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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 11, 2001

Air Date: May 11, 2001

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Energy Plan

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SUV Skit

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Health Note

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Lobster Lady

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Diver Dan

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News Follow-Up

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Technology Note

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Golden Rice

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Wae Rebo

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This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Transcript

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Energy Plan

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

BUSH: If we fail to act on this plan, energy prices will continue to rise. For two decades the share of the average family budget spent on energy steadily declined. But since 1998, it has skyrocketed by twenty-five percent. And that's a hardship for every American family.

CURWOOD: President Bush formally presenting his long-awaited energy plan at a high-efficiency power plant in Minneapolis. Some praise the energy blueprint for its call for more oil refineries and tax credits for purchasing hybrid vehicles. But some criticize its emphasis on oil drilling, nuclear power and weaker environmental regulations. The President has repeatedly sighted oil, gas and electric power shortages as a reason to push through his new plan. He says the nation faces an energy crisis. Joining me is Henry Jacoby, a Professor of Management at MIT's Sloan School and an expert in the energy industry. Professor Jacoby, is there an energy crisis?

JACOBY: We do have a number of local problems that I think qualify as crises. California has a crisis. There are potential electric power problems in the east that you might call a crisis if they come to that stage. What I find a little odd is the notion that we face a crisis in world, or overall, oil supply, which we don't. I think that somehow that spector is being dragged up at this time, but there's no crisis in world oil. There's no crisis in natural gas supply. There's no crisis in coal supply. We have a set of domestic systems problems that are creating this circumstance.

CURWOOD: Tell me more. I mean, what's in it for the President to say that there is a shortage if they're disconnected, as you say.

JACOBY: They may be able to get more political support by creating this notion that there's some broader crisis. In fact, if you look at the report, they have this notion that there's this big gap between our supply and demand domestically so we're gonna be importing more and more. Well, we've known that now for thirty years. This has been going on for a long, long time. There's nothing particularly different this year from five years ago, or ten years ago, or fifteen years ago. The current domestic electric power problem and some of the gasoline prices creates a kind of a moment, I guess, when they think they can achieve some of the things that this administration thinks need to be done in the energy sector.

CURWOOD: You say the Bush administration here is pushing the notion of a crisis so they can, perhaps, get something done. What is it that they want to get done? What do they want to do?

JACOBY: The major underlying thread here, as I see it, is clearing out regulatory underbrush and perhaps chopping down some of the larger regulatory trees. A lot of this is regulatory reform.

CURWOOD: Give me a couple of examples.

JACOBY: Well, I made a brief list. They involve both reform and regulation of federal properties and other types of regulatory schemes. By the way, I'm not against all of these. It's identifying what is actually underlying this. Um, there's potential change in the management of federal lands and opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. There's a potential change in the regulation of the off-shore continental shelf. There's a potential change in the leasing of lands for geothermal. Speeding the permitting of refineries. The federal power to take land to build transmission lines. A change in the structure and speeding the potential re-licensing of existing nuclear power plants. Expediting the procedures for licensing regulation of new nuclear technologies. Reform in the leasing policies for hydroelectric power. These are all what I would call regulatory reform. Domestic regulatory reform--some good, some bad. Of course, as always, the devil is in the details.

CURWOOD: Now, what would be the upshot of this regulatory reform? How much would these reductions and regulations hurt the environment, do you think?

JACOBY: Well, here's where I say again, the devil's in the details. You don't really know the answer to that until you see exactly what they're going to do. But, if you believe that the ability of environmental groups, local interest groups, particular local neighborhood groups, whoever, their ability to get into the process and slow things down, if you view that as part of environmental protection, then, yes. Then, a lot of this is to clear that and smooth it out of the way.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about gas prices now, Professor Jacoby. How much of a crisis are we in now in the supply of gasoline?

JACOBY: Well, it depends on what you call a crisis. We have high prices. There's all the gasoline you want to buy at the price that's there. They won't stay at these levels. It's a problem of insufficient inventories, which has to do with the history of the last few months and the cold weather, not enough refinery capacity. It's a long and detailed story, but the main point to make is it's a temporary situation.

CURWOOD: By the way, how bad is it really in the gasoline market? I mean, how do prices compare today as to historic situations?

JACOBY: If you go back sort of a year, eighteen months, they're roughly twice what they were, because we were at a very low period just after the Asian financial crisis and the like. If you look back historically, prices now corrected for inflation, let's say if you adjusted for the Consumer Price Index, they're not higher than they were in the early 1970s and the early 1980s.

CURWOOD: Now how much would increased domestic drilling affect price at the pump, do you think, Professor?

JACOBY: Very small, I think. The price at the pump is influenced by the cost of the refinery, distribution, all of that, added on top of the cost of oil. Now, what determines the cost of oil? The cost of oil, the price of oil is being determined in a world market. The huge world market, which is many times the size of the United States, manipulated by an international cartel. So that 100,000 barrels more or less coming out of the ground in the United States may have some small effect on the world price over five or ten years, but basically, it's insignificantly small because we are a player in a huge world market. And the price that we see that is the oil part of the gasoline price, is being determined by the global market, not by what goes on in the United States.

CURWOOD: Now, just about everyone agrees that we should reduce dependence on foreign oil. The president's response is to increase domestic supplies. Of course, one could also reduce demand. What do you think?

JACOBY: Ultimately, the amount that we can produce of oil in the United States is declining. I mean, there have been more oil wells drilled in the United States in the last hundred years than all the rest of the world put together. And we are dealing with a gradually depleting resource and we can fight against that, but basically we are going to be more and more dependant on foreign sources and if you wanted to reduce that, then the demand side is the place where the potential action is.

CURWOOD: So, what would you do if you were in charge here, faced with the circumstances we're looking at right now?

JACOBY: I think there's a big inconsistency in the president's scheme. If we want to have conservation, if we want to have efficiency, if we want to have new technologies, the way to get it is to have the price be higher. And there's an inconsistency between the desire to have this conservation in lowering use, at the same time that you desire not to pay for it. The scheme, as it's been portrayed in the press, and as I read it, is essentially a supply-side scheme with some demand things that were going on already increased and given a little more push. So, if you really want to deal with the problems they're talking about, then you're going to have to deal with the demand side. And the demand side is not getting very great attention here.

CURWOOD: Henry Jacoby is Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology's Sloan School of Management. Thanks for taking this time.

JACOBY: Pleased to be here.

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SUV Skit

CURWOOD: In these days of high gasoline prices, the Japanese hybrid cars that get 50 miles to the gallon might sound pretty appealing. But the tiny production runs so far make it difficult to get behind the wheel of one. US automakers are proceeding with research and development, but not all believe they'll be able to sell a lot of these vehicles. Gloria Bergquist from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says most new hybrid owners fit in the category of early adopters.

BERGQUEST: And those are the people who want to be the first on their block with the latest and who are very proud of it and who talk it up to all of their friends, until it becomes more familiar. That's the market that they're really tapping into right now and eventually as word circulates, more folks are going to be interested in these vehicles.

CURWOOD: Gas mileage is just one part of the current debate playing out in corporate boardrooms, Capitol Hill corridors and in places where the final choices are made--America's kitchens. Let's listen in now on one family at home on New England's beloved Lake Woe-Be-Us.

(A radio dial twiddles to different stations)

PRESIDENT BUSH: Some think that conservation means doing without. That does not have to be the case.

(Radio dial twiddles)

SUE: Here you go, Bob. Sunday paper, morning coffee.

BOB: Hey, Sue, know what I've been thinking?

SUE: Uh -- Red Sox need you as a closing pitcher?

BOB: Nah, nah, nah. We need a new car.

SUE: Oh. But the Toyota is still running fine.

BOB: It's old. It's ugly. It's totally rusted out. You can't even get a magnet to stick to it. I mean, look at this ad. Magnum power SUVs, $200 over dealer invoice.

SUE: Oh, but Bob, an SUV? What about the mileage? Gas is pushing two dollars a gallon.

BOB: Mileage? They've got huge gas tanks. You could get 300, 400 miles between fill-ups.

SUE: That's not what I mean. Look at this headline: "Energy Crisis Mandates Conservation."

BOB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the White House says conservation is not the answer. They say we've got to drill more wells up in Alaska, build more refineries.

SUE: Oh, right. Ruin the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with drilling rigs just so Bob can drive his fat SUV around town like some old geezer? Is that Bob's energy policy?

BOB: Even the White House says we have to preserve the American way of life.

SUE: Oh, yeah, where the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world's oil but has only about five percent of its population?

BOB: Don't try to trick me with numbers!

SUE: They're facts, Bob.

BOB: Besides, they're going to raise the SUV mileage efficiency standards. What is it, that -- oh yeah, the coffee thing.

SUE: No, it's CAFE. It says here they'll reclassify SUVs from trucks to cars and require them to be more fuel efficient. That's going to take years to implement, and in the meantime I will not be caught dead in a gas-guzzling SUV!

BOB: Why not? SUVs are a whole lot safer than those itsy-bitsy economy jobbies.

SUE: Economy. Now you're talking. Hey, let me see those car ads.

BOB: Okay, but I will not ride in a car with bigger miles per gallon number than its top speed number.

SUE: Hey, look at this. A hybrid that runs on electricity and gas. It averages 50 miles per gallon, and it even comes in -- lavender!

BOB: Lavender. Oh my god. Yeah, sure, 50 miles a gallon, probably 40 miles an hour top speed. That's exactly what I mean.

SUE: Yeah, me, too. Exactly.

BOB: I don't want a car I need a shoehorn to get into.

SUE: You can lose weight.

BOB: Sue --

SUE: Diet.

BOB: Sue --

SUE: Give up beer and chips.

BOB: Sue, cut it out! Give me back that auto section!

SUE: No. I'm going down to check these out. Let's see. Evergreen Auto, where we care about the environment…

(door slams)

BOB: (Sighs) What have I started here? Oh, my. Where's the sports section? Damn. The Red Sox lost. They do need me as a closing pitcher. Hey, Sue! Can you get me a beer and some chips? Sue? Sue?...

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: The Lake Woe-Be-Us Players are Liz Bulkley national senior editor at Public Interactive in Boston, and Russ Thibeault, an economist and president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, New Hampshire.

Coming up: The secret life of young lobsters. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey.

(Health note theme up and under)

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Health Note

TOOMEY: A study from the University of California, Irvine, indicates that gender may play a role in skin cancer. Researchers analyzed more than 100,000 records of cancer patients from a ten-year period. They found, as expected, that the incidence of melanoma increased as people age. And that held true for both men and women, until the age of 40. At that point, two things happened. The rate for men rose dramatically, but the rate for women leveled off. What's more, this plateau held steady until the age of 60. The researchers say this is the first study that shows gender differences in the pattern of contracting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. But researchers are at a loss to explain why this is happening. They think altered hormonal levels may play a role. So understanding this apparent period of relative protection may provide clues about preventing melanoma. In the meantime, researchers say public education and screening campaigns should be directed in part toward older men, since melanoma is survivable when detected early. That's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Tosca, "The F Word Dub, Parts 1&2")

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And a one, and a two, and a three...

(Music up and under: The Oompah Band, "Lustig Ist Das Zigeunerleben")

CURWOOD: It's National Asparagus Month. And this member of the lily family is at the peak of its growing season. Now, you may think this bushel of sprouts may be just another green in your local grocery store, but in Europe it's the prize of the platter. For example, from April to June, German restaurants display special spargelkartes, asparagus menus, along with their regular culinary fare. The Germans call asparagus the aristocrat of vegetables. That's because the season for fresh white asparagus is so short, it's the most expensive vegetable on the market. The asparagus frenzy is so great that last year Berlin's city government even established spargelschulen, asparagus schools, for unemployed Germans to learn how to harvest asparagus. They pick the white delicacy underground, where it's purposefully grown to prevent any green chlorophyll from forming. For some people, eating this royal vegetable can produce a less than regal odor. Asparagus contains a small amount of the same sulfur compound that makes eggs rotten and skunks stinky. And many people find it can give their urine a peculiar scent. But not everyone. Thanks to genetic variation, some folks can consume asparagus without generating an unwelcome aroma, and others can't smell it at all. For them, asparagus might as well be a rose. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Lobster Lady

CURWOOD: Lobsters are just about the biggest part of the fishing industry in Maine, with sales of nearly $200 million last year. But for a long time, nobody really knew where the young lobsters would go once they were hatched. That is, until Diane Cowan came along. Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit caught up with the biologist one cold night when she was out flipping rocks at low tide.

(Splashes)

SCHALIT: It's dark. It's windy. It's cold. And it takes somebody pretty much obsessed with their work to be out here under these conditions.

COWAN: This happens to be my favorite place on earth. This scatter of rocks right through here. Because this has the highest density of lobsters, juvenile lobsters, anywhere that's been found. So it's a very special place, and I'm hoping we'll find some tonight.

(Splashes)

SCHALIT: Conditions here at Lowell's Cove, halfway up the coast of Maine, are perfect for lobster hunting. The extremely low tide has exposed the mud flats and rocks on this beach, and it's those rocks -- well, really what's under those rocks -- that Diane Cowan is after. Dressed in a Harvey suit, a lobsterman's long underwear, the 40-year-old Cowan is armed with everything from calipers and nets to a waterproof notebook and even a hypodermic needle. She is systematically examining one meter square areas of beach, turning over rocks.

(Splashes)

COWAN: There is a scale worm, which is lepadumotis. Oh -- let's see. (Scrapes) Some of the rocks are embedded in the substrate, and I won't be able to turn them over. But everything I can turn over, I will.

SCHALIT: Cowan found this cove nine years ago on a fluke. She was looking for a place to go kayaking and parked at a little boat ramp near the picturesque spot. Walking down to the water, she spied two young boys flipping over rocks.

COWAN: And I asked them what they were doing, and they said that they were playing with the baby lobsters. And I just about -- I don't know, fainted or something. Because I knew that people were looking all over for where the lobsters settle. And here they were.

SCHALIT: Cowan, already a lobster researcher, had stumbled on the motherlode of her career. Up until that point, conventional scientific thinking held that young lobsters lived out in deeper water, not in the in-shore mudflats. What Cowan found was that in fact the juvenile lobsters were settling here, not just out in deeper water.

COWAN: I found one! Yes. Hello, lobbie! Do you see it? Ahh...

SCHALIT: This may be the only lobster in Lowell's Cove tonight. In the summer they're under every rock, dozens of them. But during the winter, Cowan surmises that they move out to deeper water, except for this tiny fellow.

COWAN: And the little lobster looks just like a miniature lobster. It has the two claws, but this lobster has one claw that's smaller than the other...

SCHALIT: The entire length of the beast is perhaps two inches. The water under the rock where Cowan found him is warmer than the air, and he'll freeze if he's kept out for too long. So Cowan rushes back to her pack basket and supplies. In the eight years she's been looking at lobsters throughout New England, she and her volunteers have tagged more than 10,000 with tiny pieces of bar-coded metal no larger than a grain of sand. She inserts them in their legs with a hypodermic needle. The tags allow her to follow the progress of individual lobsters over the years. And Diane Cowan has been following lobsters for a very long time.

COWAN: I wrote a paper for a ninth grade English class on lobsters. I called it "Lobsters, An In-Depth Study." And ironically (laughs) almost everything I wrote in that paper I've done something with.

SCHALIT: Her classmates started calling her "The Lobster Lady," and it's a name that's stuck for good reason. Cowan and only a handful of other scientists are pioneers in lobster research. That's because very little is actually known about the life cycle of a lobster.

COWAN: In other ways, we know so much. We have a great deal of data on the industry. The size lobsters that come up in traps we know quite a bit about. We know a lot about this organism's physiology, neurobiology, because it's a great lab rat. So a lot of laboratory research has been done with it. But its behavior in nature and its natural ecology isn't that well studied. And probably for obvious reasons. It's a cold water animal, it's nocturnally active. It's not an easy animal to study in nature.

(Splashes)

SCHALIT: But Cowan has made it her business to do just that, even quitting her university teaching job because it interfered with getting out to the shore. Her science has real-world applications. For years, fisheries managers have used what those in the lobster industry call an arcane mathematical model to predict the size of lobster catches and limit lobstermen's take. These models have been predicting a crash for years, despite the fact that lobster catches have actually gone up consistently throughout the last century. Cowan and a handful of other researchers are providing the first real data on where young lobsters settle.

COWAN: So, by knowing how many lobsters are settling in a year, and comparing year to year settlement densities, was this a good year for lobster settlement, a bad year for lobster settlement, we can say well, maybe then, some odd years down the line there will be a good year for the lobster industry, there will be a bad year, the catch will be up or down.

SCHALIT: Cowan considers herself a scientist first and foremost, but her concern for both the lobsters and lobster fishermen sometimes takes her away from the water.

COWAN: (Sighs) I am -- I'm torn in some ways. I love science, and I do this because I'm a scientist. But I also care a lot about the lobster industry, the people who make their living from it, and I care a lot about the success of the lobsters throughout their lives. So, although my favorite thing to do is science, sometimes I feel compelled to do a little bit of advocacy. The lobsters can't speak for themselves, and if I see a threat to them, I'll try to speak for them.

SCHALIT: But right now, back at the cove, Cowan's immediate concern is getting one little lobster back home. First, she has to see whether this is a lobster she's tagged before.

COWAN: Okay. We tag -- the tags I put in the lobster are magnetic. So I will run this magnet over the lobster to recharge the tag in case it's lost its magnetism, and then run it past this detector, which is really a metal, magnetic metal detector. And it emits a beep if there's a tag in the lobster.

SCHALIT: There's no beep, so this is one she hasn't captured before. But Cowan won't take the time to tag this lobster. She's afraid it's been out of the water too long. She measures the lobster's length, examines him, and concludes that he's actually a her, writes all of this down as well as the size and location of the rock under which she found it. Now, it's time to put the lobster back.

COWAN: This is such a large rock, and I don't want to crush the lobster. I'll put the rock back first, and then get the lobster to climb back under it. All right. So I just put him tail first under his rock, because they like to back into their shelter entrances.

SCHALIT: Diane Cowan gently places the lobster down. This year, for the first time, Cowan and other scientists said that they had found fewer juvenile lobsters making their homes along Maine's coast. And they are concerned that this could mean a decline in lobster populations. Cowan says she's got a lot more work to do. So while one very cold reporter calls it a night and walks back to the car, Diane Cowan heads out to turn over more rocks. For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Lowell's Cove, Maine.

(Footfalls, splashes, and surf up and under)

Diver Dan

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Diver Dan

CURWOOD: Since 1957, more than two dozen oil rigs have been built off the shore of California. And their builders are required by law to demolish these rigs once they go out of use. Recently, commentator Frank DiPalermo was scuba diving off the California coast, and he found that many of these sunken rigs have become artificial reefs teeming with life.

DI PALERMO: I grew up in California, so I'd seen oil rigs from shore. Propped up boxy things in shades of gray. Bird guano gray, battleship gray, colors that call to mind bad smells or violence. I'd seen them vent great plumes of flame. I used to pretend they were monsters from an old Japanese movie, squared-off spiders that got exposed to radiation and became giant fire-breathers. I try to forget those images because I've been commissioned to scuba dive under one of these rigs, then come up with a performance piece based on the experience.

My boat approaches and I hear the harsh squeals and grinds a good distance off. It's as big as a supermarket, only instead of a sign promoting a sale on milk, this one has a sign warning of poison gas emissions. There is also a sign announcing the name of the rig in utilitarian block letters: GRACE. Grace is all pipes and cranes and cable and secret padlocked areas. All of it is ugly. Beneath a blown-out sky on a glassy sea, Grace looms before me looking like a menace.

But looking closer, I see places where the rig has surrendered to the ocean. Sea lions are lounging on platforms that face the sun and pelicans choose the most unlikely perches. There is something comforting about this reassertion of the sea. I put my regulator in my mouth so I can breathe and leap off the boat. I let the air out of my buoyancy compensator and then I am under.

(Bubbling, breathing)

DI PALERMO: At 30 feet I stop and consider my surroundings. The stanchions are so dense with life their forms are soft and irregular. At first it's a mantle of black mussels. Then things get garish. Great white barnacles wave orange tongs. Strawberry anemones cluster in lush red bunches. Green crabs that look like pieces of kelp pick their way over the rig. Further in, delicate starfish dislodge themselves from crevasses, launch themselves into the water, and begin a slow descent. Some land on me, cling to me. I disengage them, hold them out, and send them on their way. Four feet off a young sea lion dances an aquatic jig both goofy and graceful. He shoots to the surface. Another pup speeds toward my face, stops heartbeats away, and barks. Then the first sea lion is back and the two begin to frolic. Life is festooned all over the place. The ocean has had her way with Grace. She worked magic on this fire-spewing monster.

Later, back on dry land with wild images of rebirth swirling around my head, I realize I've been myopic. The force I've seen at work on the rig is too big to be contained by the ocean. Evidence of this force is right outside my front door, where a few stubborn blades of grass sprout through a crack in the porch, remaining green despite my best efforts. There is a dandelion blooming in one of my rain gutters. A field mouse claims squatter's rights in my garage. These things seemed annoyances before. Now, because of the rig, I can appreciate their subversive nature.

Before Grace I used to get discouraged. The ozone is thinning, rain is becoming acidic, temperatures are climbing. But the rig has shown me that life is vast, seditious, and irrepressible. This does nothing to change the gravity of the hole in the ozone, acid rain, or climate change. But it fills my heart with hope. And hope, it seems to me, is a true state of grace.

(Music up and under: Tortoise, "Black Jack")

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News Follow-Up

CURWOOD: Commentator Frank DiPalermo is a writer and performer living in San Diego.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Update Theme and Strings)

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking recently.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You may remember our coverage of the two Mexican anti-logging activists who received the Goldman Environmental Prize after being jailed in their country. Now, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera will have new evidence heard in an appeal to the same court that convicted them of drug and weapons charges in 1999. Environmental activists call the charges trumped up. Alejandro Queral of the Sierra Club says the court must now admit medical records showing the two men confessed while being tortured.

QUERAL: If this appeal at the lower court level is denied, then the implications may be, or it may set a precedent for admitting evidence extracted under torture in other cases, and clearly this is a setback for civil society in Mexico.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: There's been a resolution in the dispute between Canadian Farmer Percy Schmeiser and biotech giant Monsanto. Monsanto sued the farmer for growing its genetically-modified canola plants without paying for them. Mr. Schmeiser denies stealing the plants and says seeds containing the patented genes must have blown onto his fields. Now a federal judge in Canada has found the farmer guilty of infringing on the Monsanto patent for so-called "round-up ready canola." The judge said it didn't matter how the seed wound up on the farmer's property. Mr. Schmeiser calls the finding ridiculous, since it is now impossible even to buy canola seed that is guaranteed to be pure.

SCHMEISER: If a company cannot guarantee their seed, how in heaven's name will a farmer be able to not have an unwanted gene in his?

CURWOOD: Mr. Schmeiser says he's considering an appeal of the federal court's ruling.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: In April, we told you about the first condor egg spotted since the endangered birds had been re-released into the wild. That egg was broken. But now biologists in California have spotted two more mating pairs exhibiting nesting behavior. Still, even if these eggs aren't viable, John Brooks of the Fish and Wildlife Service says the activity is an important marker for the captive-bred birds.

BROOKS: If these pairs of birds that tried this year and actually produced eggs but weren't able to raise chicks, next year may be their year.

CURWOOD: As a young lawyer, Interior Secretary Gail Norton successfully argued against environmentalists that the few remaining wild condors should be captured and helped to breed. Ms. Norton is planning to attend a condor release, and she invited Robert Redford to tag along. The actor, who starred in the spy thriller "Three Days of the Condor," declined. Mr. Redford wrote Ms. Norton that he would rather spend his time focused on, what he called, "the devastating repercussions of her environmental agenda." And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead: The bio-engineered rice that promises to save millions of lives. First, this environmental technology note from Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under: Technology Note Theme)

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Technology Note

GRABER: Most of a homeowner's energy costs come from air conditioners in the summer and heaters in the winter. Now, one Chinese scientist says he has an energy-saving solution that can increase the inside home temperature by about seven degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and cool your home by about 14 degrees in the summer. He's developed a heat-sensitive paint that changes color as the seasons change. When the temperature warms up the paint is a paler blue, reflecting light and keeping your house cooler. As winter sets in, the paint takes on a darker, reddish tint and absorbs heat from the sun. It works like this: When fats are solid, they're opaque. They become translucent when they melt, kind of like butter. It starts out yellow and becomes see-through in a frying pan. For heat-sensitive paint, dyes are added to fats and form small beads, which are added to the paint. Scientists have long been interested in developing heat-sensitive house paint. But most of the pigments used in current heat-sensitive paints break down under UV light and last at most a few months. The Chinese researcher says his paint can last outside up to four years. That's this week's technology note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Mogwai, "Take Me Some Place Beautiful.")

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Golden Rice

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Genetically-modified food crops are controversial. The European Union only recently lifted a ban on genetically-modified foods. The ban had come in response to concerns about health and environmental consequences, even though makers of these products say they are safe and needed in a world where one out of five people goes to bed hungry each night. The latest genetically-modified food is called golden rice. It's a form of the grain that contains genetic material taken from plants, including daffodils and peas. The process adds a form of vitamin A to the rice and gives it its golden color. Bob Carty covers science and the environment for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and he joins me now. Hi, Bob.

CARTY: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, why do this to rice? What need could this satisfy?

CARTY: Well, the fundamental goal is to deal with the problem, a global problem, of Vitamin A deficiency. All of us, or most of us, get our Vitamin A, of course, in things like carrots or milk or cod liver oil. Did you ever have cod liver oil when you were a kid?

CURWOOD: Oh, yes.

CARTY: (Laughs) You okay -- distasteful. But it's very effective in delivering beta carotene. And beta carotene is what the body then converts into Vitamin A. And you need Vitamin A to survive. If not, it can cause blindness, it can cause death. And around the world there are millions of kids who don't have enough Vitamin A. Between one and two million children die a year from lack of sufficient vitamin A. Another 500,000 go blind. So the inventors of this thing called golden rice wanted to put beta carotene into a rice that didn't have it before, to solve this problem of Vitamin A deficiency.

CURWOOD: Now, who's pushing this genetic modification?

CARTY: Well, this is interesting. It's not the private sector in this case. The biotech revolution we've had over the last half dozen years or so has been led by companies like Monsanto. But they've been concerned with things like putting pesticides into potatoes and cotton, so they resist the pests themselves. Things like making soy and corn resistant to herbicides so herbicides can be used more efficiently. Now, this is very fine for the pesticide makers, I suppose, and perhaps for farmers; there's a debate about that. But it certainly doesn't deliver anything to the consumer. Golden rice, though, was on a totally different research path. It started about ten years ago, cost about $100 million, and much of the funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States. Much of the research was done in public research institutions in Germany and Switzerland. And they did it, of course, not to increase the profits for pesticide companies, but to fight Vitamin A deficiency. Because, though, there are patents on a lot of this process, at the end of the day this publicly-financed research is actually owned by a private company, AstraZeneca, who has agreed to provide the eventual golden rice product free of royalties.

CURWOOD: Now, the critics of golden rice say that this technology is a Trojan horse. Why do they say that, Bob?

CARTY: I suppose because it looks so good on the outside and may have a few dangers within. And the suspicion of it being a Trojan horse is because of the way it was presented. In the last couple of months across North America, there have been a number of television advertisements using golden rice as an illustration that genetically-modified foods can be good for you. Not just good for you but good for humankind. Good for the poor and the starving of the world. Now, remember that this is being presented, these ads are being presented in a certain context, in the context of quite a serious market meltdown for genetically-modified foods. You know, the images of protestors outside of supermarkets and people tearing up test plots in Britain and the United States and Canada. So in that context, these ads appear. They are promoted by the Council for Biotechnology Information; it's a representative of the biotech industry. The pictures are quite lovely, Steve. They have mothers with rice bowls feeding their children. They have doctors in lab coats and children happily skipping and running. And what you hear in the golden rice commercial by the Council for Biotechnology Information is this message:

(Commercial music)

WOMAN: Around the world, mothers want to protect and nourish their children. So biotechnology researchers have developed golden rice. It will contain beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A. Golden rice could help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children. From medicine to agriculture, biotechnology is providing solutions that are improving lives today. And could improve our world tomorrow.

CURWOOD: Oh, my. Well, if that was a feel-good ad. Boy, Bob, I feel great. It sounds like everything is wonderful with golden rice.

CARTY: Absolutely. And I think there's a very convincing argument here. That is, it takes the moral high ground. This is feeding the poor and the hungry, and if you had some qualms, as many people do, or some doubts about genetically-modified foods, surely feeding the poor is a greater good and people could put those qualms and objections aside.

CURWOOD: But not everybody seems to like this ad, I take it.

CARTY: Not even some of the supporters of this technology. The Rockefeller Foundation itself has tried to distance itself from these ads. They say they're too much hype. Those are the supporters. The critics say there's a number of problems here. One is that this golden rice is not going to be available for five or six years. The ad makes it sound like it's available right now and it's out there doing its job helping the poor. But it takes five or six years in field tests and very rigorous science to look and see if this rice will have possibly new allergies in it that people will react to, possible toxins that could be dangerous to health. They have to find out whether it's safe for the environment. And above all, people have questions about whether or not this really solves Vitamin A deficiencies. And one of the people with that question is Pat Mooney. He's the executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International. Here's his take on golden rice.

MOONEY: The argument that golden rice itself will cure, as the industry has said, half a million people a year, children a year, of blindness, I think is nonsense, absolute nonsense. And even the inventors themselves I think now say that's the case. For kids to actually consume enough rice to meet their Vitamin A deficiency requirements in Southeast Asia, for example, or in Africa, they'd have to be eating about eight or ten pounds of rice a day.

CARTY: And that's Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

CURWOOD: How do the inventors of golden rice respond to his math, that this is not enough to fix the problem?

CARTY: Basically they say give it a chance. They point out that yes, the first invented golden rice is very low in levels of beta carotene, but it'll improve over the years. And this rice does not have to meet, they would argue, all of the Vitamin A needs of children, 100 percent. It would only have to meet maybe 25 percent or 50 percent that is deficient. So give the technology a chance, they would argue. And one of the inventors is particularly quite forceful in arguing back. He's Ingo Potroykus. He lives in Switzerland. And apparently he experienced some hunger and malnutrition right after the Second World War, Steve. And so has a very personal motivation for working on this vitamin and food problem with genetic engineering. Last fall he was in Des Moines, Iowa, won an international world food prize. And on that occasion he took on his critics, and so here's a bit of Ingo Potroykus.

POTROYKUS: We are really acting criminal, because we have here a technology which has the potential to help many, many poor people to prevent deaths and blindness. Every delay of the exploitation of this technology leads to unnecessary blindness of millions of children and to unnecessary deaths of mothers.

CARTY: And that's Ingo Potroykus, one of the inventors of golden rice.

CURWOOD: Boy, he sounds quite sincere.

CARTY: Yeah, and people who have met him say he really is. He's quite committed to this technology and to what it can do for poor people. On the other hand, development experts also say he's quite naive. They point to a number of things. One is that the world currently produces enough food for everybody on it. It just is terribly mal-distributed, and there is a lot of economic injustice. They also point out another fundamental problem, and that is that people who lack enough Vitamin A in their diet are also likely to lack the fats and the proteins in their bodies that actually are necessary to extract from the beta carotene the Vitamin A.

CURWOOD: What are the less controversial ways to provide Vitamin A to poor people that these critics suggest?

CARTY: Well, they're as simple as a half a teaspoon of red palm oil a day, much like the cod liver oil that you and I had when we were young. In the tropics this could be a very, very easy and simple and accessible solution. Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation International also argues that there are simple and traditional alternatives available in many countries. Here's Pat Mooney.

MOONEY: In India, for example, there are literally hundreds of food plants throughout India that have an abundance of Vitamin A in them. They historically have been used by people to meet their Vitamin A requirements. They've been pushed out of the marketplace by sort of the Western approach to food and the heavy emphasis on cereal consumption in these regions. Frankly, it's probably much cheaper, definitely safer, and much better for the environment to reintroduce those plants that are already there, that are natural in the environment, and have them back in the marketplace.

CURWOOD: So where do things stand now?

CARTY: Well, golden rice samples have been handed over to a Third World research institute, the International Institute for Rice Research in the Philippines. And they're going to do some of the major testing on this. They say it will take five or six years. In the end of the day, I think the questions are about who has the burden of proof here? I think consumers in the north are thinking the burden of proof still lies with the inventors to show that this is safe. And the perspective from the south that's increasing is that the best solution, as the Philippines Institute says, to Vitamin A deficiency, is really a simple diverse diet.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty reports on environmental issues for the CBC. Hey, Bob, thanks for joining us today.

CARTY: Okay, Steve.

(Music up and under: Turtle Island String Quartet, "Crossroads")

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Wae Rebo

CURWOOD: The archipelago of Indonesia has many threatened species of birds. Many live in the Wallacea region, which is home to more than 250 birds found nowhere else on Earth. Little is known in the West about the region, and its first field guide to birds was only published in 1997. But there are plenty of experts on Wallacean wildlife if you look in the right places. John Ryan found some on the eastern Indonesian island of Flores.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: Inside an ancient volcanic crater, a steep and muddy five-hour hike from the nearest road is the village of Wae Rebo. At its center are six giant houses ringed by the crater walls, cloaked in cloud forest. Each house is a pointed dome of smoke-darkened thatch, like a five-story-tall Hershey's kiss. I went there by chance. I'd been on the truck to another town when a Wae Rebo school teacher invited me to his village. A hard day's travel later I became the second American ever to visit Wae Rebo.

(Gamelan music)

RYAN: Women started banging a gong to announce the arrival of a foreigner.

(Gamelan music)

RYAN: In Wae Rebo, drums are called "the voice of the village." One rainy afternoon shortly after I'd arrived, five village women sat on the plank floor of the biggest house and practiced their beats on goatskin drums and small brass gongs. Between jam sessions, I was leafing through my 500-page Guide to the Birds of Wallacea.

(Voices)

RYAN: Several older women and a teenage boy gathered around the book. And as they turned the colorful pages, they pointed out the birds that live in the forests around Wae Rebo. They argued in a local Manggarai language over their names and their songs.

(Voices and imitated bird calls)

RYAN: A villager in her seventies, Agatha Nout taught me the calls of the bare-throated whistler, or kiong in Manggarai. Villagers call the kiong the champion singer, for its amazing repertoire of songs that fill the forest air every morning.

(Agatha Nout imitates the kiong)

RYAN: Agatha explained things that don't appear in any book. Like how villagers rely on the call of the sisisia or Wallacean drongo to protect their crops. The drongo's sisisia call often comes just before troops of monkeys emerge from the forest to steal corn. The farmers know to send their dogs toward the drongos to chase the monkeys back.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: As the forests shrink and the older generations fade away, this kind of local ecological knowledge is getting harder to come by in Wallacea. Wae Rebo's isolation has kept its culture and its surroundings relatively intact. People in Wae Rebo are proud of their traditions, but mostly unaware of how unusual their ecosystems are. Nobody I spoke with knew that many of the region's birds could be found nowhere else on Earth. Or that their homeland had been declared a global priority by Bird Life International and other conservation groups. And nobody knew that their bird-friendly method of growing coffee in the shade of other trees, with little or no chemical use, was highly valued in international markets. They do know that isolation isn't easy, and people here want a road. Coffee farmer Bruno Sumardin.

SUMARDIN: (speaks in Manggarai) TRANSLATOR: If they don't open a road, that means we people of Wae Rebo will keep having to haul coffee and rice and everything on our backs every day. If they do build a road, that probably means that our environment will lose its uniqueness and our traditions will eventually be lost. If I have to choose, I'd open a road.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: For now, the top elected official in western Flores wants to preserve the village as a cultural heritage site. Combine that with Indonesia's economic crisis and it's unlikely that a road will be built any time soon. Even so, I was hesitant to tell this story and risk ruining this place. Yet people in Wae Rebo want more visitors and more cash for their impoverished village. And in truth there's little danger of Wae Rebo becoming a major tourist destination. It's not on any map. And even if you can ask directions in Indonesian, most people on Flores don't even know where Wae Rebo is. So have at it. Go to Wae Rebo in the Manggarai region on Flores Island in Indonesia. Just remember, check your legs for leeches as you hike up the volcano. Be sure to eat what you're served, even dog curry, for refusing food is a deep offense in a Manggarai house. And when it's time to settle down for the night between bamboo mat and bamboo blanket, the only sound, the low hum of insects in the surrounding forests and fields, sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite.

(Gamelan music up and under)

RYAN: For Living on Earth, this is John Ryan in Wae Rebo, Indonesia. (Music up and under: Wae Rebo Village Drummers)

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: If you'd like some genetically-modified tomato with your golden rice, you're out of luck. The story behind the first bio-engineered food, the flavor-saver tomato.

WOMAN: The story was this hypothesis that a genetically-engineered trait that gave you a tomato with an exceptionally long shelf life could also keep the fruit firm enough that you could treat it as a gas green fruit but get the premium price of a vine-ripened fruit. And in the end, that story didn't pan out.

CURWOOD: How the flavor-saver fell out of favor, next time on Living on Earth.

(Drumming up and under; fade to birds and frogs)

CURWOOD: Before we go, a quick trip to the sonically rich and aurally chaotic wooded swamps of northern Venezuela. Jean Roche recorded this mixed community of beings that he calls Wonder Frogs.

(Birds and frogs)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, and Bunny Lester. We had help this week from Stephen Belter, Evie Stone, and Dawn Robinson. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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