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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 17, 2003

Air Date: January 17, 2003

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

The Right to Refuse?

(stream / mp3)

The United States is threatening the European Union with a World Trade Organization case over its exclusion of genetically-modified products. Host Steve Curwood talks with Financial Times of London reporter Edward Alden about the dispute. (04:30)

GM Wheat / Amy Jo Ehman

(stream / mp3)

A movement is afoot in western Canada to keep a new variety of GM wheat from being sold there. Some farmers fear the product could wind up contaminating their organic crops. Amy Jo Ehman reports. (08:00)

Almanac/Vestmannaeyjar Volcano

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about the Vestmannaeyjar volcano. Thirty years ago, a tiny Icelandic island erupted with no warning and an amazingly successful rescue operation swung into action. (01:30)

Tainted H2O / Ilsa Setziol

(stream / mp3)

Perchlorate, a compound used in rocket fuel, is turning up in many states’ drinking water. Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC reports perchlorate is found at rocket or missile production sites, and it's linked to thyroid disease. (06:00)

Chemical Bio-ethics

(stream / mp3)

When publishing a paper in the 1940s about a chemical that helped soybean plants flower early, Arthur Galston also cautioned that too much of the chemical would cause a plant’s leaves to fall off. His research was later used for the Army’s development of the defoliant Agent Orange. Galston talks about the unintentional consequences of his research with host Steve Curwood. (07:00)

Area 51

(stream / mp3)

The top-secret military base in southern Nevada has been suspected by conspiracy theorists of harboring alien spacecraft and extraterrestrial research for years. Now, the Bush administration has exempted the base from disclosing information on its waste disposal practices. Host Steve Curwood talks with space.com’s senior space writer, Leonard David, about what truth there is behind the secrets. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Aussie Solar Tower / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new solar tower, the largest man-made structure in the world, to be built in the Australian outback. (01:20)

Dolphin-safe

(stream / mp3)

Exactly what makes some tuna deserving of dolphin-safe labels is up for debate. The White House wants to broaden the criteria for the labels. Host Steve Curwood talks with California Senator Barbara Boxer, who wrote the original dolphin-safe rules in 1990. (06:00)

Skulls and Bones / Rosemary Hoban

(stream / mp3)

Bones are repositories of history. But beachcomber Ray Bandar has been collecting them for forty years for beauty as well as what they reveal. Rosemary Hoban reports from San Francisco that science says thank you to a hobby run amok. (06:00)

The Rural Life / Verlyn Klinkenborg

(stream / mp3)

Most farmers farm for a living. But our commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says his daily barn chores don’t bring him a salary, but something far less tangible. (03:00)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Amy Jo Ehman, Ilsa Setziol, Rose HobanCOMMENTATOR: Verlyn KlinkenborgGUESTS: Edward Alden, Professor Arthur Galston, Leonard David, Senator Barbara BoxerNOTES: Cynthia Graber

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. More controversies over genetically-modified foods. The U.S. may ask the World Trade Organization to rule against the biotech food moratorium in Europe. And in Canada, organic farmers say no to Monsanto’s new GM wheat, saying it could spoil organic fields.

HOFFMAN: It moves around by wind, by water, by rolling on top of the snow, and little surround seeds just move. You know, I guess in the ideal world it should stay in where it’s planted, but it doesn’t.

CURWOOD: Also, the payoff for science from one man’s passion for collecting the skulls of marine mammals.

BANDAR: Bones are beautiful. They’re fantastic pieces of sculpture. And so, once they’re cleaned up, God - they’re art pieces. But they also can tell you a functional story about the life of the animal.

CURWOOD: ‘Dem bones and more, this week on Living on Earth, right after this.

[MUSIC OUT]

[NPR NEWSCAST]

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The Right to Refuse?

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth’s coverage of emerging science comes from the National Science Foundation.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It’s shaping up to be a major transatlantic food fight. For several years, virtually no genetically-modified food products have crossed the ocean from the United States to Europe. European Union approvals of new GM products ground to a halt in 1999.

Now the U.S. is threatening to bring a case before the World Trade Organization. The charge? The de facto moratorium in the EU on GM products violates international trade rules.

I’m joined now by Edward Alden, who has been covering the story for the Financial Times of London. Edward, tell me, just what’s behind the U.S. complaint?

ALDEN: Effectively, the European ban makes it impossible for U.S. farmers to sell to Europe most of what they grow now, in terms of major feed and food crops. U.S. farmers are by far the heaviest planters of these crops. About 70 percent of the world’s acreage of genetically-modified crops is planted in the U.S.. And Europe is a major market for the U.S.: it’s the fourth largest market for U.S. farm products. So, it’s a big economic issue for the U.S.. They see the ban as having a very serious commercial impact: hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars in lost income to U.S. farmers.

CURWOOD: The EU has had this de facto moratorium on genetically-modified foods since 1999. So why is the U.S. making this threat now, almost four years later?

ALDEN: It’s an interesting case. The U.S. has been very cautious on this for a long time. There are a number of reasons. I think the biggest reason is that they were worried that the United States would take the case to the World Trade Organization, that it would be tremendously controversial. The U.S. would win on the merits but then the Europeans would refuse to open their market anyway, because European public opinion simply won’t allow that to happen. And so, therefore, it would be a pyrrhic victory. And U.S. farmers understood that; they weren’t pushing the administration particularly hard to bring a case.

I think also there was some sympathy in the European commission for the U.S. argument, and the commission has gradually been trying to nudge France and Italy and the other reluctant member states to allow the ban to be lifted.

All of that was, more or less, the situation up until September/October. What changed was that a couple of African countries, for the first time ever, said that they would refuse to accept shipments of U.S. food aid that contained genetically-modified crops. Zambia, in particular, said we’re in the midst of a famine here but we’re not going to take the shipments because we are worried that these crops will somehow infect our own domestic produce. And that if that happened the Europeans would no longer be willing to accept agricultural imports from Zambia from other African nations, so they refused.

This infuriated the U.S.. The U.S. has charged, in fact, that the Europeans put some of the African countries up to this. Completely changed the politics of it. There was tremendous anger in the U.S. government as a result of these developments in Africa, and I think that has really changed the mood quite profoundly in the U.S..

CURWOOD: So, what happens if this case is in fact brought before the World Trade Organization? What will be the grounds that each side will argue on?

ALDEN: Under WTO rules you are allowed to block imports of products for legitimate health and safety reasons, but you have to be able to demonstrate that there is some plausible threat here, and therefore, there’s a reasonable scientific justification for such a ban. The U.S. will argue there’s simply no scientific evidence that genetically-modified foods are any more dangerous to human health than traditionally-grown crops.

The Europeans…the thrust of the European argument will be we don’t really know what the health impacts and more particularly the environmental impacts of some of these products may be in the long term. The Europeans have a regime in place that they call “the precautionary principle”, which says something to the effect of: if the science is uncertain, then sovereign government should have the right to regulate as they see fit, and that this ban falls within that justification.

So, there’s going to be a very, very interesting battle between two quite different views of the nature of the scientific evidence here and what’s justified based on that scientific evidence, or a lack of. So that will really be the heart of the arguments that the two sides put forward to the WTO.

CURWOOD: Edward Alden is the Washington correspondent for the Financial Times of London. Thanks for filling us in today, Edward.

ALDEN: Thanks very much, Steve.

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GM Wheat

CURWOOD: Wheat is one of the few major crops grown these days without genetic modification, but that’s about to change. The Monsanto Company is now testing genetically-modified wheat that’s resistant to its herbicide, Roundup. And Monsanto has already applied for permission to sell what it calls “Roundup-ready” wheat to farmers in the U.S. and Canada.

Some organic farmers in Canada’s grain belt are trying to stop Monsanto. In Saskatchewan a few years ago, at least one farmer’s canola crop was tainted with its GM counterpart. And now, Canadian organic farmers worry that GM wheat will cross-pollinate with their crops, making their grain unfit for organic certification. Amy Jo Ehman reports.

[BAND PLAYING: “I WON’T BACK DOWN”]

EHMAN: When they’re not making music, the guys on stage are farmers. They usually play in the countryside, but tonight they’re in Saskatoon, entertaining an audience that’s a mix of music fans, environmental activists, city folk, and farmers. They’re here to support a message of defiance and to raise money for a lawsuit against the agrochemical companies Aventis and Monsanto.

HOFFMAN: The right to farm and consume free of GMOs is definitely being threatened.

EHMAN: The lawsuit was filed by two organic farmers in Saskatchewan who say their way of life is threatened by the introduction of genetically-modified seed.

[ENGINE STARTING UP]

EHMAN: Larry Hoffman is one of those farmers. He works the land near the town of Spaulding: flat, wide-open countryside with fields as far as the eye can see. The Hoffman family farm went organic in 1989.

HOFFMAN: We farm about 2400 acres of certified organic. And we plant a number of crops, basically peas, lentils, wheat oats, barley, fall rye.

EHMAN: Canola is not on that list. He stopped growing it in 1995, the year Aventis began to sell the first GM canola. Hoffman feared that GM canola from his neighbors’ fields would cross-pollinate and contaminate his organic crop.

HOFFMAN: You know, it moves around by wind, by water, by, you know, on rolling on top of the snow and the little surround seeds just move. You know, I guess in the ideal world it should stay in where it’s planted, but it doesn’t. We consider it a weed.

EHMAN: Now he’s worried the same thing might happen with wheat. Organic farmers risk losing their certification if their crops contain any genetically-modified plants. If GM wheat is allowed into Canada, Hoffman says, like canola, he would be forced to stop growing it.

HOFFMAN: That’s two markets I’m out of. How many more can I be out of before I’m down to…I’m not a certified organic farmer anymore?

EHMAN: The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking compensation for the lost profits of canola, and an injunction to stop the release of genetically-modified wheat. Monsanto has offered to remove any unwanted GM crops, but organic farmers say that’s ridiculous, because the only way to tell if a plant is one of Monsanto’s is to spray it with the chemical herbicide Roundup. If it dies, it’s an ordinary plant; if it lives, it’s GM. But since organic farmers can’t use chemicals on their fields, that’s not an option.

But Monsanto makes no apologies to organic farmers. Trish Jordan is Monsanto’s public relations representative in Western Canada.

JORDAN: They’re plants. Stuff blows around. You can’t stop that. You know, I can flippantly say Monsanto’s a powerful company and we do come up with lots of solutions to things, but we can’t stop plants from blowing around. I mean, it’s just not going to happen.

EHMAN: She says organic farmers are unrealistic to think they can farm completely GM-free.

JORDAN: That’s something that they must have decided somehow as an industry that they could deliver against zero. But so I, you know, zero is not going to happen.

EHMAN: Not everyone is wary of this technology. Sixty percent of the canola grown in Canada is genetically engineered. And across the United States farmers are growing genetically-engineered corn, soybeans and cotton. Right now, genetically-modified wheat is in the final stages of a government approval process in both Canada and the United States and is growing in test fields across the prairies. The locations of these fields are kept secret because the companies are fearful of sabotage. GM wheat could be ready for release by 2004 or 5.

[DOORBELL]

BEAUDOIN: Come in, Walter. Good morning.

WALTER: Good morning.

BEAUDOIN: How are you today, Walter?

WALTER: Not too bad.

BEAUDOIN: Good.

WALTER: Got the coffee pot on?

BEAUDOIN: Oh, you betcha.

EHMAN: Across the Saskatchewan countryside near the town of Maymont a neighbor drops in for coffee at the farmhouse of Dale Beaudoin.

[POURING COFFEE]

BEAUDOIN: How’s the cattle doing there, Walter?

WALTER: Not too bad. They’re actually doing pretty good.

EHMAN: Beaudoin farms 620 organic acres with livestock and grains. He grew canola several years after most organic farmers had stopped.

BEAUDOIN: It was a good cash crop, canola, and so I took a gamble growing it.

EHMAN: But he lost that gamble in 1999. That’s when he sent a sample of his canola to a European buyer. It was rejected because it contained a trace of GM. He did eventually sell that canola, but for a lot less money. He won’t grow it again.

BEAUDOIN: I figured the fiasco could get worse. You might get a shipment down, you know, down East or down in the states and it’s turned back on you and you’d have all the expense to get it back.

EHMAN: That’s why Beaudoin joined the lawsuit. He says organic farmers didn’t fight the introduction of GM canola but they’re not sitting down and waiting for GM wheat to appear on the market. And this time they have some powerful allies in their fight. Large farm organizations like the Canadian Wheat Board and the National Farmers Union are also opposed to its release. That’s because most of the countries that buy wheat from North America say they will stop buying it altogether, organic or not, if GM wheat is introduced. These governments fear the accidental introduction of genetically-modified material into their food supply.

That possible loss of major markets is also why farmers in Montana and North Dakota have tried unsuccessfully to ban GM wheat in their states. Monsanto says it’s working on this problem. It plans to introduce GM wheat slowly, based on contracts between farmers and buyers in North America and Mexico only. Monsanto’s Trish Jordan.

JORDAN: We’ll match up supply to demand. If customers want to buy this, they’ll ask for X amount of tons and that’s how many tons we’ll grow. There will be farmers that will grow this.

EHMAN: Monsanto says it will segregate the GM wheat by using buffer zones in the fields, bypassing the conventional grain elevator system and shipping it in dedicated trucks rather than in rail cars where it might get mixed up with non-GM seeds. But even with that, the company admits complete separation of GM seeds will be impossible.

The two farmers who filed the lawsuit have applied to make it a class action suit on behalf of all organic farmers in Canada. They expect the court case could take years. They’re just hoping they have that much time before GM wheat is a fact of life on the prairies.

MALE: We say it’s not too late, especially for wheat. But swift action is needed to stop it.

EHMAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Amy Jo Ehman in Saskatoon, Canada.

[BAND PLAYING: “I’M A TRACTOR MAN”]

CURWOOD: Just ahead, living with unintended consequences. The man who pioneered the science for Agent Orange speaks out. You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Roy Buchanan “Secret Love” My Babe, Waterhouse Records (1980)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Ale Moller “Det Sjungande Berget” The Horse and the Crane, Northside (1996)]

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Almanac/Vestmannaeyjar Volcano

CURWOOD: Residents of a fishing village on the tiny island of Heimaey in Iceland went to bed as usual on the night of January 22, 1973, but they didn’t get much sleep. At 1:55 in the morning the Vestmannaeyjar volcano on the island ended a 5,000 year silence and, without warning, cracked open the earth. The sudden flow of lava created an unbroken wall of fire that ran from one side of the island to the other. Townsfolk scurried to carry out an evacuation plan and, by morning light, most of the 5,300 inhabitants were off the island. A few hundred stayed behind, though, to face the fires.

Four hundred families lost their homes over the five-month course of the eruption, and one death was recorded. But more than half of the town was preserved, including the harbor, a primary fishing center for Iceland. Most folks eventually returned but Heimaey was forever changed by the blast. Leftover hardened lava made the island about two square kilometers bigger than before. Roads now seemed to disappear into rock where the magma took hold.

The Vestmannaeyjar volcano is expected to erupt again one day, but for now at least all is quiet on Heimaey.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC FADES]

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Tainted H2O

CURWOOD: Perchlorate, a chemical used as rocket fuel, is now being detected in the drinking water in as many as 22 states, from New York to California. Perchlorate has been found in the Colorado River, and in California alone hundreds of wells have also been corrupted.

Perchlorate tends to target the thyroid gland in humans and is linked to thyroid disease. Babies are especially vulnerable because the thyroid is critical to the developing brain. As more data about this contamination emerges, thousands of people are suing defense contractors and water suppliers for damages from diseases they say are linked to perchlorate.

From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Ilsa Setziol reports.

SETZIOL: At the Metropolitan Water District’s laboratory in Eastern Los Angeles County, a long chemical equation fills a white board. Hundreds of small vials with water sit atop rows of lab equipment. The district’s Mick Stewart stops in front of one of the humming machines.

STEWART: Right now we are in the inorganic chemistry unit. This particular instrument we’re looking at right here is the ion chromatograph. And we use this to detect for the presence of perchlorate.

SETZIOL: Perchlorate is used in rocket fuel, munitions and fireworks. It’s turned up in nearly 300 wells across California alone. It is likely perchlorate has been mingling with the state’s water supply since the government and the defense industry began manufacturing it in the 1940s. But, says Mick Stewart, it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that water agencies were able to detect perchlorate at the low levels found in many drinking water wells.

STEWART: So, at that time we decided that as they were detecting perchlorate in some of the contaminated groundwater sites throughout California, as a matter of prudent course of action, we would do some monitoring of our source waters. Not expecting to find anything, but we thought we would do that. We took samples in our Colorado River water system and we found perchlorate. We were quite surprised to do that.

SETZIOL: Finding perchlorate in the Colorado River is significant because the river is a principal source of drinking water for 20 million people across the Southwestern United States. Water officials traced the perchlorate’s path back more than 400 miles up the Colorado River to giant Lake Mead in Nevada and past that to a desert riverbed called the Las Vegas Wash.

Todd Croft, with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, stands in the wash looking at a pump and the top of an underground dam.

CROFT: This water on the left behind the dam is the water that’s emerged as groundwater that’s now coming up as a seep or a spring, and it is containing perchlorate.

SETZIOL: One of the largest perchlorate contaminated sites is just a few miles from here. For years, the U.S. Navy and, then, Kerr McGee dumped thousands of pounds of perchlorate waste per day outside the rocket fuel plant in Henderson, Nevada.

CROFT: So, the disposal of waste was commonly done through unlined ditches and unlined ponds. There’s also, though, in the production process, there was certainly some leakage out of the containers that they were making this in and out of their piping and their pumping systems.

SETZIOL: Nevada officials are now overseeing an extensive cleanup by Kerr McGee. Croft says the basic strategy is to contain the plume of contaminated water that is still leeching as much as 900 pounds of perchlorate a day into the riverbed and then treat it. Croft expects to stop most of the influx within two years. But because so much contamination has already reached Lake Mead, federal environmental officials think it could be more than a decade before the Colorado River is clean again.

Back in California the Metropolitan Water District’s Mick Stewart says in the meantime dilution is helping.

STEWART: We blend state project water and Colorado River water, and because of that blend the level of perchlorate is even lower than when it first comes into our system.

SETZIOL: Stewart says southern California has been able to lower the amount to four parts per billion or less. But that’s still four times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft proposal, which is one part per billion.

Some environmentalists say the proposed regulation doesn’t do enough to protect people. Renee Sharp is an analyst for the Environmental Working Group, which has been working on the issue of perchlorate.

SHARP: Obviously, it’s a tricky issue because we don’t have some definitive study, and rarely do you really ever do. But there have been two epidemiological studies done that suggest that from one to nine parts per billion is having an actual effect on infant thyroid hormones. So, just looking at that information, we think that really the level needs to be more like 0.1 parts per billion to be on the safe side.

SETZIOL: California is studying possible correlations between thyroid illness and perchlorate in water. And the EPA wants to test drinking water nationwide since the compound seems to show up just about anywhere rockets, missiles or even fireworks were produced. The Pentagon objects to such testing and is seeking an exemption from laws requiring cleanup of explosives. Defense firms say concentrations of perchlorate 200 times higher than the EPA proposal are safe in drinking water.

Americans will probably be hearing more about this recently recognized legacy of the Cold War and the nation’s space program.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ilsa Setziol.

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Chemical Bio-ethics

CURWOOD: Today, Arthur Galston is Professor Emeritus of Botany at Yale University. But back in 1942 he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois looking for a way to make soybeans flower early. His work led him to a chemical compound that did the trick, but Professor Galston also noted when he published his results that applying too much of this chemical would cause plants to lose their leaves. Only later did he find out that his work was employed by the U.S. Army to make Agent Orange, the defoliant that saw widespread use in Vietnam to clear away jungle vegetation.

Agent Orange has been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including cancer and birth defects, that have afflicted U.S. veterans and their families, as well as the Vietnamese people.

As Professor Galston tells me, the history of the creation of Agent Orange and his unintentional role in it left him feeling angry and betrayed.

GALSTON: By the time the Vietnam War really heated up, which was in the early ‘60s, I was, at this time, in Pasadena at the California Institute of Technology. I got angry enough at finding that there was military use of this compound that I came to an annual meeting of my society and got some people to sign a petition, which we fired off to President Lyndon Johnson and told him that we thought this was not a good thing to do because these chemicals hadn’t been adequately tested. We were spraying huge quantities of this all over the countryside. It drifted down not only over trees but over crops and over people, and we didn’t know what it was going to do to people.

And several years later, after a campaign, it was found out that 245T, one of the components in Agent Orange, is contaminated with a substance called dioxin. And we now know that there’s a family of compounds called dioxins, many of which are among the most toxic substances known to man.

CURWOOD: How were you able to convince the government to stop using Agent Orange?

GALSTON: Well, this came about through accident, I think, but it was a happy accident for us. I had been at the California Institute of Technology and then I moved to Yale. And by the time this situation matured I was in the East. Some friends and I had been needling the Department of Defense to carry out toxicological studies, and they eventually did this. And what came out was that 245T, the compound I mentioned, produced malformed embryos when administered to pregnant rodents. And the concentrations at which these effects were produced were not very great.

So, armed with this information, we tried to contact the government. And, happily, President Nixon’s science advisor was a distinguished physicist by the name of Lee DuBridge, who had been president of the California Institute of Technology when I was out there. And also one of my colleagues in this endeavor was Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard. So, the two of us contacted DuBridge and told him that we had this information and he convened a meeting in the old executive office building. And when the data were rolled out and he got a look at them, he contacted Secretary of Defense Mel Laird, who in turn contacted President Nixon. And in 1970, five years before the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon ordered the spraying stopped.

CURWOOD: In the five years that Agent Orange was used, how much was used? How many people, how much countryside was exposed to it?

GALSTON: Well, the easy way to relate it is that it covered an area two-thirds the size of the state of Massachusetts. So, it was a very extensive area. And there was enough of the chemical sprayed-- it got into the millions of gallons and it totals out to enough dioxin to intoxicate every person in Vietnam. Now that didn’t happen, of course, but it did affect some people we now know. And especially pregnant women whose fetus was at a certain stage of development.

CURWOOD: Professor Galston, if you had known back in the ‘40s what you know today, how willing would you have been to do this research?

GALSTON: Oh, I think I would have done it. You know, nothing that you do in science is guaranteed to result in benefits for mankind. Any discovery, I believe, is morally neutral and it can be turned either to constructive ends or destructive ends. That’s not the fault of science. That’s the fault of what society does with scientific findings.

CURWOOD: You teach bioethics at Yale University. What do you tell your students about the risks of conducting scientific research?

GALSTON: (Laughs) I tell them that they can never feel immune from the danger of producing a result that will be misused, and that it’s their social responsibility to enter the fray, even at the cost of having to divert themselves from their further research activity. You’ve got to write articles, you’ve got to speak, you’ve got to join with others, you’ve got to testify in Congress. You’ve got to do what you can to try to regulate the findings and the use of scientific information in such a way that it will benefit society rather than act as a harmful input.

CURWOOD: Professor Arthur Galston discovered the family of chemicals that would ultimately be used as Agent Orange and also successfully convinced the government to stop using Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He is now Professor Emeritus of Botany at Yale University and teaches a course on bioethics.

Thank you so much for taking this time with us today.

GALSTON: You’re very welcome.

[MUSIC: Davell Crawford “House That Jack Built” The B-3 And Me, Bullseye (1998)]

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues.

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Area 51

CURWOOD: Area 51 is a classified U.S. military base in Southern Nevada that has long been a playground for the Fox Mulders of conspiracy theorists. UFO sightings, alien abduction and secret extraterrestrial research are a part of Area 51’s lore.

Now, the Bush administration wants to exempt the base from having to report on its waste disposal practices. The government says that it’s of “paramount interest” that such information be kept classified.

Leonard David is senior space writer for the astronomy website space.com. He spotted the announcement in the Federal Register, the government’s weekly legislative newspaper. Mr. David, welcome to Living on Earth.

DAVID: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: I know there are a number of people that have pretty dark conspiracies about Area 51. How are they, how are these conspiracy theorists taking this news?

DAVID: Well, I think it sort of fortifies the UFO community to say: See, we told you there’s something going on, and they don’t want anybody to know what’s going on there, and, therefore, the big mental leap is that obviously the UFOs must be there and they’re being tested. There is a degree of silliness that goes on, in my mind, with some of this.

CURWOOD: What truth do you think there is to all this talk of a government cover-up there?

DAVID: Well, I think the cover-up is there because from the mid ‘50s when the base opened, stealth technologies, the stealth fighter, cruise missile technologies, those all were tested out there at Area 51. And I just recently learned that one of the other things that happens out there is that when we capture foreign aircraft those foreign aircraft are flown out there by U.S. pilots, and we learn more about how those aircraft operate. So, it has a natural hush-hush level to it to begin with.

On the other hand, I do believe that if alien technology does plow into the earth at some time, and maybe it’s happened in the past, I would think that the scenario is very much what we’re seeing at Area 51. They would take this kind of craft to some base of operations and dissect it and try to understand it. So, I don’t think we’re that far off from reality in a sense.

CURWOOD: There’s a lawsuit involving Area 51. What’s that all about?

DAVID: The lawsuit that’s involved here has been focused on toxic materials that have reportedly been burned in open football-size fields and that have exposed workers at this classified base. And unfortunately several of these people have died, others have respiratory problems, and so this lawsuit has been pushed forward. Unfortunately, I think the issue has become more of what can the military really tell you about this incident without unveiling the types of materials used, the types of programs that might have used those materials.

CURWOOD: Leonard David is senior space writer for the on-line astronomy magazine space.com. Thanks for speaking with me today.

DAVID: Thank you.

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Emerging Science Note/Aussie Solar Tower

CURWOOD: Coming up, an offbeat beachcomber goes hunting for the heads of marine mammals. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC]

GRABER: The sun-scorched Australian outback will soon be home to a new form of energy production that will use solar rays to create enough electricity to power a small city. The device is, essentially, a huge tower attached to an immense building, covered with a roof of glass. The tower will rise more than half a mile, making it the tallest man-made structure on the planet. The building, meanwhile, will stretch across more than four miles of the desert outback and act like a greenhouse, trapping and heating air. As this hot air rises, it will flow to the top of the greenhouse and, eventually, up through the tower where it will turn a series of turbines that produce electricity.

When the half-billion dollar solar tower is completed, it will produce enough energy to supply about 200,000 homes.

The project is the brainchild of German engineers who tested a demo model in Spain in the 1980s. They expect to complete their Australian complex in 2006. It will be the largest plant to harness the sun’s power for energy production.

That's this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC]

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

[MUSIC: Steven Cravis “The Shining Star” The Sound Of Light, Steven Cravis Music (1995)]

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Dolphin-safe

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Odds are if you buy tunafish you’ve seen the dolphin-safe logo on the side of the can. The label means the tuna was caught without encircling dolphins. Fishermen follow dolphins to catch tuna because the two species tend to run together in the eastern Pacific. The practice was one responsible for killing tens of thousands of the marine mammals.

The Bush administration now says new technology lets fishermen encircle dolphins without harming them, so it wants to let them use the dolphin-safe label on their cans even if they still encircle dolphins while hunting tuna.

Joining me is Barbara Boxer, the Democratic senator from California who wrote the original legislation for the dolphin-safe labels.

Senator Boxer, the White House says as long as the dolphins aren’t killed in the nets the practice of encircling them is okay. What’s wrong with that logic?

BOXER: Well, there are several things wrong with the logic. First of all, we don’t now require, because of the administration’s point of view, any verification, so you’re not sure if the dolphin are killed. That’s number one. Second, the science shows that just the practice of purse seining on dolphin--that is, encircling them, chasing them, and all the rest that goes with it, throwing the net over them--is harmful because the calves are separated from the mothers. And it’s obviously causing a lot of trauma for the dolphin because the populations are down.

So, to me, the consumer is about to be misled when they’re going to see this dolphin-safe label, think it’s fine, and then, in reality, it’s not fine.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the scientists for a moment. Recently, two former government scientists stepped forward and said that their dolphin research documented that this encircling was harmful to dolphins and their ability to reproduce. They say their work has been suppressed both by the Bush administration but also the Clinton administrations. I’m wondering, what’s the motivation here? Why would the US government feel pressure to squelch research that shows that encircling dolphins did in fact cause a level of stress that was dangerous to the dolphins?

BOXER: The issue of trade has taken front and center stage, not only with this administration, with others as well. And we started this argument with the Clinton administration when they started to weaken the label. But the Bush administration has taken it a major step forward and they are gutting the label. And it’s a sad situation, especially for an administration that says put science first. They have, in fact, shunted aside scientists who are coming up with the conclusion that this encircling and this purse seining actually harms the dolphin.

CURWOOD: You say that interests of trade are what are being put ahead of the dolphins. What do you mean by that?

BOXER: Well, what’s happening is there are a number of countries that still fish for tuna using the dolphin as the key and encircling and throwing nets over them. We’re looking at Ecuador, we’re looking at Peru, we’re looking at Mexico, others. And they want to have access to our market.

Now, my view is, I’m all for that. But if they want the label, then they have to change their fishing ways. If they want to import tuna and not have the label, that’s fine with me. I know people who won’t buy it. But that’s why this is so cynical. This isn’t really about trade, this is about a mindless attitude toward saving this beautiful species.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that, in fact, you are proposing amendments - really new legislation in response to what's going on. What would this do exactly?

BOXER: I’ve already introduced the legislation. It would actually go back to the 1990 bill that I wrote, essentially saying that you cannot get this dolphin-safe label if you harm the dolphin by using the purse seine nets. That’s basically what it, in essence, does.

CURWOOD: I just want you, for a moment, to take us back in history. Can you give us a sense of how the dolphin-safe labeling became such a major issue and what the response was back in 1990 when you introduced your original legislation?

BOXER: Environmental groups did some exposes in the ‘80s in which they really taught us that there were fishing techniques being used in the tuna fisheries that were harming the dolphin and killing the dolphin. My thought was, first of all, to stop the purse seining on dolphin, to make it illegal.

And then the second thought was, because we knew that would raise a lot of issues, why don’t we just say: let the consumer decide. That was the philosophy that I took on and said, let’s have a label. And if our tuna people want to catch the tuna in a way that doesn’t harm the dolphin, they’ll get the dolphin-safe label.

Well, I was thrilled to see the big tuna companies came forward-- Starkist, Bumblebee, Chicken of the Sea-- and it was fabulous. We had long meetings and they backed my legislation and it got through in 1990.

Before that legislation passed, the kids of America had gotten together through the leadership of some of the parents and said, we’re going to boycott tuna sandwiches. You know, that was the famous sandwich you took to school. They were boycotting the tuna, we had the tuna companies came forward, the environmentalists led the way in terms of what was happening, and using all that we got our legislation through.

CURWOOD: Barbara Boxer is a senator, Democratic senator from California. Thank you so much for taking this time.

BOXER: Thank you.

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Skulls and Bones

CURWOOD: Winter storms have been pounding the California coast and keeping most people away from the beaches. But for San Francisco native Ray Bandar, the storms are a welcome opportunity.

Ray’s hobby is retrieving skulls and bones from the dead marine mammals that wash ashore. Reporter Rose Hoban recently followed Ray out to the beach.

[BEACH SOUNDS]

HOBAN: When most people see a dead animal on the beach, they give it a wide berth. Not Ray Bandar. When he comes across the decaying carcass of an elephant seal, he heads straight for it and sets down his knapsack full of tools.

BANDAR: I bring a bunch of knives and a sharpener and a little fork to scoop out brain tissue.

HOBAN: Ray snaps on a pair of latex gloves and sizes up the situation.

BANDAR: Oh, this guy’s been dead for weeks, and probably floating most of that time.



Ray Bandar and an adult female Stellar Sea Lion, Ano Nuevo Island, California, 1963.


HOBAN: Then Ray gets to work cutting away at rotting flesh to reach the bones underneath. It takes time. The seal was a full-grown male, about 12 feet long, and easily weighed several thousand pounds. He has only one thing in mind: getting that skull.

The smell makes me choke, but Ray doesn’t even notice anymore. That’s because he’s been cutting skulls off of dead animals since the Eisenhower administration.

BANDAR: Well, I’ve collected, well, more than 6,000 animals easy. I’ve cut up and collected the skulls from more California sea lions than any other person alive.

HOBAN: It’s hard to believe this all started with one skull back in 1953. Ray was in art school and was studying Georgia O’Keefe and German photographer Andres Feineger, both of whom had given him an appreciation of bones as sculpture.



Ray Bandar holds a 7 1/2 foot Red Kangaroo that was found dead on a road in Queensland, Australia, 1981. (Photo: Alkmene Bandar)


Ray Bandar cleans one of three male California Sea Lion skulls, Ano Nuevo Island, California, circa 1970’s.

BANDAR: Bones are beautiful. They’re fantastic pieces of sculpture. And so once they’re cleaned up, God…they’re art pieces. But they also can tell you a functional story about the life of the animal.

HOBAN: Ray eventually became a high school biology teacher and he continued to collect bones during his spare time. Now, after 40 years of beachcombing, his tall frame and tattered blue field jacket are familiar to wildlife authorities all along the California coast. Perhaps what’s startling is that most of his vast collection is stored at his San Francisco home.

BANDAR: The house is actually an art museum and natural history museum. And a bone palace.

HOBAN: Where do you live in your house?

BANDAR: Oh, I have plenty of place to live. There are bones on all three levels, and the third level has thousands of skulls on display.

HOBAN: Ray shows off the sculptural qualities of bones throughout the house, from abstract pelican pelvises over the fireplace to snake skeletons curled up in glass cases. In Ray’s house, bones are art and bones are humor. There’s a set of moose antlers in the bathtub and a ceramic cup full of penis bones on the dining room table.

But Ray doesn’t collect just for himself. In fact, that would be illegal. He has permission from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to collect, and his findings are donated, at least in spirit. Because Ray’s home is actually an official annex of the academy.

LONG: One of the reasons why Ray has such a huge number of specimens at his house is because we don’t have the room here to store them.

HOBAN: Douglas Long is the head of ornithology and mammalogy at the Academy of Sciences. Last year when the academy made plans to renovate, Long knew they needed to accommodate Ray’s bones. So he sent architects to Ray’s house to take measurements.

LONG: I didn’t tell these people what they were going to run into, and I knew that they would be completely blown away by what they saw. And it was about 10, maybe 15 minutes before their jaws become un-slackened.

HOBAN: Long says a collection like Ray’s is invaluable to science. In just the past year researchers have taken tiny drillings from teeth in Ray’s sea lion skulls to study environmental toxins. Other scientists compared chemicals in the sea lion teeth from before and after an El Nino to examine changes in the animals’ diets.

LONG: People have come up with some fantastic ways of looking for scientific information from these specimens, so there are techniques that will come up in the future that we have no idea now. Who knew about DNA a hundred years ago? Who knew about isotopic chemical analysis from teeth ten years ago?

HOBAN: Over the years Douglas Long has learned to defend Ray’s hobby and what some people see as his weird, relentless search for dead animals.

LONG: I think he’s weird because he doesn’t have a TV, doesn’t have a computer, doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t even eat junk food unless it’s free, and I think that is probably the weirdest thing about him. I think there’s absolutely nothing weird about having the drive to understand nature and to collect scientific information for our institution. That’s normal.

HOBAN: For Ray, collecting has been almost an act of faith. He has no way of knowing what use scientists will find for these bones, these studies in shape and light. They have been his life’s work and they’re his gift to the future.

Now Ray’s legacy is on display at the California Academy of Sciences. And soon there will be a permanent space dedicated to his collection. But he has no intention of resting.

BANDAR: In a month and a half I’ll be 75.

HOBAN: So, isn’t it time to quit?

BANDAR: Hell no. As long as my legs still hold up and there’s still stuff on the beaches, I’m going to work the beaches. As long as there’s still stuff to get from the zoos, I’ll be collecting stuff.

HOBAN: At this rate, the academy had better plan a big extension.

For Living on Earth, I’m Rose Hoban in San Francisco.

Related link:
California Academy of Sciences

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The Rural Life

CURWOOD: We typically think of farmers as a stubborn, practical lot. Picture the stern and utterly determined farming couple who look out from Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic. But our commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg, who farms a five-acre spread in upstate New York, goes about his business with a different kind of purpose.

KLINKENBORG: A couple of weeks ago I found a small settlement of lice on one of the pigs. It was only about the width of a pencil eraser, but even that was too big. I got out a stiff horse brush and gave that pig and her companion a serious brushing, which is one of the great joys in a pig’s life. Then I raked out all the old hay in the pig house, closed the two pigs inside with a fresh hay bail to tear apart, and hauled the house off to a different part of the pasture.

I brush them every time I feed them now, and I haven’t seen any lice since. Eventually as I’m brushing the pigs flop over on their sides and lie there, barely breathing, eyes closed, legs practically quivering with pleasure. I try to remember to watch just how much affection I let myself feel for them. Affection is what we’re really farming up here, farming it mostly in ourselves.

Snow fell late the other afternoon. And as it thickened all around me I realized that there is nothing more definite in the world than the top line of a red pig against the snow. I can always see the self-interest in the animals and perhaps they see it in me too. But there’s something else, as well. Badger’s joy when he bounds out of his kennel in the morning is unspeakable. Is it freedom or is it me? The horses drift their flanks in my direction when they muzzle up to their hay. Is it just a scratch they want or do they have something to tell me?

The chickens crowd up against the chicken yard fence to watch as I approach with the feed bucket. And I have to admit that this is small-town self-interest at its purest: the look of the line in front of the payroll office. But there is always one, a speckled Sussex hen that will let me hold her under my arm. Why she lets me do that, I have no idea. Why I like to is easy: the inscrutable yellow eye, the white dotted feathers, the tortoise shell beak, and above all the noise that she makes. I have no idea what the Sussex is saying but it sounds like broken purring.

A clean barnyard is its own reward, and the way the pigs exalt at feeding time is itself a source of exultation. But there is still no chore as pleasing as gathering eggs. Most of the serious chicken books have charts that measure cost-effectiveness in the poultry yard, the ratios of feed to eggs to dollars and cents. None of the books say anything about gratification, even though a newly laid egg looks exactly like something for nothing.

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times and is author of a new book by the same name.

[MUSIC: David Grier “Jeff Davis” Panorama, Rounder (1997)]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth.

Next week, how a scrap of a hot dog stand has helped see residents of one Oakland, California neighborhood through decades of tough times.

MALE 1: It’s a haunt now, it’s a neighborhood thing.

MALE 2: It’s good, because I got some really bad stuff going on right now and it’s good to be able to depend on something. I depend on Kasper’s for that. It’s real good that it’s here, real good.

CURWOOD: Come with us to the original Kasper’s where a sense of community comes with tomatoes, onions, and relish. Next time, on Living on Earth.

And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime to get the stories behind the news by going to loe.org. That’s loe.org.

[OUTDOOR SOUNDS: EarthEar “Dian’s Family” The Dreams of Gaia, EarthEar (1999)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week high in the mountains of East Africa, the last refuge of the mountain gorilla.

[GORILLA SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: Bernie Krause recorded this family at play while foraging for food.

[GORILLA SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Maggie Villiger and Jennifer Chu, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Jessica Penney and Liz Lempert.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Kat Lempke, Jenny Cutraro and Nathan Marcy. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our Western Bureau. 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.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include: The National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service.

 

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