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

July 26, 1996

Air Date: July 26, 1996


Global Admission on Worldwide Warming / Dan Grossman

Not much is likely to be done before the 1996 U.S. Presidential election is over, but if President Clinton is re-elected, new signals from his cabinet are that the U.S. will work to have legal solutions to global greenhouse gas pollution emissions. Dan Grossman reports on Washington’s possible policy shift. (06:47)

Mighty Bee Mites: Decimating the Pollinating Honeybee / Matt Binder

A tiny development is having a major impact on national agriculture. Pollinating honeybees which are relied upon for spreading many kinds of seeds are being destroyed by two different species of mite. Matt Binder reports on how scientists and farmers are working to stay ahead of this stinging new problem. (12:43)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... the Seveso, Italy chemical accident. (01:15)

Down on the Coffee Plantation / Jana Schroeder

The Mexican government is encouraging coffee growers to plant on coffee farms, or plantations. Jana Schroeder reports on the consequences of harvesting coffee continually on the same soil, and how the move away from shade tree coffee growing is also affecting migrating birds and wildlife. (07:59)

Dreaming of Coffee / Alan Durning

Commentator Alan Durning had a kind of dream about the negative global impacts of his coffee drinking addiction, and he has given it up for locally grown herb tea. Experience this aural epiphany. (03:52)

Three Sisters: Letting Go of the Family Farm / Tatiana Schreiber

The elderly Lepine sisters of Mud City, Vermont recently auctioned off their dairy herd, and came up with a workable solution for finding future caretakers for their 660 acre family farm. Tatiana Schreiber visited with Gert, Therese and Jeanette Lepine. (10:55)

House Speaker Replies

Living on Earth listeners weigh in via phone and mail on our recent portrait of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s environmental history. (02:36)

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: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Steve Helwig, Dan Grossman, Matt Binder, Jana Schroeder, Tatiana Schreiber

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley. The US government has endorsed a scientific finding that pollution is leading to global warming. The Clinton Administration won't say what that means until after the election. But the move has others whispering the words that no one wants to hear.

REILLY: I think the implication in Secretary Wirth's statement in Geneva is that the United States will contemplate energy taxes.

NUNLEY: Also, where have all the honeybees gone?

ROWEN: It seemed to happen in 3 weeks. I went from busy hives to almost a wiped out apiary. They seemed to just collapse.

NUNLEY: Farmers depend on bees to pollinate crops but bees are under attack from 2 tiny mites, and food prices may hang in the balance. This week on Living on Earth; first the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. A Federal Appeals Court has ordered the Energy Department to start accepting nuclear waste from power plants in 1998. Under current law the Energy Department is required to dispose of the nuclear industry's spent fuels starting that year, but the department argues that it won't have a storage facility ready until 2010. Some utilities say they'll run out of space for spent fuel at their own plants well before then. They say storing the growing pile of waste will cost them millions of dollars, and power companies have paid more than $12 billion in fees to the government to build a permanent dump. Legislation now before the Senate would create a temporary storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a move opposed by the Clinton Administration.

Greek children exposed while in the womb to radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster are twice as likely to develop leukemia. Researchers at the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention say they have clear evidence that the explosion could have caused one form of childhood cancer. Scientists checked every case of childhood leukemia reported in Greece against measurements of fallout from the disaster which because of weather conditions hit Greece hard. The study was published in the journal Nature.

The release of 9 California condors into Arizona's Grand Canyon, a region they last inhabited more than a century ago, has been delayed until the end of the year. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: The return of North America's largest and rarest bird, the endangered California condor, to the Grand Canyon region, has been postponed until a new batch of young birds is ready for release. Scientists had hoped to use 9 young condors born and raised in the captive breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo as the first birds to be released outside of California. But objections by landowners spurred bureaucratic wranglings about the birds' status under the Endangered Species Act. That status was changed to let the owners have more control over their land. The 9 condors are now too old to be kept in captivity much longer. They'll be released instead in California, where they'll join the 17 other condors that exist in the wild. Meanwhile, as officials fine-tune the Grand Canyon agreement, wildlife experts are preparing 6 young chicks from Los Angeles and Boise, Idaho, for a December release. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

MULLINS: China may have no clean drinking water within 30 years if the government doesn't take quick action. The country's Minister of Water Resources says China's water supply is severely threatened by pollution. Eighty percent of the more than 100 million tons of waste discharged daily into China's rivers and lakes is untreated. Of 532 rivers monitored by the ministry, 436 are classified as polluted. The nation also faces a critical problem getting water from the flood-prone south to the parched north. The government says more than half of China's 600 large and medium sized cities are already short of water. China's 9 northernmost provinces have only a third of the drinking water per person as the rest of the country. The Water Ministry says China's preparing to build a system of canals that would irrigate the north from major southern rivers.

An old growth forest in Oregon burned by an unknown arsonist has been temporarily spared from salvage logging. From KLCC in Oregon, Steve Helwig reports.

HELWIG: Warner Creek, 50 miles east of Eugene, has been a rallying cry for environmentalists since it was burned in 1991. Moves by forest officials to sell parcels for salvage logging were stepped up by the passage of a law last year authorizing the sale of diseased and damaged trees and protecting those sales from activist lawsuits. But a recent White House directive says logging in roadless areas cannot proceed even under the salvage law. An environmental lawyer says Warner Creek is the first salvage sale the Forest Service has backed out of due to the White House mandate. The halt on salvage logging at Warner Creek may be only temporary, though. A Forest Service spokeswoman says a timber sale under different guidelines may be pursued after the current salvage law expires at the end of the year. If that is so, environmentalists promise the Forest Service the battle will resume in court. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Helwig in Eugene, Oregon.

MULLINS: Seventeen hundred sea lions who mysteriously flocked to Monterey, California, in May have just as mysteriously left. Marine biologists are baffled at the sudden exodus of the animals. Despite the steady stream of tourists the animals drew, Monterrey officials were opposed to the marine mammals taking up long-term residence. The county's Animal Control Office had to recruit more than 100 volunteers to keep the sea lions off public walkways, out of beach restrooms, and away from fishermen's docks. Scientists do have one theory as to why the sea lions left town: food. One official described them as buffet driven, and thinks they probably just went off in search of more squid.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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(Theme music up and under)

Global Admission on Worldwide Warming

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley in this week for Steve Curwood. The United States has called on the world community to take bold new steps to combat global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The announcement is being praised by environmentalists and assailed by many captains of industry. But the details of the proposal have yet to be worked out. And as Living on Earth's Dan Grossman reports, the devil is in those details.

GROSSMAN: For decades, scientists have been looking for evidence that pollution is altering the atmosphere and heating up the planet. Late last year an international group of scientists completed the most comprehensive report on the subject yet. The conclusion was unequivocal.

WIRTH: Two thousand of the leading scientists around the world are saying that the imprint of man on the climate of the world can now be seen and recommending very strongly that it is time for nations in the world to take steps.

GROSSMAN: Timothy Wirth is the Undersecretary of State for World Affairs. In mid-July, at a high-level meeting in Geneva, he officially acknowledged on behalf of the US that global warming is happening and must be slowed. He also said the US wants to fix a serious problem in the 1992 Global Warming Treaty negotiated in Rio de Janeiro. That treaty called for modest cutbacks in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but few countries are on target. The problem is the treaty is not binding. Undersecretary Wirth says the US wants to change that.

WIRTH: We're proposing a legally binding program in which targets will be set internationally, and in which nations will have obligations to meet those targets.

GROSSMAN: The Bush Administration had opposed binding commitments in Rio. Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly, who negotiated the Rio agreement, says that meeting these goals would have required new taxes on energy, which President Bush opposed. But Mr. Reilly was never completely happy with the treaty and would be pleased to see it fixed.

REILLY: The Administration has made an important statement in Geneva. The statement almost explicitly says look, a lot of us have been making commitments, at least since we signed the climate treaty, that we have not seriously set out to achieve.

GROSSMAN: The Administration has yet to announce what targets it will propose the nations meet. These will be discussed at an international meeting next year. The specific means for reaching these targets would come later. Michael Oppenheimer, Chief Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says it's likely that substantial cuts will be needed to prevent serious climate disruption.

OPPENHEIMER: To keep the warming at a moderate rate of, say, a couple of degrees Fahrenheit over the next century would require that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases come down eventually to around half current levels.

GROSSMAN: But Dr. Oppenheimer says that some steps to meet these goals would be relatively painless.

OPPENHEIMER: People, oh, 10 years from now could be driving cars that are 45 or 50 miles per gallon. Electric utilities would become more and more dependent on natural gas, and eventually, where possible, on solar energy, and people would be buying the highest efficiency light bulbs and the high efficiency appliances.

GROSSMAN: The real question is how to get Americans to buy these products. Former EPA Chief William Reilly expects the Clinton Administration will have to turn to the approach so anathema to President Bush.

REILLY: I think the implication in Secretary Wirth's statement in Geneva is that the United States will contemplate energy taxes.

GROSSMAN: An energy tax would encourage conservation technologies by making fuel more expensive. It's an idea that gives some business leaders fits.

PALMER: Our economy and our society has been built on affordable energy. It is a competitive advantage we have in the United States. Oil, natural gas, and coal.

GROSSMAN: Fred Palmer is the CEO of the Western Fuels Association, which supplies coal to utilities. Coal is one of the worst greenhouse offenders. Mr. Palmer believes a faction of apocalyptic Chicken Littles, including Tim Wirth and Vice President Al Gore, has taken over the Administration's energy policies. When it comes to predicting the impact, Mr. Palmer himself sounds like a prophet of doom.

PALMER: If they have their way and we are forced to move more and more to renewable energy sources in the US, there will be major adverse consequences caused for our economy that are not foreseen by those who promote these policies.

GROSSMAN: But the corporate community is not uniformly opposed to policies to slow global warming. For instance, the insurance industry, concerned that climate change will alter weather patterns and increase property damage, is beginning to argue for prompt and substantial cuts in greenhouse gases. Kevin Fay heads a coalition of corporations, including chemical companies like DuPont, that is lining up behind the Administration's plan.

FAY: It's certainly going to require us to use our energy more efficiently. But it's also probably going to require in the longer-term revolutionary technological change. I don't think anybody can, just as at the turn of the last century, could identify what technologies we would be using today. It's difficult to predict what that might be, say, 50 to 70 years from now.

GROSSMAN: While anyone who contemplates climate change must think long-term, the Administration is for now focusing on the coming months. The State Department says the first details of the new proposal won't be ready until next year. That's safely on the far side of the Presidential election. While the American public supports environmental protection, the candidates know conservation measures, especially ones requiring new taxes, could be campaign poison. Jimmy Carter's unpopular conservation policies in the 1970s are believed partly to blame for the failure of his 1980 re-election bid. For his part Western Fuels CEO Fred Palmer doesn't care about the particulars of the Administration's plan, because he doesn't believe global warming is a problem. But he says the die isn't cast yet, and it's not too late to influence the President.

PALMER: I know who holds suasion now in the Administration. I can read, I understand that. But I've also seen the President react in ways different from what he said he might do earlier. I don't think that's a vice in a politician, by the way. I think it, that's the definition of a politician; I think it's a virtue.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Palmer says the last time Western Fuels locked horns with the Administration was the last time the President proposed an energy tax in 1993. That proposal was defeated in the Senate. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman reporting.

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NUNLEY: It's been a silent spring and summer on many of the country's farms and orchards. The honeybees that usually pollinate fruits and vegetables are disappearing. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Mighty Bee Mites: Decimating the Pollinating Honeybee

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. There is almost nothing more basic to life than a honeybee fertilizing a blossom, but it's not just flower gardens that need bees. Since humans became agriculturalists 10,000 years ago we've become dependent on these insect pollinators for a large part of our food supply. At first we planted crops and had faith that wild bees and other animals would pollinate them exactly when we needed them to. Eventually we began to domesticate bees, and ultimately to move them from farm to farm and region to region to ensure healthy and bountiful crops. Recently, though, the bees that most of us take for granted have been decimated by an invasion of 2 tiny mites. They've thrown the bee industry into a panic, and they threaten the US's precarious food web. Matt Binder reports.

(Bird song)

BINDER: On a beautiful summer day in the hilly orchard country of central Ohio, the Ohio Fruit Growers Association is holding a business meeting and family get together at Bachman's Sunny Hill Fruit Farm.

(Ambient voices, adults and children)

BINDER: After a hayride tour of the orchard, a group of growers gets together among the apple trees to talk about the crash in the local bee population and the scramble earlier this spring to get their trees pollinated. Frank Hirsch grows 65 acres of apples, peaches, plums, and cherries, near Chilicothe.

HIRSCH: In our area we're surrounded by a lot of woods; we used to depend totally on the wild bees but there are none any more, so we had to increase the number of bees we could rent to do the pollination.

BINDER: Paul Bowers has 70 acres of apples and peaches in southeastern Ohio.

BOWERS: It used to be when my grandfather ran the orchard, he'd throw a couple of hives up in the orchard and they'd live, I don't care what you did with them, they lived. And they reproduced into another hive. I mean, if you had an empty box set beside it the next spring it was full of bees for you. And now, you can't keep bees in any box in your orchard. So it's -- if they don't get a handle on it quick, we're in trouble.

SAMMATARO: I'm going to look at some samples; let me open the freezer here and get --

(Ice is moved)

BINDER: Trying to get a handle on the bee parasite problem are entomologists like Diana Sammataro, whose grandfather taught her how to work bees when she was 12. Now she's a researcher at the Ohio State University Bee Laboratory in Wooster.

SAMMATARO: And unfortunately you have to take the bee apart to look for trichomite. And what you have to do is you have to take the head off, expose the tracheal tubes, which are these little white tubes that are just lying on top of the muscle tissue here.

BINDER: Sammataro started specializing in bee mites after a stint in the Peace Corps in the 70s, where she saw the Philippine bee industry decimated by mites and recognized the potential danger for US bee keepers. She's now afraid that she was right. Sammataro explains that there have been 2 separate invasions into the US of 2 different mites, one called the tracheal mite, which evolved on the Isle of Wight in England, and the other, called varroa, which originated in Asia. Both first appeared in the US in the mid-1980s.

SAMMATARO: Because bee keepers are always interested in upgrading their stock, varroa may have come in with a bee keeper illegally, bringing queens or bees into this country to augment their own apiaries and that's what we suspect. We can't -- we haven't proved anything yet.

BINDER: It's been illegal since 1922 to bring any live honeybee into this country, exactly to prevent what's happened. But because of the ban and because the honeybee isn't a native species, the honeybee gene pool here has become very shallow. Smuggling is suspected because varroa first showed up in Florida, where a lot of bee breeding is done. Sammataro says the other mite, the tracheal mite, probably traveled here indirectly, from Britain to South America first, as part of an agricultural aid program. Then, because beekeepers move their hives around so much to avoid frigid winter weather and to follow the crops in bloom, the mites rapidly spread with devastating consequences.

SAMMATARO: The varroa and tracheal mite have been in the US for about 10 years now, but this year it seems that most of the managed colonies have died. And that's anywhere from 50 to 90% of managed bee colonies on a national level. And probably all of the feral or wild bees have died in those past 10 years.

BINDER: The varroa mite is the worst of the 2 invaders. It kills almost 100% of bee colonies unless the hives are heavily managed and fitted with strips of a chemical called fluvalinate. But because fluvalinate is the only pesticide that's been found to safely and effectively control varroa, the mite is expected to quickly develop resistance to it. And then, says Sammataro, we'll be right back to where we started.

SAMMATARO: Honeybees, that's apis melliferum, are not native to the New World. They were first brought in by the Pilgrims and the colonists when they realized that apple trees that they had over here were not setting any fruit. And they concluded that what was missing from the orchards that were over here were honeybees. And it makes it ironic that apple growers today are coming around full circle, realizing that without bees, their apples aren't going to get pollinated.

BINDER: But it's not just apples, now. It's almonds, cukes, melons, berries, pears, plums, cherries, avocados, and just about every other flowering food crop except for grains, which are wind-pollinated. There are estimates that the honeybee crash will cost our economy $5 to $8 billion this year.

(Wood being sawed)

BINDER: The almost complete loss of feral honeybees means that growers are dependent on beekeepers at a time when the number of bee keepers is also rapidly going down.

ROHAN: It's probably the varroa that killed this one.

BINDER: How long ago was this one alive?

ROHAN: This one was alive earlier this year.

BINDER: Pat Rohan has been keeping bees in this eucalyptus grove just outside of Berkeley, California, for 20 years. He learned how to keep bees from his mother on the family farm in Ireland where, incidentally, bee keeping is considered women's work. A few years ago Rohan had 200 hives here, and his bees fertilized countless home gardens, fruit trees, and wildflowers. Now he has 10 hives left, and with the added labor and expense involved in fighting the mites, Rohan has decided to get out of bee keeping altogether.

ROHAN: The mite basically put me out of business. It seemed to happen in 3 weeks. I went from busy hives, good strong hives, to almost a wiped out apiary. They seemed to just collapse.


BINDER: Rohan is by no means atypical. The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US dropped from 4.3 million in 1985 to only 2.7 million in 1995. And with government cutbacks in bee research programs, progress toward a solution may be slow. But one small glimmer of hope has appeared.

(Industrial sounds. A woman speaks in Chinese.)

BINDER: It first appeared to Christine Peng, an entomologist at the bee biology lab at the University of California in Davis. She first kept bees as a teenager in Taiwan, and she's one of the few Western scientists who've traveled to Asia to study the varroa mite in its natural habitat, namely in the hives of the Oriental species of honeybee, apis serana. After months in Beijing, trying to get her experimental bees used to cameras, lights, and probes, she surprised the scientific world with a discovery captured on film.

PENG: Like this picture shows, the bees groom off the mites, are using their legs, and if the self-grooming behavior failed, then the bee will perform a grooming dance to get attention and help from the nest-mates. And once the mite is spotted and a worker bee will grab it with the mandibles, chew it really hard, try to kill it, and then will run out of the hive and dump it outside. So this was very exciting to us. What we are seeing is hygienic grooming behavior which has been described largely in the birds, and the mammals, and this is the first time we've ever seen happen in the insects.

BINDER: Peng hopes it will be possible to breed or genetically engineer our western honeybee to get it to perform this grooming behavior. But if that can't be done, she says, there's one sure way to control the mites: let natural selection take over. The mites will kill off all honeybees except the rare ones that are naturally resistant, and then beekeepers can breed these mite-resistant bees. This is exactly what happened in China in the 1960s, after Western honeybees were introduced there and they were decimated by varroa.

PENG: In those days, people didn't have very effective miticide to kill off the mites, so they basically just tried a few herbal things and gave up. And that's where, when you leave it to nature, the nature takes care of it. (Laughs)

(Many buzzing bees)

BINDER: But this natural selection process took 30 years in China, and if that happened here it would cause a major disruption in our food supply. Peng hopes that she and fellow scientists will be able to find a quicker solution.

(Buzzing continues)

BINDER: But until honeybees do recover, growers will have to rely on substitute pollinators to fertilize their crops. Steve Buchmann of the University of Arizona at Tucson has written a book about such alternatives, called The Forgotten Pollinators. He says there are 5,000 other pollinating species in this country, including insects, birds, and even some mammals like bats. But many of these creatures are also in trouble, threatened by pesticides and habitat destruction. And, Buchmann says, it's not just farmers who have to take responsibility for helping to protect them.

BUCHMANN: One of the things we can all do as backyard gardeners is to take a small stand, basically, in your own back yard. For example, one can put out a hummingbird feeder, or a butterfly feeder, and then at the same time perhaps rather than running for the can of insecticide go to the local nursery and buy some ladybugs or lacewings and try some biological control. Then you're going to be literally building up valuable populations of these native pollinators in your yard.

(Buzzing continues)

BINDER: Buchmann says it may be possible to domesticate some of these other pollinators, but it will take time and they'll never be as efficient or productive as the honeybee. In the meantime, he says, there's going to be an eerie silence in many orchards, farms, and gardens.

BUCHMANN: More than 30 years ago, Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement with her now classic book Silent Spring. And among other dangers, she warned of a time when there was no pollination and there would be no fruit. No droning or buzzing of bees among the flowers. And now, here we are 3 decades later and with little public notice, her warning is coming to pass.

(Music up and under: "Sail on. Sail on my little honeybee, sail on...")

BINDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder.

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(Music up and under: "Sail on. Sail on my little honeybee, sail on. You gonna keep on sailin'. Till you lose your happy home. I hear a lotta buzzing. Sound like my little honeybee. I hear a lotta buzzing. Sound like my little honeybee. She been all around the world makin' honey, but now she is comin' back home to me.")

NUNLEY: If you'd like a tape or transcript of Living on Earth, send us a check for $12 to Living on Earth, PO Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Jan Nunley.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

NUNLEY: Juice, Java, Joe. Call it what you will, coffee keeps us going. But what does our insatiable thirst for the brew mean for the places it's grown, transported, and processed? Stay tuned for some answers in the second half of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

NUNLEY: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

NUNLEY: Before there was Bhopal, there was Seveso. Twenty years ago this summer an explosion at a chemical plant near Milan, Italy, released a cloud of dioxin over the town of Seveso. The foul-smelling compound caused birds to fall from the sky, and all the town's farm animals had to be slaughtered. People living near the plant were evacuated. Those who lived a little further away were allowed to remain. In the aftermath of the explosion some 200 residents developed a rare skin disorder called chloracne. And in the decade that followed, scientists found the residents who stayed had increased rates of leukemia, lymphoma, and sarcoma, as well as gall bladder and biliary tract cancer. The disaster heightened public awareness of exposure to toxic chemicals, and led to the tightening of regulations of hazardous sites in the European Union. And scientists exploring the long-term effects of dioxin continue to study the accident's victims. Today the Seveso plant and the topsoil around it have been removed. The area is now a park, but it's a park that's surrounded by a fence. It remains unsafe for regular use. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac.

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(Music up and under; fade to guitar. "I love coffee, I love tea. I love a java jivin' it loves me...")

Down on the Coffee Plantation

NUNLEY: Oil may be the lifeblood of the American economy, but coffee is what really keeps us running. Americans consume six and a half million pounds of coffee a day, making us the world's largest consumers. But as with oil there's an environmental cost to our consumption, some of which we'll examine in this week's program.

(Singing: "Show me the pot and I'll pour me a shot. A cup a cup a cup a cup a cup...")

NUNLEY: Mexico is the world's fourth largest coffee producer. Reporter Jana Schroeder recently traveled to the Mexican state of Veracruz to report on a change that's sweeping the coffee industry there and elsewhere. Growers are turning away from traditional, biologically rich coffee farms, and toward highly managed plantations which grow lots more coffee but little else. Here's our report.


SCHROEDER: This coffee field in the Watusco region of Veracruz, not far from Mexico's Gulf coast, was planted only 3 years ago according to the latest recommendations for coffee growing in Mexico.

SEDAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: You can see that here the coffee plants are more densely planted, and there's less shade.

SCHROEDER: Francisco Sedas manages this coffee plantation. He looks across the field where only an occasional shade tree rises up above rows of coffee. All the shade trees are of the same species. This is quite different from the more traditional plantation, where coffee is grown together with bananas and other fruits under a varied forest cover that makes a welcome home to birds, insects, and small animals.

(Footfalls continue)

SEDAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: You have to be sure to prune the coffee plants enough, and you have to keep the shade up high, cutting away branches on the lower parts of trees.

SCHROEDER: To get the higher yields promised with more sun, more chemical fertilizers are needed, too. And more herbicides because weeds grow faster in the sun. But many growers believe the higher costs are worth it. Juan Pablo Albin has a large plantation in the neighboring state of Puebla.

ALBIN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It's true. If I opt for a more intensive production system, I'm going to need a lot more capital. But at the same time I'm going to produce a lot more volume. Why? Because I'll be using the plant's photosynthesis at its full capacity.

SCHROEDER: The Mexican government is pushing the new methods as a way of increasing production. But not everyone thinks it's a good idea. Patricia Moguel is a biologist who's been studying coffee plantations for the Center for Ecology at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

MOGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It's clear, these high yields can't be maintained over the long term. It could last 4 or 5 years, but after that it becomes necessary to use more and more fertilizers and pesticides.

SCHROEDER: Critics say all those chemical inputs make the soil wear out faster.

(Rain on leaves)

SCHROEDER: Those who've stayed with traditional methods include many small growers in areas like Watusco. Agronomist Jose Rivera works here with a group of small coffee growers. He says shade trees are important especially on rainy days like today to prevent soil erosion when heavy rains drench the coffee fields. But he says they also bring advantages all year long.

RIVERA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It provides us with more organic material for the soil. The organic material makes the soil more porous, so it maintains moisture longer. And it means a greater population of microorganisms that help maintain an ecological balance.


SCHROEDER: Researchers at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are also concerned about that balance. They've discovered that traditional coffee plantations in northern Latin America are wintering grounds for migratory birds from the United States and Canada. The plantations serve as a last refuge for the birds, whose winter habitats are shrinking because of deforestation. Andrea Cruz is a field assistant with the Smithsonian Center, who's studying the differences in the number and diversity of resident birds on plantations in Veracruz.

CRUZ: What we have found is that there is a higher diversity of birds in places where there is more shade and usually trees are taller and there is a multilayer structure of the canopy.

SCHROEDER: That's exactly the kind of shade found on the more traditional plantations. But researchers estimate these traditional methods have been maintained on only half of coffee producing land in Mexico.

CRUZ: One thing birds lose when the shade is gone is their protection against predators, and also places to nest.

SCHROEDER: Despite these concerns, the Mexican government's Coffee Institute is urging growers to convert to low-shade production and new varieties of coffee plants that respond to higher chemical inputs. Ruben Castillo heads the coffee institute.

CASTILLO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Without increasing land space and without doing anything that major, we're achieving higher productivity through better management of plantations.

SCHROEDER: The Mexican government hopes to boost production by 200% to move ahead of its next biggest competitor, Colombia.

HERNANDEZ: Fortunately that is not going to happen because the production will not increase as they have planned.

SCHROEDER: Luis Hernandez is an advisor to a national coalition of small coffee growers associations. He says the government won't succeed because growers don't have enough capital to convert. And he says if the plan did succeed, the market would be flooded, and prices would drop severely, leaving growers no better off.

HERNANDEZ: The problem is not just to increase production but to have better quality, and have access to niche markets.

SCHROEDER: Small coffee growers in Mexico have already cornered the largest share of the emerging world market for organic coffee. Biologist Patricia Moguel says broader specialty markets, promoting high quality coffee grown in environmentally sound conditions, could help traditional growers get better prices to offset their lower production.

MOGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There's no doubt that more incentives must be provided, not just for increasing profits but also for protecting the environment.

SCHROEDER: In the current Mexican climate of deregulation and freer markets, the government isn't likely to provide those incentives. Some alternative coffee importers are using special labels to attract environmentally conscious consumers. And private foundations and international organizations are giving some money to help growers assess their environmental impact and market their coffee. But Ms. Moguel believes producers themselves need to take a more active role. Next year she plans to work with small coffee growers in the state of Oaxaca to measure the sustainability of their coffee growing.

MOGUEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: One of the basic objectives will be to educate producers, so they can measure the sustainability of their own ecosystems. And in the future, they can negotiate and even demand their own prices.

SCHROEDER: In the short term it may be up to coffee drinkers to find out how their brew is grown and decide whether they want to pay a little more to protect the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Veracruz, Mexico.

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Dreaming of Coffee

DURNING: My name is Alan and I'm a compulsive drinker.

NUNLEY: Living on Earth commentator Alan Durning.

DURNING: Coffee is my brew. I used to drink it daily, sometimes hourly. I drank it by the pot. Cappuccinos, frappucinos, even Folgers drip. Now I'm on the wagon, drinking locally grown, herbal tea. You see, this terrible thing happened. A dream straight out of Scrooge. I saw where my coffee comes from.

(Dramatic music, followed by a whistling teakettle)

DURNING: It started one morning in the kitchen. As I poured the beans into the grinder (sound of beans pouring) I suddenly found myself in a cloud forest, on a mountain above the Cauka River in Colombia. (Drumbeats, a chainsaw starts up.) The lush tropical vegetation was disappearing all around me as a coffee plantation grew. (Chainsaw continues.) Farm workers were spraying the trees with pesticides (sound of spraying) made in the Rhine River Valley in Europe. I began to choke on the poisonous fumes and was transported ... to New Orleans!

(Syncopated rhythms, a freighter horn)

DURNING: Burlap sacks of coffee were being unloaded from a freighter, burning oil from the Orinoco River Valley of Venezuela. It was like a spin on The House That Jack Built: the freighter was made in Japan out of steel forged in Korea from iron mined in the lands of Australian Aborigines (sound of a digeridoo). Workers were pouring the beans into a roaster, which was fueled with natural gas piped in from Oklahoma. Out the other end my beans poured into bags of nylon, polyester, and polyethylene, plastics from New Jersey. And aluminum foil from a smelter in Oregon. That smelter was powered by electricity from dams that have nearly wiped out wild salmon from the Columbia River.

(A teakettle whistles)

DURNING: Suddenly I was in my kitchen again, but hovering by the ceiling, looking down. My beans, now disintegrating in the grinder, had come to my home inside a brown paper bag made from pines in the northern Rockies. On the trip from the supermarket my car had burned a sixth of a gallon of gasoline, spewing carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organics into the air. The gas had come from Alaska's north slope by way of Prince William Sound and a refinery in northern Washington.

(Gulls call; music up and under)

DURNING: Hovering in my kitchen I watched myself as I took that first sip of the day. But from the cup came waves of pesticides, oil, molten steel, my ecological wake! Suddenly it wasn't just the coffee; my T-shirt, my newspaper, my radio, the wake of it all, washed over me. I buckled under its weight. (Scary music.) Then my bathroom scale appeared flashing 115 pounds: my daily consumption of natural resources.

I fell to the floor, crushed and bloated.

(Music up and under)

DURNING: I can't shake this dream. I've got to get off this consumption kick. I've started with java, but I've got to find a way of using less. Can we make things better, figure out better ways of getting around? Get stuff from closer to home? I don't know. But I do know this. My name is Alan. I'm a compulsive coffee drinker. And there's a world in my cup.

NUNLEY: Alan Durning directs Northwest Environment Watch in the coffee-crazed city of Seattle. This commentary was adapted from his upcoming book This Place On Earth, and produced by Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick at our northwest bureau at KPLU in Seattle.

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(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: Selling the family farm in Vermont without selling out the farm's future. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Three Sisters: Letting Go of the Family Farm

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Defying time, nature, and the dictates of the global economy, small Vermont farmers cling tenaciously to their land. Other regions have better weather; other farms are bigger and more efficient. But Vermont farmers seem to have a streak of independence, even stubbornness, which keeps them going when others might have cashed out. So it was no small event earlier this summer when one farming family in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom finally decided it was time to sell their dairy herd after nearly half a century. There were no daughters or sons to pass the farm onto, because the proprietors were never married. They're 3 sisters, all now in their later years, who decades ago chose life together on their farm over marriage and other more worldly ambitions. But for Gertrude, Jeanette, and Therese Lepine, the selling of their herd isn't a sad end to their story. As Tatiana Schreiber explains it's actually the beginning of a lesson in stewardship, and in finding new ways to pass the land from one generation to the next.

(Auctioneer: "All right, Neal, thank you ladies and gentlemen. The auction is on. And how many dollars on her? Fifteen hundred thousand making eleven..." Shouts from the audience.)

SCHREIBER: On auction day on this late spring morning, fresh green grass blankets the hills. And on a normal day, fawn-colored Jersey cows would be grazing peacefully in the fields. Today, they go to the highest bidder.

(Auctioneer: (laughs) "All right, take a deep breath here young lady, we'll be back. First heat!")

SCHREIBER: Gert Lepine and her trademark slouch hat and slightly cleaner than usual work shirt won't admit much nostalgia as she watches the herd she's built up with careful breeding for decades sold off.

G. LEPINE: I feel good. Yeah, I have no regrets at this point and I don't think I -- you know, I mean, I'm sure there'll be a feeling of letdown after this whole thing is over. But I'm meeting a lot of people that I've never met before, and most of them are Jersey farmers, and yeah, we've got a lot in common. And it's been a great morning.

(Auctioneer speaks too quickly for transcriber to decode)

SCHREIBER: Cows and calves weighed in makeshift pens attached to the barn. As the crowd settles under a small red and white tent, the cows are brought in one by one and walked in a circle on a plywood platform. Out of state buyers are calling in their bids to the auctioneer's cell phone while Gert sits on the front row of hay bale bleachers focusing intently on her prize cow Veronica.

(Auctioneer: "Sold at $5,000. Dave, you got her.")

NEIGHBOR: I feel very sad. This is an end of an era in a sense, but it is a transition.

SCHREIBER: Two neighbors came to help say goodbye to the cows and to reminisce.

NEIGHBOR: Always loved seeing them coming in, trooping in. You know, every man sat up a little straighter: it's the Lepine girls.

NEIGHBOR: Each one of them made a choice. They had other careers and they gave up other careers. They chose to come back to the family home and run this farm, this dairy farm. They chose it. Possibly there's a message in that, is that we all have the choice.

(Auctioneer continues his patter. Fade to a mooing cow. One of the Lepine sisters: "Make sure you close that door down.")

SCHREIBER: Gert Lepine and sisters Jeanette and Therese chose to come back to this land, to the big green barn and old farm house their French-Canadian parents bought for a few thousand dollars in the 1940s. A worn sign on the barn reads, "100 Feet to Jersey Hill Milk Farm: Fresh Cold Milk and Rooms for Tourists." Tourists don't stay here any more, but you can see why they did. Vermont's highest peaks surround the farm in every direction.

(Footfalls on a floor, sweeping)

SCHREIBER: A few days before the auction Jeanette sweeps out the barn while Gert forks silage from a big plastic car into each cow's station, getting ready for milking.

(Machinery runs)

SCHREIBER: In between letting down feed from the silo, Gert tells a story she's repeated often about how she started out as a schoolteacher but one day, gazing out the window, she knew the life she wanted was outside those walls.

G. LEPINE: Funny thing is I wanted the farm, but I don't know, it was a funny conception. People didn't think that, you know, I mean every farm wife spends her life farming. But for a single person to -- to do that for a lifetime, I've had, you know, back when I first started handling fertilizer or something, some of these truck drivers would, you know, they'd kind of laugh at me because I was doing heavy manual work.

(Machinery continues)

G. LEPINE: Because I never made a distinction that, you know, what was the difference? Why shouldn't I farm if I wanted to?

SCHREIBER: Gert farmed with her younger brother for 20 years before he got tired of it and moved away. But Jeanette, who'd been working as a stewardess, soon came home to help out. And so did Therese, after 2 decades in Washington working for Senator George Aikin. None of the 3 married, and Gert says she has no regrets.

G. LEPINE: I wanted my freedom, my independence, and do, you know -- I mean that's what -- that's what people don't understand. Talk about freedom and you'll -- there's nobody more committed than we are. We're married to these cows, actually. You know, I mean it's a 365-day operation. And I really, honestly don't think I've ever missed the milking in my 40 -- how many years have I been here? Since '52? What does that make, 40 -- 44 years?

(A cow moos)

SCHREIBER: Gert's the youngest at 69, and working from 3:30 in the morning from 8:30 at night was getting to be too much. Theresa's been in poor health also, and lately Jeanette's been bothered by an old skiing injury that's acting up.

G. LEPINE: One of those things, when you reach a point where you can't walk too well, better do something about it.

(Sweeping sounds, followed by hand clapping)

G. LEPINE: Come on, move. Come on, move. Move.

SCHREIBER: At first the Lepine sisters weren't sure what to do. Over the years realtors were often at the door asking if they'd be willing to sell off the land in bits for development. Close to several ski resorts it would command a high price. But Gert says they always resisted.

G. LEPINE: I knew I'd have to retire some time. And I thought my God, you know, what if I sold this farm and the farmer that came behind me -- I say now how do I do this? Do I put it in my will, or how do I do it to be guaranteed that this guy isn't gonna cut it all up and -- I've seen it happen right here in town. And I said boy that must have been an awful, awful blow. I didn't know how to go about it until I -- started reading about the Vermont Land Trust, the great things they were doing.

SCHREIBER: After some discussion the Lepines chose to sell their development rights in a bargain sale to the Vermont Land Trust. The 660-acre farm includes a section of the Catamount Trail, which runs the length of Vermont. Now the fields and woodland will be permanently conserved for agriculture and recreation. The next step was to look for a young farmer to take over.

HARRINGTON: Here's the ad. I was reading the ag. review one day and I come across this and I decided I'd better give them a call.

SCHREIBER: Randall Harrington is 24 and had been building up his own herd on rented land farther south.

HARRINGTON: This is the ad. It says "Morristown farm to rent, 62 cow tie barn with 30 tie heifer barn, 160 productive acres, ready to move in at grass time."

SCHREIBER: Minimal rent.

HARRINGTON: Minimal rent, that kind of caught my eye. But that's not even the rent that has nuthin' to do with it. That is a well set up, well maintained farm. I mean it's -- any farmer could appreciate being able to farm there.

SCHREIBER: Randall's moving his own cows into the big green barn and says he'll try his best to continue the operation in the Lepine tradition. He's sympathetic, though, thinking about the sisters selling their herd.

HARRINGTON: Must be, gonna be hard, hard to give them up. I don't know, I can't imagine. I've only been in it four years and it would be hard for me.

(A cow moos.)

G. LEPINE: It's not coming out the right way.

J. LEPINE: Yes, take a board, it's getting cockeyed.

SCHREIBER: The weather's turned warm, and Gert and Jeanette are taking out the windows in the barn, one of the last chores to complete before Randall takes over.

(Hammering sounds)

G. LEPINE: Here you gotta let it shrink a few days.

SCHREIBER: Neither sister reveals much emotion about losing the cows, but Jeanette says it's easier knowing the land will continue to be farmed.

J. LEPINE: The stewardship of land is a very important and serious, serious thing. You know, you can -- 'cause you can't built land, and once it's gone to agriculture it will never come back.

J. LEPINE: We will do what we can to maintain the land that we were fortunate enough to spend our lives on, so that it can be handed down to generations after generations for, you know, for perpetuity. I mean it's -- this, you know, trusting of land like that.

SCHREIBER: The Lepines say they hope Randall Harrington will be able to buy the farm some day and find success in the difficult Vermont dairy economy. They're looking forward to providing advice and support. And the sisters won't really stop farming for long. Lately Jeanette's been getting excited about the prospects for hemp production.

J. LEPINE: No other crop has got so many possibilities to it. Everything is biodegradable. And money-wise it's good, compared to just any other crop in the world per acre. So I just feel it might, you know, be a salvation for a lot of our, our agricultural problems and help keep our -- our land open.

SCHREIBER: Vermont Governor Howard Dean has vetoed experimental hemp production in the state, but an override is possible. And Jeanette's begun an avid correspondence with Dean and state lawmakers on the subject. And Gert's been noticing a lot of former farmland in the area that's been taken over by scrub.

G. LEPINE: One thing that I really, really love is making land. Opening up new land.

SCHREIBER: To sort of see it be productive again.

G. LEPINE: Yeah. I never liked -- it's too bad to see so much wasteland.

SCHREIBER: So, though their dairy operation has come to an end, if the Lepines have any say -- and people around here say there's little doubt about that -- they'll remain a force to be reckoned with in Vermont farming.

G. LEPINE: (Shouts) Come on! [Yells more]

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth I'm Tatiana Schreiber with the Lepine sisters in Mud City, Vermont.

G. LEPINE: (Shouts, calling)

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(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: And now it's time to hear from Living on Earth's listeners.

(Music up and under)

House Speaker Replies

NUNLEY: Our exploration of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's environmental record sparked a number of comments. Mark Clemens of Provo, Utah, writes that "the willingness of Gingrich to dismiss both regulation and litigation as failed approaches reveals his re-conversion to environmentalism as an opportunistic pose. The provision of many environmental laws to allow citizen suits to force compliance with emissions standards has empowered -- isn't that one of the Speaker's favorite words? -- ordinary people to stop pollution through the courts." Mr. Clemens continues, "Until he recognizes the value of these suits it's still not time to trust Gingrich with the nation's family silver."

"I enjoy your program while doing my exercises," writes James Stewart over the Internet. "I am a conservative and therefore sincerely care about people and the environment. I support reasonable, intelligent efforts based on real scientific conclusions to preserve our environment for our future and our children's future. I support Newt Gingrich."

Laurie Saldana writes via e-mail, quote, "If Gingrich and the corporations had their way, no doubt they would continue to discharge waste into our air and water, all the while claiming no scientific evidence exists to prove they are harming the environment."

WARNER: This is Jack Warner. I'm calling from Sparta, Wisconsin. I have felt that as a, what I would consider, I am a moderate Republican, and I feel that he's doing, been very pleased that he's doing an excellent job in combining genuine environmental concerns with real issues that impact us every day, business, economics, and labor, employment, those type things. We must combine the interest and concerns of all those issues into realistic, pragmatic, workable, long-range planning."

NUNLEY: Shirley Parr's note was short and to the point. "What do I think of Newt's environmental record? Well, judging from recent years, if we elect any more like him in November they'll be serving cream of spotted owl soup for lunch in the Congressional cafeteria."

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NUNLEY: We welcome your comments on all our programming. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And our postal address is Living on Earth, PO Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Jennifer Sinkler, Heather Kaplan, and Paul Masari. Our engineers are Karen Given and Frank DeAngelis at WBUR, and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Our director is Deborah Stavro, the senior editor is Peter Thomson and our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Executive producer Steve Curwood will be back next week. I'm Jan Nunley.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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