of high emissions scenarios, pessimistic assumptions on damage costs, and an unconventional method of calculating current and future costs and benefits all tended to "escalate the present value of future costs", it noted.

Sir Nicholas last year appealed to Australia to cut emissions by 30per cent by 2020 -- a call then prime minister John Howard rejected on the basis it would cause thousands of job losses in the coal industry.

An Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics report earlier said the nation's GDP would fall by about 2.5 per cent by 2050 if emissions were cut by 40 per cent. Labor has promised to cut emissions by 60 per cent on 2000 levels by that date. The Garnaut review, due to report in draft form in June, is likely to look at the economic impact of shorter-term targets. Climate Change Minister Penny Wong would not comment on the conclusions of the Productivity Commission document, saying only that she welcomed any paper that contributed to Australia's understanding of climate change impacts. "We will draw on a range of analysis in designing the Government's response to climate change -- including modelling from Professor Garnaut and the Treasury," she said.


A cure for malaria: Almost certain to be blocked by superstitious Greenies

Researchers have recently conscripted a gene for a toxin from a sea cucumber, of all things, in the fight against malaria. Inserting this gene into mosquitoes creates a toxic environment for the malaria-causing parasite that usually lives happily in a mosquito's gut. These tweaks make it impossible for malaria to be passed from human to human via mosquito.

In order for this scheme to work, the modified mosquitoes have to outbreed normal mosquitoes in the wild. This has been the main challenge for scientists thus far. But the current generation proves to be surprisingly robust in a caged trial, dominating the mosquito population at 70 percent in the ninth generation when feeding on malarial blood. In fact, killing the malaria-causing parasite may actually give the genetically-modified mosquitoes an edge by allowing them to live longer and lay more eggs, according to the scientists at the Malaria Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "This fitness advantage has important implications for devising malaria control strategies," they write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The lab-made mosquitoes aren't quite good enough yet-they don't outbreed regular mosquitoes on a diet of regular blood. But the concept has undeniable appeal, right? Let a few genetically freakish mosquitoes into the population and then sit back and watch as they outbreed their treacherous, malaria-carrying brothers and sisters.

So far, the criticism has been fairly muted, and the researchers themselves are being cautious and circumspect, saying that it could be as long as ten years from now before release into the wild is a possibility. "What we did was a laboratory, proof-of-principle experiment; we're not anywhere close to releasing them into the wild right now," said study co-author Dr. Jason Rasgon from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "There is quite a lot of research that needs to be done, both in terms of genetics and the ecology of the mosquitoes; and also research to address all the social, ethical and legal issues associated with releasing transgenic organisms into the environment," he said.

But even with that cautious note in the air, many are already seeing visions of the worst possible outcome. "Once new species get out of their ecosystem and they are not kept in check by other processes that's when they start to cause mayhem," Deborah Long of Plantlife Scotland told the Guardian. Respected groups like the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology are standing by previous statements[PDF] about the possible problems caused by GM insects. "The mobility and range of insects pose international regulatory challenges never faced with GM crops," they wrote in 2004.

In response to initial announcements about the modified mosquitos, the Guardian's James Randerson wrote "it will probably be the perception of risk rather than the actual risks that are important. GM-crops were scuppered in Europe by the what-if fears: in the end, the scientific assessment did not matter." Sadly, he's right.

Lots of study and lots of caution are appropriate, of course, but this is the beginning of storyline that is already too familiar. The logic of bans on DDT, pest-resistant GM crops, and other technological solutions to human problems will be applied here too, and Africa will suffer for our timidity....

And while we worry about what might happen to the ecosystem if we release a mosquito with a small change in its genes, millions of people roll in their beds (or on mats on the floor), fevered and ill. We shouldn't release modified mosquitoes before they are ready. But when they are ready and the inevitable invocation of the precautionary principle comes, we should try to weigh the caution we are used to being able to afford against the real suffering of real people whose lives are so different from our own that it is difficult to comprehend.


Lawyers Embrace U.S. Global-Warming Practice at $700 an Hour

Lawyers are becoming some of the best-paid environmentalists. Twenty of the 100 highest-grossing U.S. law firms have started practices advising companies on climate change, according to a Bloomberg survey of the firms' Web sites. The attorneys help clients finance clean-energy projects and lobby Congress, typically billing $500 to $700 an hour. Firms including Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Heller Ehrman and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton joined the global warming cause as real-estate and structured-finance attorneys lost jobs to the worst U.S. housing slump in 27 years.

The move into climate-change law is gaining traction as Congress considers a mandatory carbon market to curb greenhouse gas emissions. ``Since the elections last November, climate change has had a higher profile as a political issue,'' said Paul Gutermann, co- leader of Washington-based Akin Gump's group, which comprises 50 of the firm's 1,023 attorneys. Gutermann's team is helping clients including PG&E Corp. push U.S. lawmakers to establish a market that uses so-called carbon credits to penalize heavy polluters financially.

Senators John Warner and Joseph Lieberman introduced a bill inspired by Europe's carbon market, and attorneys predict some legislation will pass after President George W. Bush, who opposes mandatory caps on emissions, leaves office in a year. Global warming, driven by heat-trapping gases, is causing Arctic ice to melt and sea levels to rise, a United Nations panel of scientists said last year. International reaction has sparked interest in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, making energy use more efficient and adding to non-polluting power sources.

Baker & McKenzie, a Chicago-based firm with 3,335 lawyers, was a pioneer, creating a climate-change group a decade ago. It became profitable after two years, said Richard Saines, who heads the U.S. part of the practice. The 60-lawyer team brought in estimated revenue of $15 million to $20 million in 2007, Saines said. The firm's total revenue in 2006 was $1.52 billion, according to the trade magazine American Lawyer. ``We saw this as one of the key international-law issues that would affect U.S.-based multinationals,'' Saines said. ``And that is now the case.'' ....

Climate-change attorneys also advise private-equity firms and hedge funds on clean-energy projects. Worldwide investments in sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar and water power rose 43 percent to $70.9 billion in 2006, according to a UN report. Wind Projects In the U.S., more than $4 billion was invested in wind projects alone, according to Chadbourne's Zaelke, who specializes in financing and developing wind farms.

One of Zaelke's clients, John Deere Renewables, has invested more than $500 million since 2005 in community wind farms in seven states. The company, part of the financial services arm of Des Moines, Iowa-based Deere & Co., gets advice on supply agreements, project development and tax structures, said David Drescher, general manager of John Deere Wind Energy. "They've been to a lot of wind farms", Drescher said.

More here

The warm jungles of ancient France

Chemical analyses of amber excavated near Paris suggest that France was covered with a dense tropical forest about 55 million years ago. Amber is a form of fossilized tree sap. Paleontologists discovered copious deposits of the material in the sediments of the Oise River basin, about 50 kilometers north of Paris, in 1997.

Fossils in those strata, which were laid down between 55 million and 53 million years ago, are diverse and exceptionally preserved, says Akino Jossang, a biochemist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. More than 300 species of arthropods have been found entombed in the Oise amber.

Jossang and her colleagues measured how samples of the Oise amber absorbed various wavelengths of infrared radiation. Results did not match those for Baltic amber, so the researchers used dichloromethane to extract organic compounds from French amber samples. One of those chemicals-named quesnoin-isn't found in other amber, the team reports in the Jan. 18 Journal of Organic Chemistry.

One precursor of quesnoin, a substance called isoozic acid, is produced in small quantities by several types of plants but in abundance by Hymenaea oblongifolia, a tropical tree that lives only in the Amazon rainforest. Other ancient Hymenaea species are suspected to have produced Dominican amber. The presence of a presumably tropical plant species in France 55 million years ago, when the region was located at a latitude equal to that of modern-day New Orleans, hints that Earth's climate was much warmer then than it is now.

Science News, Vol. 173, No. 2, Jan. 12, 2008, p. 30.


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