Wednesday, December 27, 2006

New book about how overfishing is changing the world

Red grouper photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Mercury is not the only reason to select fish in your diet very carefully.

Charles Clover, environment editor of London's Daily Telegraph, presents convincing evidence that 75% of the world's fish populations are overfished. His new book, The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, predicts that fish stocks will collapse, irreversibly, within 50 years.

Our current rate of depletion of fish populations is due in part to more efficient fish-locating technologies such as global positioning systems, sonar, and 3-dimensional underwater mapping. In addition, modern fish harvesting methods such as blast fishing, gill nets and long-lines bring in bigger and bigger catches including nontargeted species. According to one study Clover cites, 90% of large oceanic fish have disappeared since 1950.

Clover writes that the responsibility lies, in part, with countries that continue to permit illegal fishing, such as Japan and Spain. Also to blame are the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and the European Union. The responsibility is shared by chefs and restaurants that continue to feature endangered species on their menus, "the marine equivalent of the panda, the rhino, and the Great Apes." This includes high-end restaurants in the United States.

Also, of course, we as consumers are to blame. If we stopped eating fish whose populations are in danger, then trawlers, chefs, groceries, and restaurants would have no incentive to provide them. This includes canned tuna and wild salmon.

What can we do? Read Charles Clover's book and pass it on. Or, before buying fish, check for recent updates on the Oceans Alive website or on Environmental Defense's online guide to fish consumption. The online guides offer species-specific info on fish contamination with heavy metals such as mercury (44 or 45 states in the U.S. have issued mercury warnings for fish consumers) and current info on which fish populations are overfished.

We can also support the creation of fish preserves - huge areas of ocean that are off-limits to fishing so that fish populations can recover. Not only are fish populations at stake, but also the countless marine birds and mammals, such as whales, sea lions, sea otters etc, whose food webs depend upon oceanic fish.


Friday, December 22, 2006

It's getting hot in here

How about an avocado tree for Christmas?

Your gardening loved ones are in luck this holiday season. New data from the National Climactic Data Center indicates that hardiness zones – climate regions determined by lowest annual temperature – have shifted significantly in all fifty states since 1990.

While the USDA has yet to comment on the new data or offer updated zone maps, just this week the National Arbor Foundation has released maps delineating the redefined hardiness zones. The Foundation’s news release affirms that the new data “is consistent with the consensus of climate scientists that global warming is underway.”

The new data reflect the lowest annual temperatures as recorded at 5000 research stations for the past fifteen years. Nationwide, the changes are dramatic. Entire states have changed zones since 1990. Iowa, for instance, was once more than half Zone 4, with an average annual low of -30 to -20 degrees. Now, the entire state is reclassified Zone 5, with a low of just -10 to -20. Much of the Northeast is now Zone 6 (-10 to 0 degrees), while Zone 7 spreads across the South.

Agricultural extension agents affirm that adventurous gardeners now stand a chance at growing palms and other tropical plants. Warm-weather plants previously restricted to the South, such as the lovely winter-blooming camellia, are now creeping across the Mason-Dixon line.

Meanwhile, however, cold-weather plants are struggling to keep their cool. North Carolina cooperative extension agent Karen Neill notes that white pines in her area have struggled recent years; not surprising when the ten hottest days on record have all occurred since 1990, as Arbor Day spokesman Woody Nelson notes.

Changes in plant distribution may have serious affects across the food chain. As plant species change in abundance, the animals that depend on them for food and shelter will also be forced to adapt. Humans, too, may feel unexpected impacts. Scientists expect that continued climate change may seriously impact farming and crop distribution.

To see the maps for yourself, check out the Arbor Day Foundation’s website. The Foundation recommends planting trees as a means of combating this change. Trees remove carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, from the atmosphere, and provide shade that keeps the ground cool and reduces energy use.

By Sara Kate Kneidel

Keywords: hardiness zones, climate change, global warming

Research shows older females preferred as mates

photo of Flo the chimp courtesy of

Male Chimps Prefer Older Females

"Wrinkled skin, ragged ears, irregular bald patches, broken teeth, and elongated nipples. For these guys, nothing beats the sex appeal of an old female," writes Bruce Bower in Science News*.

That is, if the guys and the gals are chimpanzees.

Anthropologist Martin Muller of Boston University and his team of researchers in Uganda's Kibale National Park have found that male chimpanzees prefer female chimps over the age of 30, perhaps because of their demonstrated success at surviving and at raising offspring.

Chimps are promiscuous - both sexes mate with many partners. The scientists measured male interest in females of different ages by tracking the chimps' copulation and other sexual behavior. Male chimps mated significantly more often with females age 30 or older than with younger females. Even the oldest female, at 55, attracted much more interest than did young females of 15 to 20 years of age.

In addition, females over 30 attracted more attention from groups of males during their fertile periods and were more often the objects of fights between males than were younger females.

Why? The mating game has evolved differently in humans and chimps, says Dr. Muller. Because humans form long-term sexual relationships, "men tend to look for women's physical signs of youth, which signal childbearing potential for years to come."

Since chimps don't form long-term sexual partnerships, male chimps may father more offspring if they seek females most likely to have immediate reproductive success.

Although humans may not be conscious of these underlying motivations when choosing a mate, the preferences have become imbedded in our culture, and may be innate to some degree, some anthropologists speculate.

Anne E. Pusey of the University of Minnesota directs ongoing research into chimpanzee behavior at Tanzania's Gombe National Park. She corroborates Dr. Muller's observations. "Once Gombe females give birth to infants, they become more attractive to males," Pusey says.

Interesting to think that the human obsession with young females and youthful sex characteristics has its evolutionary basis in our long-term relationships. What if our mating patterns were more similar to those of chimps?

Perhaps our fixation on smooth taut skin is much more artibrary than it seems.

Bruce Bower. "Age becomes her." Science News 170: 341. November 25, 2006.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Commodity promotion programs: What’s the beef?

Government-sanctioned promotion programs, known as checkoff programs, aim to increase consumption of commodities such as dairy, beef, and pork but, according to one food economist, the messages are inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Checkoff programs; even if you don’t know what they are, you’ve probably felt their impact in recent years. Does “Got Milk?” sound familiar? How about “Pork. The other white meat?” These advertising campaigns are the result of government-sanctioned promotion programs, known as checkoff programs. The campaigns aim to increase consumption of commodities such as dairy, beef, and pork. But, according to an opinion piece, (Wilde, PE. Obesity. June 2006; 14 (6): 967-973. “Federal Communication about Obesity in the Dietary Guidelines and Checkoff Programs.”) authored by Parke Wilde, PhD, a food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the messages sent out by these advertising campaigns are inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“The [checkoff] programs are established by Congress, approved by a majority of the commodity’s producers, managed jointly by a producer board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and funded through a tax on the producers,” Wilde writes. “The largest food commodity checkoff programs are for meat and dairy products,” he continues.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that most people consume more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products and, overall, moderately reduce the total number of calories consumed. Checkoff programs, on the other hand, promote consumption of beef, pork, and dairy products. Particular checkoff programs, Wilde points out, have promoted such calorie-heavy foods as bacon cheeseburgers, barbecue pork ribs and butter.

“The most striking feature of the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005, is the publication’s increased emphasis on obesity prevention,” Wilde writes. “At the same time,” he says, “federal support for promoting fruits and vegetables is small compared to federal support for pork and dairy.”

“One must ask whether it is possible to eat more beef, more pork, more cheese, and more eggs, in answer to checkoff advertising, while simultaneously consuming more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, in answer to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and still reduce caloric intake to reach or maintain a healthy body weight,” observes Wilde.

“The government’s stand in this matter is important,” says Wilde, “because federal communication about nutrition is supposed to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

“The federal government enforces the collection of more than $600 million annually in mandatory assessments, approves the advertising and marketing programs, and defends checkoff communication in court as the federal government’s own message—in legal jargon, as its own ‘government speech,’” writes Wilde.

The ‘government speech’ issue arose when some farmers objected to the checkoff programs on First Amendment grounds, claiming that the programs forced the farmers to support a particular commercial message. However, in May 2005, the United States Supreme Court declared checkoff advertising “government speech,” thereby absolving it of constitutional objection. In the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that the checkoff messages are “from beginning to end” the message of the federal government.

“Now that checkoff programs are clearly identified as federal government programs, calls for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans may get louder,” says Wilde. “One solution would be for Congress to pass a resolution simply declaring that the federal government’s ‘speech’ about good guidance and nutrition must in its entirety be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” proposes Wilde. “After the Supreme Court’s recent endorsement of this government speech doctrine, the current inconsistencies between the government’s message in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and in the checkoff promotions deserve renewed attention.”


Thursday, December 14, 2006

High IQ children more likely to become vegetarian

Intelligent children may be more likely to be vegetarian as adults, suggests a study published online by the BMJ Friday 12/15.

Recent evidence suggests that vegetarianism may be linked to lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of obesity and heart disease. This might help to explain why children who score higher on intelligence tests tend to have a lower risk of coronary heart disease in later life.

The study involved 8179 men and women aged 30 years whose IQ was tested at age 10 years.

Twenty years later, 366 (4.5%) of participants said they were vegetarian. Of these, 9 (2.5%) were vegan and 123 (33.6%) stated they were vegetarian but reported eating fish or chicken.

Vegetarians were more likely to be female, to be of higher occupational social class and to have higher academic or vocational qualifications than non-vegetarians, although these differences were not reflected in their annual income, which was similar to that of non-vegetarians.

Higher IQ at the age of 10 years was associated with an increased likelihood of being vegetarian at the age of 30. This relation was partly accounted for by better education and higher occupational social class, but it remained statistically significant after adjusting for these factors.

There was no difference in IQ score between strict vegetarians and those who said they were vegetarian but who reported eating fish or chicken.

The finding that children with greater intelligence are more likely to report being vegetarian as adults, together with the evidence on the potential benefits of a vegetarian diet on heart health, may help to explain why higher IQ in childhood or adolescence is linked with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease in adult life, write the authors.

Alternatively, the link may be merely an example of many other lifestyle preferences that might be expected to vary with intelligence, but which may or may not have implications for health, they conclude.

Click here to view paper:

Click here to view full contents for this week's print journal:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rice harvests threatened by pollution, global warming

A new report appearing in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNS) suggests that air pollution may be responsible for the decline of rice crops in some of the world’s most impoverished regions.

Rice harvests increased dramatically in India and parts of Asia during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 70s. However, harvest growth has slowed since the mid-1980s, raising concerns that food shortages might once again return to plague these densely populated regions.

Maximilian Auffhammer at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources along with V. “Ram” Ramanathan and Jeffery Vincent, researchers at UC San Diego compared historical data on rice harvests in India to the presence of atmospheric brown clouds (ABCs), which form soot and other fine particles in the air (collectively termed aerosols), and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

Ramanathan, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography had previously led a team of international scientists in a study of the effect of increased “brown cloud” pollution on the Indian subcontinent. The conclusion from that study was that, while aerosols made the climate drier and cooler, conditions, which threaten rice production, greenhouse gases were warming the climate, potentially good for rice growing.

“Greenhouse gases and aerosols in brown clouds are known to be competing factors in global warming,” said Ramanathan. “The major finding of this interdisciplinary study is that their effects on rice production are additive, which is clearly an unwelcome surprise.”

Auffhammer, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics, added, “While this study focuses on India's rain-fed states, ABCs exist throughout Asia’s main rice-producing countries, many of which, have experienced decreasing growth rates in harvests, too. Furthering our understanding of how air pollution affects agricultural output is very important to ensure food security in the world’s most populous region.”

by Harlan Weikle


The research paper is the result of a three-year collaboration between Auffhammer, Ramanathan and Vincent. Their work was supported in part by the Giannini Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and IGCC.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Boycott of Smithfield meats

God, things are looking up!

This past Thursday, workers from the world's largest hog slaughterhouse picketed a major supermarket in Charlotte, pressuring the food store (Harris Teeter) to stop carrying Smithfield meats.

Yay! What a wonderful piece of news!

Workers at the Smithfield processing plant in Tar Heel, NC, slaughter 32,000 hogs every single day. The plant is notorious for labor abuses. Just a couple of weeks ago the plant fired about 40 immigrant laborers. The alleged reason was that the workers had bogus social security numbers. But it has been well-documented that Smithfield fires immigrant workers for complaining about safety issues, such as when the production line speeds up. Smithfield also has a well-documented history of firing laborers seen talking to union representatives. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has been trying to unionize the Smithfield workers for decades. In 1997, the workers voted not to unionize, but the results were thrown out by the US Circuit Court of Appeals, noting "intense and widespread coercion prevalent" at the slaughterhouse. The company, and the Tar Heel plant in particular, have been criticized by the National Labor Relations Board for intimidation, firing and spying on workers.

One worker, quoted in the Charlotte Observer, said that laborers at the plant work in freezing temperatures with knives, frequently cutting each other. Workers who stay out too long with injuries are fired.

See the Human Rights Watch document, Blood Sweat and Fear, for more info about Smithfield's labor abuses.

Smithfield is also notorious for environmental and animal abuses associated with the factory farms where their hogs are raised. Massive spills from hog waste lagoons have been tracked by NC State scientists for dozens of miles, as the waste oozes into rivers. The brown plume from a spill can be followed for days as it's carried downriver to coastal estuaries. For more details about the environmental offenses of North Carolina's hog industry, see Veggie Revolution. NC is a good place to make a stand. Our state is second in the nation (after Iowa) in the number of hogs; we have more hogs than people. In fact, just the coastal plain of NC has twice as many hogs as there are people in NYC. And even though each hog makes 4 times the waste of an adult human, the hog waste receives no treatment at all. It's stored in lagoons until it can be sprayed onto crop fields. That is the only legal recourse for getting rid of it.

Smithfield is now building factory hog farms in Poland, because the country lacks environmental and labor protection to stifle the industry. In fact, Smithfield's president referred to Poland as "the Iowa of Europe." The next vulnerable frontier for the meatpacker's market expansion.

If you want to help, go to and attend one of the upcoming protests in 11 N.C. cities.

If you want to help more, eat less meat, eat less ham and pork and bacon. If you do buy these products, seek pastured or organic meat products instead of Smithfield's.

Some of the info in this post came from the following article:
Kerry Hall. "Labor shops for an ally." The Charlotte Observer. December 1, 2006.