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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 8, 1996

Air Date: March 8, 1996


New at the Pumps: Manganese Gasoline / Dan Grossman

The Environmental Protection Agency has not had time to assess it, and in the meantime the Ethyl Corporation is promoting its new product, the fuel additive M.M.T., derived from the metal manganese. Dan Grossman reports on the latest controversy at the gas pumps. (06:50)

Fresh Winter Foods

Steve Curwood talks with nutritionist Jennifer Wilkins of Cornell University about what winter vegetables are available, and how best to eat and use them. (04:43)

Investing in Bambi / Catherine Winter

It's been a long, hard winter and nowhere more so than in the northern state of Minnesota where even deer are having a hard time finding enough food among the snow and ice. The Governor just signed off on funds for food reimbursement for citizens who help keep the stags alive until next year's hunting season. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports. (05:08)

Active Listeners

A listener and teacher called the Living on Earth listener line and told us about her class and their recent environmental clean-up success. Steve Curwood called her back and asked her more about it. (03:39)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about polar bears. (01:25)

China Water Scarcity / Lucie MacNeill

Around the world, projections are being made about food production in China in the coming century. Critical to the question of growing food is the availability of the water that irrigates it. Lucie MacNeill reports from China on the state of water in the world's most populous nation, and what may be done to avoid further crisis. (12:15)

China Food Round Table

Lester Brown, President of the WorldWatch Institute, and Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College debate their opposing views and forecasts on the future of China's water supply and food imports. Steve Curwood moderates. (09:20)

Bigfoot Lives Here / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord remarks on the universal myth of "BigFoot" and how old growth woods make sure there is always a habitat for such universally important creatures of the imagination. (02:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Peter Thomson
REPORTERS: Barbara Ferry, Lorna Jordan, Jennifer Schmidt, Dan Grossman, Catherine Winter, Lucie Macneill
GUESTS: Jennifer Wilkins, Dana Opland, Lester Brown, Robert Paarlberg

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The US Environmental Protection Agency has been stopped by the courts from banning a toxic gasoline additive. The EPA's Chief says the ruling unnecessarily puts people's health at risk.

BROWNER: In 1996 there is no reason that a product should go on the market without being subjected to comprehensive testing. The American people should not be turned into a laboratory.

CURWOOD: But makers of the additive MMT say it will actually benefit public health by reducing smog. Also, we'll talk about some winter time produce and give you a recipe to enjoy some while we wait for spring. We want you to consider parsnips.

WINS: You can slice them and saute them in a little butter, add a very little salt and some freshly ground pepper and their absolutely wonderful.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, first news.

Environmental News

THOMSON: From Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson. A key part of the Republican's Contract with America has run aground. House leaders have pulled what they said was a compromise bill that would have curbed Federal agencies' powers to issue health, safety, and environmental rules. In Washington, Barbara Ferry reports.

FERRY: The Regulatory Reform Bill was withdrawn just hours before it was scheduled to be debated on the House floor. Majority whip Tom Delay said he didn't want to force a vote on the bill, because what he called environmental extremists could use the issue against Republicans in this fall's election. President Clinton had threatened to veto the industry-backed bill. He said he was concerned that requiring lengthy reviews of existing and new regulations would drain agency resources, preventing them from addressing new problems. Speaker Newt Gingrich has asked New York's Sherwood Boller to draft a modified version of the bill. Boller is leader of a group of Republicans who want to maintain environmental regulations. For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Ferry in Washington.

THOMSON: Researchers have found that the once pristine Arctic is now as polluted as Europe was as the height of the Industrial Revolutions. Studies conducted in Britain's first permanent research outpost on the polar ice shows high concentrations of mercury in fish in the Arctic Ocean and in freshwater lakes in the area. PCBs and pesticides are also present in the region. Researchers say the substances have wafted in from northern regions of Russia and Europe.

Scientists said it couldn't happen, but a plant genetically altered in the laboratory apparently can cross-breed with weeds in the wild. Danish researchers say canola plants given a gene to make them resistant to weed killers have crossed with close relatives, producing weeds that are also resistant to weed killers. Critics of bioengineering have feared that some transgenic plants already on the market could bring unanticipated problems into the environment.

Serious structural cracks have been found at the Fernald Nuclear Weapons Plant outside Cincinnati. From WVXU in Cincinnati, Lorna Jordan reports.

JORDAN: The Cincinnati Inquirer reported that life threatening structural defects in a plant to clean up radioactive material at the former Fernald uranium processing plant have been ignored or covered up. The plant is being cleaned up by the Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Company, or FERMCO, under government contract. And a senior official with FERMCO told the newspaper that the pilot plant is a death trap waiting for its first victim. The facility is supposed to be used to vitrify waste from 40 years of nuclear weapons production. Don Offtie, the president of FERMCO until last month, says the reports in the paper are gross exaggerations.

OFFTIE: Since we've come here the trend in all of our safety data has been in the right direction. Now, I'm not saying that we're perfect. Nobody is, we're not. But I am saying that we are better today than we were yesterday.

JORDAN: The Cincinnati Inquirer says it stands by its stories. For Living on Earth, I'm Lorna Jordan in Cincinnati.

THOMSON: The National Park Service says it wants to tear down 2 aging hydroelectric dams on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. The Service says it's the only way to restore the ecosystem and salmon runs of the Elwha River. From KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: For the last 80 years the dams have generated power for a local pulp and paper mill. But they were built without fish ladders and have decimated what was once one of the most productive salmon rivers in the region. One of the dams lies entirely within Olympic National Park. The other is just outside park boundaries. The Park Service endorsed dam removal after conducting a lengthy environmental impact statement. The decision comes more than 3 years after Congress passed a law calling for the full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem. David Morris is Superintendent of Olympic National Park.

MORRIS: We considered other alternatives to leaving dams in and to removing each dam separately, but in short a multitude of studies following the Elwha Act in 1992 have shown that the only way to meet the intent of the Act is to remove the dams.

SCHMIDT: The Park Service is now starting another study, this time to determine the best way to remove the dams. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has already come out in support of dam removal, but the high cost of tearing the dams down could still prove to be a major obstacle. Removal is estimated at a minimum of more than $100 million. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

THOMSON: Finally, a Japanese judge has banned some geese from appearing in court, because the court can't attest to their competence as plaintiffs. The lawsuit revolves around a proposed development of a marsh outside Tokyo, a traditional stop over for geese migrating from Siberia. But the feathered plaintiffs are not entirely down about the case, as the court will allow humans to plead on their behalf.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Peter Thomson.

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(Theme music up and under)

New at the Pumps: Manganese Gasoline

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. After a 20-year phase-out, lead is finally gone from America's gasoline. Public health advocates are cheering. Low levels of lead poisoning have been linked to lowered intelligence, as well as increased learning disabilities, school dropout rates, and delinquency. But today another metal that's toxic to the nervous system, manganese, is in the process of being added to the nation's gasoline supply, and public health advocates are warning that, like lead, it may do more harm to your body than good for your car. Manganese is a cheap way to boost the octane rating and thereby boost the profits of refiners. The US Environmental Protection Agency is against it, but as Dan Grossman reports, a recent court ruling has overruled their objections.

GROSSMAN: Last New Year's Eve marked an important milestone. It was the last time gasoline containing the additive tetraethyl lead could be legally sold at gas stations in the US. Starting in the 1920s, lead was blended with gas to prevent premature combustion or knocking. But in 1970, concerned that lead would gum up auto emissions devices, law makers in Congress began a gradual phase-out of lead. the action also removed the largest source of human exposure to a major neurotoxin.

SILBERGELD: We now know that the use of lead in gasoline accounted for about, on average, 60% of the body's burden of lead for Americans and was a major contributor to the incidence of lead poisoning, particularly among children.

GROSSMAN: University of Maryland epidemiologist Ellen Silbergeld ranks the lead ban among the public health achievements of the century. But she worries that the lead story is being repeated all over. Last December the Ethyl Corporation, which originally produced tetraethyl lead, received approval to sell MMT, a gasoline additive containing another metal: manganese. The company boasts MMT will be just as good as lead for America's cars. Health experts like Dr. Silbergeld says the compound could be just as bad as lead for America's people.

SILBERGELD: Like lead, manganese is neurotoxic, and we know it causes clinical disease in people who are chronically exposed. Just as in 1925 when the government had to make a decision about whether lead could be added to gasoline, in 1995, when the government was confronted with the same challenge, there are significant gaps in our knowledge. And this time we have the chance to demand that these gaps be reasonably filled before we permit what is undeniably a dispersive use of a toxic metal that will never go away.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Silbergeld is a consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund. She and other researchers fear that just as in the case of lead, minute amounts of manganese dispersed in auto exhaust will gradually build up in human tissues, possibly with harmful results.

SILBERGELD: At relatively high levels, exposure to manganese causes damage to the lung and the nervous system. Its effects on the brain include psychosis and neuro-motor damage which progresses to a disabling tremor and loss of movement.

GROSSMAN: The effects of large doses of manganese are not in dispute. The question is, what happens when people are exposed to small doses? Chris Hicks, Ethyl's Vice President for Government Affairs, says the exhaust of cars burning fuel with MMT has too little manganese to be harmful.

HICKS: There are many things that we use in our daily life that are toxic at high exposure levels. Aspirin, for instance. Salt. Table salt is toxic at high exposure levels. But if you use it responsibly in small doses, aspirin or salt or MMT actually has a benefit to public health.

GROSSMAN: The benefit would come if MMT helped reduce pollutants that cause smog: a claim made by Ethyl, but which environmental regulators give little weight. More to the point, Mr. Hicks says studies in Canada where MMT has been used since 1977 show that auto exhaust does not substantially contribute to a person's intake of manganese.

HICKS: In a typical automobile gas tank, we're talking about adding one half of a teaspoon of MMT to achieve the benefits. And as our studies in Canada and elsewhere have repeatedly shown, the manganese that comes out of the tail pipe just does not add to the background levels. Manganese is part of your recommended daily intake from the FDA. Most vitamins that contain minerals have manganese in the tablets that are orders of magnitude higher than you would ever be exposed to here.

GROSSMAN: But Ethyl's critics say that's not the point. They're concerned that emissions from MMT gas could significantly raise the levels of manganese in the air, and that inhaling manganese could be more dangerous than eating it. Government scientists say the detailed studies needed to find out have yet to be done. The Environmental Protection Agency is so concerned about MMT, it sought to keep the additive off the market. But Ethyl sued, and last December the US Court of Appeals in Washington ruled the Agency didn't have authority to regulate the additive on health grounds. EPA Administrator Carol Browner says the Agency's hands are tied for now, but it may revisit the issue when further health tests are completed.

BROWNER: We're going to use every single authority to ensure that the kind of health research that we think should have been done on the front end is in fact done, and again if there is any evidence, we will move expeditiously to protect the public's health.

GROSSMAN: Ms. Browner says that could take years. And if there's one lesson she's learned from lead, it's that we should learn the effects of such substances before they go into widespread use, not after.

BROWNER: The bottom line for me is that in 1996 there is no reason that a product should go on the market without being subjected to comprehensive testing. The American people should not be turned into a laboratory.

GROSSMAN: Meanwhile, car companies also have questions. They are concerned that, like lead, MMT could cause trouble for pollution control equipment. And they're considering studies of their own to find out. A coalition of environmental and health groups, spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund, has asked oil refiners and gasoline suppliers to voluntarily refrain from using MMT. No major oil company has announced it will use the additive, but they aren't pledging they won't. Ethyl says gas containing MMT is already for sale at certain service stations, but it won't say which ones. Within a year and a half, the company plans to be producing nearly a million pounds a month for use in gas pumps nationwide. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

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(Music up and under)

Fresh Winter Foods

CURWOOD: Winter will soon be over, officially at least, anyway. But in the northern climes it will be months before there'll be a new crop of local produce. Still, you don't have to rely solely on fruits and vegetables flown in from thousands of miles away. Cornell University nutrition educator Jennifer Wilkins says there's plenty of local produce available right now in the northern regions.

WILKINS: There is quite a variety of foods that are grown in the region that are stored, that can be consumed in the wintertime. A lot of vegetables, for example, beets, burdock root. Potatoes, of course, everyone's familiar with. Parsnips, less familiar but wonderful. Rutabagas. Sprouts can be grown in anyone's kitchen and available all year round. Sweet potatoes, turnips and a whole host of winter squashes.

CURWOOD: Dr. Wilkins, I can go to the store today, right now in the middle of winter. I can buy big strawberries from California and bananas from Panama. I mean, if technology lets me do this, why shouldn't I?

WILKINS: Well, locally grown is often fresher, and fresher produce retains more nutrients. Produce that is transported shorter distances will also have a lower risk of food contamination or a lower need for post-harvest pesticide treatments. And I think more and more, as industrialized as our food system is and as globalized as it is, it has served to separate farmers from consumers and consumers from the land and the cycles of the land and the climate in which they live.

CURWOOD: Are there other reasons to buy locally grown food?

WILKINS: Well, one would be the level of fossil fuel use in the current food system, and the level of petroleum that's used in transporting food around. If consumers are concerned about this limited resource as well as the pollution that's generated from its use, buying food that has not traveled as far is one way of decreasing that. Another reason for consuming locally grown foods is to add more support to our local farmers and processors. We have, in New York State for example, a loss of about 20 farms a week, about 1,000 a year, from one state alone, and this trend is not unfamiliar to other states in the region. So buying produce from local producers is one way to increase their market share, make them more economically viable, so that they can stay in business.

CURWOOD: Now how can we find out what's grown in our own region and what's in season?

WILKINS: One of the things that consumers can do that are interested in having more local foods available to them is to ask for them. To talk to produce managers and request information about the sources of the food. And voice their concern about local agriculture or their interest in having more fruits and vegetables that are produced locally. And I know I'm saying fruits and vegetables, but this also applies to meats and dairy and beans and legumes and grain products as well.

CURWOOD: Now what about buying canned fruits and frozen vegetables in the winter time, here in the Northeast? Are they better or worse for me than fresh produce?

WILKINS: In terms of nutritional value, they're quite comparable. Certain nutrients are lost in the processing of any food, but you have nutrient losses from the time food is harvested to the time it's marketed, depending on how far it travels, how long it travels, the conditions of storage while in transportation. Oftentimes, many nutrients can be preserved in foods because it's transported a very short distance from the time it's harvested to the processing plant. So in terms of nutritional content, there, it's great to eat processed, canned, frozen fruits and vegetables in the winter time.

CURWOOD: What's your favorite winter food? Your favorite winter produce?

WILKINS: Well, I would have to say parsnips. You can slice them and saute them in a little butter add a very little salt and some freshly ground pepper and they're absolutely wonderful.

CURWOOD: How long does it take?

WILKINS: About 10 minutes.

CURWOOD: Well, maybe I'll try those tonight.

WILKINS: And you can saute them with a little butter and put maple syrup on them, which is also a local product, and have them for breakfast.

CURWOOD: Oh ho. Dr. Jennifer Wilkins is a nutrition educator at Cornell University. She recently published the Northeast Regional Food Guide, available from Cornell University Press. Thanks for joining us and bon appetit.

WILKINS: Thank you very much.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead, spending taxpayer's money to keep deer alive for hunters. Coming up on Living on Earth.

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Investing in Bambi

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been a hard winter for wild animals in the northern states. In Minnesota, wildlife biologists predict that up to 40% of the white-tailed deer population will die if deep snow and bitter cold persist much longer. So, Minnesota's Governor recently signed a measure that provides emergency rations for the deer. The state's own biologists say it's a mistake, but hunters think it's a fine idea. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio explains.

WINTER: Despite a recent thaw the snow is deep in Minnesota's northern forests. Snow banks are shoulder high on the drive leading to Bittner's Resort. Perched about a big lake, Bittner's caters to tourists in summer. In winter, owner Jack Berg caters to deer. Berg stands at his living room window and looks out at 2 dozen deer. Some of them look curiously back at him.

BERG: They have very different facial expressions and coloring, too; now look at how narrow this deer's snoot is. In some of them their eyes are real far apart. It gets so you recognize a lot of them. When the TV's on there they stand and they watch TV all the time.

WINTER: Berg watches the deer eat corn and fight and play. A fawn bounds around the yard in circles. A doe reaches out a hoof and punches another in the ribs to shove it away from the food. Berg says 50 deer will come by in an evening.

BERG: In warm weather and the winters aren't severe, they don't come in like this. You know, they eat a little bit and they go out and feed on their own. But this winter they're hungry.

WINTER: The deep snow this year makes it harder for deer to forage, and the cold makes them burn more energy. Berg says he has spent more than $600 on corn already this year, far more than he usually spends. And he wants the state to reimburse him.

BERG: The deer are being saved by the people that are volunteering their own finances to get them through the winter. And the DNR has the money; it's supposed to come out of the licenses, correct? So they should have some money put away for it, and in a winter where people like myself have definitely saved a lot of deer's lives, I think it wouldn't hurt the DNR to give us a couple hundred bucks back.

WINTER: Berg is hoping he'll get some money or corn under the new Emergency Deer Feeding Act. Under the measure the state will work with volunteers to distribute food. Many of those volunteers, and many of the loudest backers of the bill, are not just sympathetic with the plight of hungry deer. They're hunters who want to make sure there's something to hunt next fall. State Representative Tony Kinkel says the measure is a good investment, because hunting is good for Minnesota's economy. Hunters spend millions of dollars on licenses every year. And Kinkel says the 450,000 hunters in Minnesota carry a lot of political clout.

KINKEL: If history is any indication, in 1988-89 when I carried the legislation for emergency deer feeding, the bill passed 130 to 1, and the 1 legislator that voted against it lost the election the next year.

WINTER: But biologists say the emergency deer feeding program 7 years ago didn't work. They say the state spent a million dollars and only reached 3% of the state's deer. Publicly funded deer feeding programs are unusual in all the northern states that mark the fringe of white tail habitat. Biologist Mark Lenarz with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says it's too hard to get food into forests where there are few roads and the snow is deep.

LENARZ: We simply cannot reach enough deer with a feeding program, and the limited money for deer management would be much better spent on habitat management, long range management for the deer population rather than a short term fix.

WINTER: Many hunters agree with the DNR that money would be better spent on other projects. But officials with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association argue that feeding may be more successful this time around because more volunteers are available to distribute food, and more roads have been cut into the forest. State Senator Doug Johnson sponsored the Emergency Deer Feeding Bill.

JOHNSON: I think the biologists are not right on this one. I think if the DNR will cooperate with the hunters and the snowmobilers and other volunteers in the forested regions of northern Minnesota, that we can really have a lot of success on bringing more deer through this terrible winter.

WINTER: During hearings, lawmakers joked about the deer feeding bills. One suggested killing the deer now before they starve and giving the meat to poor families. Some said there were better uses for the money, but in the end lawmakers voted for emergency feeding. Biologists continue to maintain that the program won't help deer much. But even if it doesn't it's not certain large numbers of deer will die this year. If Minnesota gets a prolonged thaw, most deer will be fine. So there might be a good-sized herd for hunters this fall, anyway. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

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Active Listeners

CURWOOD: Environmental progress doesn't always come down in edicts from a protection agency in Washington, DC, or in the results of a study published in some prestigious journal. It often takes place right under our very noses. That's why we ask you to let us know about what might be called small acts of environmental heroism or invention taking place in your community, or your own back yard. This week's offering comes from Dana Opland. She's a teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who tells us that a recent social studies assignment at the Custer High School blossomed into a lesson about toxic waste and civil action.

OPLAND: Students were given a map of our city, of Milwaukee, that had all of the toxic sites here from Superfunds to smaller noted toxic sites, and they were to go look at one, and they had a questionnaire that their social studies teacher, Larry Miller, had created, that they were supposed to answer after they looked at it. And all of them had a site within 8 blocks of their home.

CURWOOD: Okay, and what did they come up with?

OPLAND: Well, 2 of the students took a shortcut that they always taken to and from school, and they had happened to look at their map and noticed that this big, muddy spot that they've always walked by was really a toxic site. They were surprised to see that looked so normal and wasn't a green, bubbling mass of mess that they would have thought from TV and from, you know, from what you read. So I think they were real shocked, and they came to us the day after they noticed it, and they were like, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you have to come see this." It had seeped into the adjacent playground. There was like a softball field, and like some swing sets and stuff and a tennis court, that it had seeped onto. And so the students were like well, if this is on our school property, we should be able to get it cleaned up. And they initiated going to the School Board and getting it cleaned up.

CURWOOD: How contaminated was it?

OPLAND: I don't think it was a major, major contamination problem. But it was there for quite some time, and because of a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, the company that was there had gone through a lot of trouble to try to get it cleaned up. But they were having trouble getting through the DNR and through MPS, Milwaukee Public Schools, and getting it all cleaned up. And so I think the kids were kind of angry and really wanted to do something about it, at least that's what I saw, because the kids stayed after school on their own time many nights. They put together these videos and they showed the videos at conferences and parents went in. And they made flyers and handed them out to parents and really wanted to get this out to the community that this is a problem that needs to be fixed.

CURWOOD: Is the site clean today?

OPLAND: Yes; it was cleaned up. We went back a few times after they initiated the cleanup, and we looked at it and it's pretty well clean, yeah. So we were real happy. It was nice to see some closure to it.

CURWOOD: And the kids made the difference.

OPLAND: Yeah, they really did. I don't think it would have been cleaned up as fast had they not been the driving force behind it all.

CURWOOD: Well, Ms. Opland, thanks so much for talking with us.

OPLAND: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Dana Opland is an English teacher at the John Muir Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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CURWOOD: And if you or someone you know has an interesting environmental tale to tell us, give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. If you want to mail us a letter, the address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up in the next half hour: China's economy is booming but it's running out of clean water and falling behind its population with food production. Find out how we're already feeling the squeeze just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Canada is being invaded by 60 million polar bears. But few are worried about this ursine onslaught. The mighty bruins are just images on the Great White North's new $2 coin. It has no official name, but the new money is drawing nicknames the way bears are drawn to honey. Among them: the Teddy, the Bilingual Deuxbear as in too much deuxbear, and the Bearly as in barely worth $2. Canada is already home to 13,000 real live polar bears. The small town of Churchill, Manitoba, has the most popular winter accommodations for the polars. The town boasts a maternity ward of some 200 dens where pregnant polar bears seek their confinement for the darkest months. The polar is the youngest of the 8 known species of bear, having evolved during the last great Ice Age, a mere 250,000 years ago. Of those 8 species, only the polar and the American black bear populations aren't in decline. The polar bear is the largest land carnivore, with some males growing nearly 10 feet tall and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds. By comparison, Canada's new polar bear coin weighs at barely a quarter of an ounce. And for the second week of March, 1996, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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China Water Scarcity

CURWOOD: China has the oldest major civilization on earth, and even though it had invented rocketry, it was left behind when the Industrial Revolution took off in the West. But today, just like the proverbial steady tortoise that passes the overconfident hare, China is once again poised to lead humanity. Already China has the world's largest population, and soon will have the world's largest economy as well, surpassing the United States. But this economic boom has come with a dark side: environmental decline. This week and next, we'll look at the severe air and water pollution that's now choking China, and also consider how China's need for food is putting the squeeze on world grain markets. When it comes to water, China has mirrored Western development of years past. Industry has dumped dirty effluent. Agricultural chemicals have leached into groundwater. And cities have grown without adequate sewage treatment. The result is a critical shortage of clean water in a country that's never had much water to begin with. Lucie McNeill has our report.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: When Marco Polo visited the city of Suzhou 500 years ago, he was so charmed by its graceful canals that he called it the Venice of the East. Suzhou is only an hour away from Shanghai. It attracts millions of tourists every year. But these days the stench is so nauseating, visitors have to hold their nose when they go anywhere near the canals. Zhou Xiaodong is with the Municipal Government's Construction Bureau. He's in charge of water quality.

XIAODONG: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Six months a year the water here is black and stinky. One time we drained the canals and you wouldn't believe what we found. Coal, household refuse, and even old sofas. In the summer you can see rotten vegetables, watermelon peels, and plastic bags floating on the surface. It's a mess.

MCNEILL: It wasn't always this way. Zhou Xiaodong remembers swimming in the canals when he was a child. People even used to catch fish and shrimp in these waters. But over the past 20 years industries have flourished throughout the region, and the city's population has increased dramatically. Thanks to the UN, the World Bank, and other international aid agencies, Suzhou has started to fight back.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: This is one of the city's 4 sewage treatment plants. Ti Ming Yuen is the engineer in charge. He ignores the unmistakable smell of sewage as he proudly shows off the facility.

YUEN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Look at this water. Now that it's treated it's as clear as a mountain stream. You still can't drink it, but it can be used in industry and we can raise fish in it. I believe it's good to invest in our environment. If there was no waste treatment in Suzhou, nobody would come here for business or pleasure.

MCNEILL: Suzhou now treats one quarter of its domestic sewage. It's primary treatment, which means only the solids have been filtered out, not the pathogens or the chemical contaminants. Yet it's an outstanding performance for a Chinese city. By the year 2000, the government's target is to have one third of all cities in the country install treatment plants like this one.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: But by far China's biggest problem is industrial waste. In Suzhou, three quarters of the industrial effluent is treated. However, the remainder is potent enough to cause severe water quality problems. There are 13 major polluters upstream: paper mills, electroplating factories, pharmaceutical and chemical plants. They're pumping heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, and organic matter directly into the canal. Zhou Xiaodong of the municipal government says both the industries and the government are at fault.

XIAODONG: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Our economy is doing great, but our enterprises do not care about the environment. Maybe you've had this problem, too. Businessmen only care about profit. In theory, they have to obey government regulations, but we don't have the manpower to check up on them, so the water quality keeps deteriorating.

(Traffic; a horn blasts)

MCNEILL: Two years ago the dangers of water pollution were brought home to the 100 million people who live along the banks of the Huai River, one of eastern China's main waterways. Heavy rains drenched the area up river, washing downstream toxic effluent that had been accumulating for years in settling ponds and lagoons. As the murky black tide swept along, millions of people had to stop drinking the water. Thousands were treated in hospital for poisoning. Millions of fish, shrimp and birds were killed. Irrigated crops were contaminated and had to be destroyed. (Many voices, children laughing, motors running, bicycle bells) Overnight, the Huy River became a national emergency. It's now the government's number one cleanup priority. Wang Zhixia is with NEPA, China's National Environment Protection Agency.

ZHIXIA: The people living in this basin, this was 100 million people, and the water quality is so bad. And we closed down some of the polluters in the polluting industries.

MCNEILL: How many factories were shut down?

ZHIXIA: In last year, about 362 something.

MCNEILL: Factories.


MCNEILL: Were closed.


MacNEILL: Diplomats here point out that while the Chinese authorities are to be commended for this, the major polluters along the river are still dumping effluent at will. They employ too many people and are far too important to the local economy to be mothballed. Those enterprises have been given a deadline to install waste treatment facilities, but it's doubtful the government will shut down delinquent plants for good. That's why experts believe that in south and east China, water pollution will remain critical for years to come.

(A pot being dipped in water)

MacNEILL: Here in northwest China the problem is not so much pollution as scarcity. There's very little water. Ma Junzhen collects all the rain water and snow melt he can in this cistern, but already it's nearly empty. There's hardly enough water for his sheep. A thousand miles from Beijing, just below Mongolia, is Ningxia Province. This area's been plagued by droughts for centuries. Farmers like Mr. Ma have always stored water in underground cisterns like this one. Still, some years they run out.

MA: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: When it doesn't rain we don't harvest anything. We don't eat. Water is the most precious thing there is. We often have to buy water and get it trucked in. It costs $30 to fill this cistern. This water here is a treasure. If we don't padlock the lid, people come in the middle of the night to steal it.

(A lid closes; a pot scrapes)

MacNEILL: The acute shortage of water for most of China's vast northwest region is a major crisis for the authorities, and millions of dollars have been spent to alleviate it. Deep wells have been drilled, reservoirs built. Water from the Yellow River is pumped up to villages hundreds of miles away. And farmers are relocated from virtual deserts to newly irrigated areas. Still, it's not enough. In fact, as China taps increasing amounts of groundwater, the water table recedes ever deeper. In some places the ground is even sinking as a result. Water use in the northwest is clearly not sustainable. China's response to this crisis is grandiose in scale. Li Changfan is one of the top officials with the Ministry of Water Resources. He proudly announced the government's plan at a recent press conference in Beijing.

LI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Our approach is to transfer water from water rich areas to areas where there's a water deficit. Over the next 50 years we'll develop water transfer projects from the Yangtse River to the Yellow, Hai, and Haui River basins. That will solve the shortage there.

MacNEILL: This is the kind of mammoth scheme that engineers love but ecologists hate. NEPA, the National Environment Protection Agency, has so far been very cautious about massive inter-basin water transfers. Its experts worry that polluted Yangtse River water would only contaminated the northwest. But since the Water Ministry is far more powerful than NEPA, they're likely to win the day. Susan McDade is with the United Nations Development Program. She also questions the wisdom of disturbing whole river basins and setting off unforeseeable ecological chain reactions. But she points out mega projects of this scope are the Chinese way.

McDADE: China's the same country that generated the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and many of these mega projects to reshape land and territory. So this is part of the Chinese approach to how they see their world, and it is facilitated by the fact of China being a relatively homogeneous and extremely large country. So it means in terms of the way the government system is operated, they consider these things to be possible.

MCNEILL: Leading experts on China's environment, like Susan McDade, believe the scarcity of clean water is the most serious challenge facing the country. Already it's affecting the growth and productivity of both agriculture and industry. But it took the Huai River disaster to wake up China's leaders. They finally realized if they don't act now, future water emergencies could be much more severe, triggering starvation, mass migration, or civil unrest. The central government seems determined to hold the line on pollution at 1995 levels. But many doubt local governments will listen to Beijing. To clamp down on polluters would affect local revenues. Short-sighted provincial officials often think it's better to get rich now than protect water quality for future generations. There's a saying here: when the Emperor is far away, you can ignore his orders. A lot of inertia and resistance will have to be overcome before people change the way they use water. But Susan McDade of the UNDP believes straight economics will prove the environment's best ally.

McDADE: One of the things that characterizes water use in China right now is there's a very, very low, in many cases non-existing, reuse or recycling of water. Now perversely, water scarcity may be one of the things that push industrial enterprises to start introducing wastewater recycling and reuse, because even if the water is not necessarily expensive to be biting economically, its scarcity could be biting in terms of, you know, a barrier to production.

MCNEILL: Now this is going to take time. That's why the situation is going to get worse. What's hopeful is that there's a growing recognition here that it would be suicidal to continue on this present course. The government is starting to take action, not only by cleaning up pollution, but by making better use of the little water there is. People now realize clean water is a scarce resource that can no longer be taken for granted.

(Running water)

MCNEILL: For Living on Earth, this is Lucie McNeill in Beijing.

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CURWOOD: Chinese prosperity is pushing up world grain prices. Some see it as a crisis, others as an opportunity. That debate is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Chinese music up and under)

China Food Round Table

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As China's economy booms, its appetite for food is growing. With more money to spend, Chinese are eating more pork, as much already as an average American. And all that meat takes plenty of grain for fattening up. Last year, for the first time in decades, China had to import large amounts of grain, helping to drive some world grain prices up by as much as 60%. Grain imports are a touchy issue in a country where a series of famines this century has made food self sufficiency a hot button politically. Until recently, China's leadership was unwilling to admit that domestic grain production was falling behind demand. What changed their tune was the release of a book last year by World Watch President Lester Brown. In Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, Les Brown projected a widening grain gap for China and problems for the rest of us as China uses its newfound wealth to buy what it can't grow. But others say the gap will be smaller, and the global consequences less dire than Mr. Brown projects. They include Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, who joined us for a chat with Lester Brown. Mr. Brown says his gloomy forecast is based in part on a rapid development that's paving over some of China's best cropland, and on water scarcity.

BROWN: Two things are happening. One, water tables are falling. And when the aquifers are depleted there will be a cutback in the amount of irrigation water, simply because the pumping at that point cannot exceed the recharge. The second thing that's happening is, as water becomes more scarce, is that the cities are pulling irrigation water away from farmers. We saw this most dramatically in the Spring of '94, when the government banned farmers from all the reservoirs in the agricultural region surrounding Beijing. When China runs into water scarcity, when the cities begin pulling water away from farmers, then they have to import grain. When China imports a ton of wheat, it's basically importing a thousand tons of water. This is how countries begin to balance their water books.

CURWOOD: Professor Paarlberg, I have a paper here that you've written about this situation, and you've called Lester Brown a "productivity pessimist," I think, in this, when it comes to the food situation in China. You're not so pessimistic. Why not?

PAARLBERG: I prefer to label myself a realist. Grain yields in China have plenty of room to improve before they reach even the levels found elsewhere in East Asia. So the technology is there even with current knowledge to increase grain yields in China substantially. I don't think there's any good reason to forecast a 20% decline in grain production in China. And I think Lester really is an outlyer here. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization forecasts not a 20% decline but a 70% increase in China's grain production over the next 30 or 40 years. The International Food Policy Research Institute forecasts a 60% to 90% increase. So if I'm an optimist, I at least have a lot of respectable company.

CURWOOD: But what about the water scarcity question that Lester Brown addresses?

PAARLBERG: Lester is right. Water will be an increasingly scarce resource in China. As the population continues to grow, per capita water availability in China between now and the middle of the next century will decline by about 30%. But I think China can manage that for its agricultural sector, if it does something about wasteful water use in urban areas, in residential and industrial use. Now, urban and industrial users aren't metered. They don't pay a price for water, and so they waste water, and that's why they're sucking it away from agriculture.

CURWOOD: Lester, do you want to respond?

BROWN: I just wanted to say that other countries, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, to be precise, have also raised their yields rather substantially over the last few decades. But they've not been able to do it fast enough to offset the loss of crop land, and that's the key in the analysis. And what's happened in each of those countries is they've lost so much crop land that the production of grain in all 3 has declined by roughly one third. And this at a time when their demand for grain has been climbing as incomes have risen, has led all 3 now to import about 70% of their grain.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about your projections for a moment. Just how much grain do you think China will have to import in the future? And then can you tell us why you feel this is a problem? They can afford it, can't they?

BROWN: There's going to be an enormous gap developing between the soaring demand and the slowly declining supply. This could lead to imports of somewhere between roughly 200 and 360 million tons of grain by the year 2030. I said imports; I should say import needs, because though China can probably afford to import that much grain, which is nearly twice world grain trade at present, the grain is not likely going to be there on that scale, and what I think we're going to see is much higher grain prices. Now, rising grain prices is good if you happen to be a grain exporter like the United States. But if you're a grain importing country, like most of the low income countries in Africa, if the price of grain doubles, then these countries, many of them, will be facing life threatening situations.

CURWOOD: Rob Paarlberg, you think this threat of massive imports is a false one; am I correct?

PAARLBERG: Yes, you're correct. I expect that China will become a substantial importer of grain into the next century, probably 40 or 50 million tons by the year 2020 or 2030, but I think it will be doing that for a very good reason. It will be converting grain land into the production of higher value crops like fruits and vegetables, and it will be importing grain, especially feed grain, from places like Iowa and Illinois that don't face water shortages or land shortages. It makes environmental sense. So I don't think it's a worrisome trend for China to import. I think they should and I think they will. But I don't think there's any likelihood that they're going to import 200 or 300 million tons of grain. We've heard predictions of scarcity in the past, and they haven't come true in the past.

CURWOOD: But recent corn prices are up by 60%.

PAARLBERG: Grain prices that are 30% or 40% higher than they were a year and a half ago is not the problem; that's the solution. Because of higher grain prices, the United States is now going to take land that the government was paying farmers to keep idle and bring it back into production. And we're going to rebuild the stock levels that were drawn down too low.

BROWN: Let me just say that the situation today, I think, is different, than from any other time in history, in the sense that even though grain prices are rising and may well double shortly, the production response will not be the same. For one thing, back in the 70s when food prices went up, fishermen invested heavily in more fishing trawlers. But if they do that today they're simply going to hasten the collapse of fisheries. And similarly with the use of fertilizer. Farmers poured on a lot more fertilizer in the 1970s when grain prices doubled, but now in many parts of the world more fertilizer simply doesn't have much effect on production.

CURWOOD: What should the rest of the world be doing to protect against the potential of grain price shocks? Lester Brown?

BROWN: It seems to me that we need to be doing several things. One, we may want to rethink population policy. The other thing we need to do is to look at how we tap the one reserve we have left now that world grain stocks are at the lowest level on record, and that is the grain fed to livestock. Do we do that with a tax on consumption of livestock products? Do we do it with rationing as some countries have done historically? But that's an issue I think we need to deal with. And then finally, I think we need to realize that the real security threat in the future now is probably going to be food security, if my analysis is at all close to the mark. And to deal with that we have to think about investing a lot more in agriculture; in agricultural research as Rob has noted; in irrigation efficiency, an area of great under-investment; and also in protecting crop land and protecting topsoil from erosion. These are going to be the real security issue in the years ahead.

PAARLBERG: Well here's where I agree with Lester. More investment is needed, especially by governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- that includes the Chinese government -- in agricultural research. In Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, where 30% or 50% or 60% of the people live in the countryside, governments still invest only about 6% of their budget in agriculture. That's much too low. One of the benefits of high prices on the world market, and one of the benefits of Lester's book, is to wake up governments that are under-investing in agriculture, and get them to spend a little more.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for taking this time with us. Lester Brown is President of World Watch and author of Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet. Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and a faculty associate at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. Thank you gentlemen both for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you, Steve.

PAARLBERG: Thank you, Steve.

BROWN: Enjoyed it, Rob.

PAARLBERG: Okay, see you Les.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Bigfoot Lives Here

CURWOOD: And now for some different news from China: In January a team of thirty scientists working in the forests of central China reported they found valuable clues in their search for the creature we call Big Foot. Big Foot is regarded by many as a mythological being. But many have claimed to see one. Among these are ten Chinese techinicans and tourists who say that in 1993 they spotted a group of three creatures-half human and half ape, about six and a half feet tall, with huge feet and long red hair. The Chinese sightings occured in a secluded forest that provides sanctuary for large numbers of threatened species. The scientists say that they have found hairs, footprints, feces and nests believed to have been left by Big Foot, and they predict that the riddle will probably be solved in the near future.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the government of King County, Washington was embarassed recently when the list of locally protected species was found to include Sasquatch, that is Sasquatch as in Big Foot. The discovery. has brought ridicule on the county, but commentator Nancy Lord says it might not be such a bad idea to protect Big Foot habitat

LORD: I've been visiting southeast Alaska and, not coincidentally, thinking about Big Foot. If there's a mysterious humanoid creature keeping to itself in the wild, these deep forests of spruce and hemlock are surely where it lives. The hairy, ape-faced giant we know as Big Foot has a distinguished and pervasive history all around the globe. It's Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, Windigo in the north woods, Stoneclad in Cherokee country, Brushman in interior Canada. In Asia we find stories of Yeti, the Wild Man, and the Chuchunaa of Siberia. Other versions come from Haiti, Borneo, Africa, Columbia and from old Europe. In my part of Alaska Athabaskan people call it Nantina, the long-armed, child-stealing Woodsman. In Athabaskan tradition this creature is a part of the environment as surely and truly as the bear and the chickadee. It's secretive and fast-moving, seldom seen, and a person who tries to harm one will be beset by bad luck. What does it mean, this Big Foot ubiquitousness? Either there really are such creatures living on the mountaintops and swamp bottoms, in the deep forests, or there aren't except in our mythologies. It doesn't matter to me which it is, the flesh-and-blood reality or the possibility, the distant hooting, the smudged tracks, the glimpse, the mystery. What seems important is that human beings, ancient and modern have a fundamental need to believe in something like ourselves, but wilder, connected to nature, to whatever's out there that's beyond our own control. If we need Big Foot, and we need that belief and connection, then we also need the places that Big Foot lives. We need the habitats that support the creature and-or the myth. In southeast Alaska, that's old-growth forest. If we can't or won't save such forests for what we know about in cold scientific fact, their biodiversity, and the real creatures that participate in that, the deer and spawning salmon, microbes and murrelets, then let us save the forests for what we don't know. Let us leave some places overgrown and tangled simply to preserve their mystery, for the possibility that there might be anything there, for what we might someday discover even about ourselves.

CURWOOD: Writer Nancy Lord lives and fishes in Homer Alaska and comes to us from member station KBBI.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Adam Glen, Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, and Michael Argue, and Emily Atkinson. A fond farewell to intern Kathryn Bennett, who is headed back to the frozen north of Dartmouth. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

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