October 15, 1999
Air Date: October 15, 1999
Clinton's Wilderness Legacy/ Jesse Wegman
President Clinton's pledge to protect more than 40 million acres of roadless national forestland throughout the United States is drawing high praise from environmental groups and strong criticism from Congress. Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman reports. (02:30)
Gateway to the Grand Canyon/ Mitch Teich
Many federal and local officials are supporting a large gateway development for the Grand Canyon, called "Canyon Forest Village." Even several environmental groups are getting behind the proposed complex, which will include 1300 hotel rooms and enough retail space for four department stores. From member station KNAU, Mitch Teich (TYSH) reports that Canyon Forest Village could become a model for easing overcrowding at national parks nationwide. (07:05)
Genetically Modified Foods on the Defensive
Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about recent news in the field of biotechnology. The Agrochemical company Monsanto has announced that it is not planning to pursue a type of technology that makes a crop’s seeds sterile after one planting. Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) says the announcement is just another in a series of PR blunders for the industry. (06:00)
Seed Saver/ Andrea DeLeon
The U.S. government maintains a large stockpile of seeds, to be used if disease threatens the nation's food supply. But informal networks of farmers are also saving seeds to preserve exotic crop varieties that the government does not. NPR's Andrea DeLeon (day-lee-OWN) visits one of the country's biggest seed savers, in central Maine. (05:00)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about...artificial sweeteners. Thirty years ago cylclamate was banned, and the safety of other sweeteners is still debated. (01:30)
Deformed Frog Detectives
Deformed frogs have been appearing around the country, particularly in the Midwest, and scientists have speculated on a variety of causes: from chemicals in the environment, to ultraviolet radiation, to parasitic flatworms. Now, new research points to a mix of chemicals in the water as the culprit. Janet Raloff (RAL-off), senior editor of Science News and Living On Earth’s science correspondent, speaks with Steve Curwood about the latest findings. (04:35)
Car Sharing/ Kristian Foden-Vencil
Last year a company called Car Sharing Portland hung out its shingle for business. A couple of cars are shared by about 25 people who book them for various periods of time, even as little as one hour. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on how this transportation experiment is going. (06:35)
Nuclear Mishaps: The Human Factor/ Suzanne Elston
Following the recent nuclear power plant accidents in Japan and South Korea, US officials were quick to assure people that "it can't happen here." Commentator Suzanne Elston says technically, they’re right. But, she continues, lost in the assurances is the element of human error, which has been the cause of all major nuclear accidents. (02:25)
Garden Spot: Garlic
Tulips, crocuses and daffodils are not the only bulbs to plant in the fall. Living On Earth’s cultivated gardener Michael Weishan (WYS-hahn) talks with Steve Curwood about planting garlic. It’s beautiful in the garden, easy to grow, and its story is loaded with lore. (03:15)
Being with Bees/ DMae Roberts
Producer DMae (DEE-MAY) Roberts is used to buzzing around a lot to cover stories, but one recent day the buzz came to her -- and landed right in her front yard in Portland, Oregon. She tells us what happened when nature paid a house call. (06:20)
Show Credits and Funders
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jesse Wegman, Mitch Teich, Andrea DeLeon, Kristian Foden-Vencil, Dmae Roberts
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Janet Raloff, Michael Weishan
COMMENTATOR: Suzanne Elston
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
You may think you know all about the birds and the bees, but when it comes to crop genetics we have a surprise for you.
BONSALL: I'm going to try to show you some things about sex that your mom and dad never told you.
CURWOOD: Seed education from heirloom plant specialist Will Bonsall, who's out to help protect our food supply for future generations. Also, the Monsanto Corporation backs away from genetically modified plants that produce no fertile seeds. It's the latest retreat in the PR wars of the genetic engineers.
HERTSGAARD: This is an industry that is now very much on the run, having enormous problems with public opposition. And it's now having, also, big commercial consequences.
CURWOOD: And President Clinton's wilderness legacy. And a grand plan to ease overcrowding at the Grand Canyon National Park. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. But first, this news.
Clinton's Wilderness Legacy
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
CLINTON: From the beautiful stretch of the Alleghenies that we see here, to the old growth canyonlands of Tahoe National Forest, these areas represent some of the last, best unprotected wild lands anywhere in our nation.
CURWOOD: On October thirteenth, President Clinton pledged to protect many of the remaining large roadless areas in national forests, at least 40 million acres of land. While no details are being offered yet by the White House, such a move could effectively ban logging in these areas, and mark a big shift in national forest policy away from an emphasis on logging toward a greater focus on environmental values. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman reports.
WEGMAN: President Clinton tried to strike a delicate political balance in announcing his new forest policy. He wanted to play up the drama of one of the largest single land preservation moves ever, while downplaying concerns that the action would harm the nation's timber industry.
CLINTON: We can easily adjust our federal timber program, but we can never replace what we might destroy if we don't protect these 40 million acres.
WEGMAN: The President said these forests make up less than one percent of the country's total timber land, and that their value as natural ecosystems outweighs their commercial value. But many members of Congress, particularly western Republicans, are infuriated with the President's action. They say it's a policy issue, which should have been presented to Congress, not done as an administrative move. In addition, says Senator Frank Murkowski, of Alaska, President Clinton doesn't even have the policy part right.
MURKOWSKI: If we're going to manage the forest by emotion, as opposed to sound science, which says that you manage the forest as a renewable resource, you know, clearly they're playing into the hands of preservationists who don't want to manage the forest in a multiple-use concept.
WEGMAN: And Senator Murkowski suggests that the forest plan is blatantly political, part of an effort to shore up Vice President Gore's credibility on the environment. But politically-motivated or not, the announcement has been embraced by environmental groups nationwide. Julie Wormser of the Wilderness Society says it's an historic move.
WORMSER: Basically, he's done something as big as Teddy Roosevelt having established the national forests in the first place. You can no longer say that Clinton does not have an environmental legacy, because this is really enormous.
WEGMAN: Still, some activists are concerned about the fate of the nation's largest national forest, the Tongass, in Alaska. They fear that the Tongass, a rare temperate rainforest, will be used as a bargaining chip to mollify critics of the President's plan. For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman.
Gateway to the Grand Canyon
CURWOOD: Many Americans have wrapped up their summer vacations, but many national parks are still doing brisk business. At Grand Canyon National Park, for example, the family mini-van count may be down, but there are plenty of senior tour busses and visitors from abroad clogging the roads. Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and the National Park Service predicts that number will rise to seven million a year by 2020. With area lodging already tight, many federal and local officials are getting behind a large, gateway development for the park called Canyon Forest Village. From Member station KNAU, Mitch Teich reports that Canyon Forest Village could become a model for how to ease overcrowding at our national parks.
TEICH: Tom Gillett of the U.S. Forest Service walks alongside a dirt road that cuts through an area of white pines, underbrush, and vast expanses of dirt and rocks. Sightseeing airplanes and helicopters buzz overhead. He's just outside the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, and about eight miles from the gorge itself. It's at this spot that Canyon Forest Village would spring up.
GILLETT: This area actually is pretty conducive in its state right here for parking, in that it's an old fire scar. So, a lot of the vegetation has already been removed. A few stands of older trees. We're going to try to retain as much of this natural vegetation and larger trees as possible.
TEICH: It's uninhabited and undeveloped, but you would hardly call this pristine wilderness. Tom Gillett's role with the Forest Service includes directing the study of growth in the Grand Canyon area. He says building a large-scale development here is a better option than using more unspoiled wilderness.
GILLETT: You can hear the highway -- Highway 64 to the east of us, oh, probably a quarter of a mile. We're in the flight path of Grand Canyon Airport -- third-busiest airport in the state, so it's already heavily impacted.
TEICH: And if Canyon Forest Village is built, “heavily impacted” won't even begin to describe it. The area would become home to almost 13 hundred hotel rooms, enough retail space for four department stores, housing for park employees, and even the Grand Canyon's public school. But for Tom Gillett, one of the most important -- and overlooked -- benefits of the Canyon Forest Village development is that it nets the Forest Service far more acres than it gives up. In exchange for ceding 272 acres of land to the village's developer, the Forest Service will receive more than eight times as much private land in return -- land it can now protect from development.
GILLETT: It helps protect the resources of Grand Canyon, it will help improve the visitor experience at Grand Canyon. And it does so in a sustainable way -- a way that sets a new standard for development near sensitive lands.
TEICH: It's that new standard that has many environmentalists taking the unusual position of supporting a development right next to a national park. Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust is one of those environmentalists. He says sadly, the allure of some of the most beautiful country in the world means development is almost inevitable.
ACK: We knew there was going to be future development, and we knew there was very little that we could do about it as an environmental group unless we could come up with the money to buy all the private land around the Grand Canyon. That would have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so we quickly discounted that notion, and thought the next best thing would be to play a strong role in deciding what kind of development was going to take place.
TEICH: And so the Grand Canyon Trust took an unprecedented step. Brad Ack and his colleagues sat down with the developer of Canyon Forest Village and explored ways to create a development that would be as gentle on the local ecosystem as a 272-acre development can be. As a result of those talks, the village will import its water from the Colorado River, rather than tapping the precious existing groundwater. And, it will rely on renewable and alternative energy and a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system.
ACK: It will essentially meet a higher standard of environmental design than any other development near a national park that we're aware of.
TEICH: Since Canyon Forest Village has the support of environmentalists, the U.S. Park Service, the Forest Service, and even some area politicians, you would think that the plan is on the fast track. Not entirely.
(A train whistle blows)
TEICH: Thousands of people start their Grand Canyon visit by hopping on the historic railway that departs here in Williams, Arizona. The town copyrighted the phrase "Gateway to the Grand Canyon" 15 years ago, and people here are worried that Canyon Forest Village could devastate their community. Williams is 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon, and has almost as many hotel rooms as residents. Michael Vasquez is the president of the Williams-Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce.
VASQUEZ: We have relied on the overflow of the Grand Canyon and/or the inability for the South Rim and Tusayan to have rooms for people every night, especially during the summer. And again, once people get up there, they're not going to turn around and come back.
TEICH: Michael Vasquez's group and the city of Flagstaff have each appealed the Forest Service's ruling that Canyon Forest Village should go forward. Both entities are concerned about the millions of dollars potentially at stake. But the Flagstaff suit also calls into question the development's use of groundwater while the village is under construction. A decision on the appeals is expected in November, after which the plan would still need to clear several more legislative hurdles.
(Ambient voices from the crowd)
TEICH: Regardless of the future amenities outside the park, tourists will always come to the Grand Canyon for the mile-deep gorge itself.
JARRELL: Turn around and look behind you. This is called Mather Point. Where land goes out into the canyon, it's called a point. This one is named after Steven Ting Mather, the first National Park Service director in the United States.
TEICH: Tour guide Kevin Jarrell is worried about the effect Canyon Forest Village could have on the canyon. His tour company, based in Flagstaff, already tries to lessen tourism's impact on the canyon to the point that even the lunches his groups pack are eaten on metal plates, which then leave the park with him every afternoon. He says losing any acreage in the national forest is bad policy, and any development the size of Canyon Forest Village would come at too great a cost to areas like national parks.
JARRELL: These areas were set aside to be benchmark areas -- undeveloped -- so we would have an idea, when we go back home, what is wrong in our own communities. You start developing in those areas, then that dilutes -- that lessens the area.
TEICH: But other environmentalists, such as Brad Ack of the Grand Canyon Trust, say at this point, development near the Grand Canyon is probably a sure thing. But he says rather than mourning the loss of a small parcel of forest, he hopes the lessons of cooperation between environmental groups, the government, and developers can be applied to the heavily-impacted areas outside Yellowstone and Yosemite and other national parks. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitch Teich at the Grand Canyon.
WOMAN: Come on, let's go over here, Anthony.
(Voices of the crowd; fade to music up and under)
CURWOOD: Just ahead: Public opinion and genetically-engineered food. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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Genetically Modified Foods on the Defensive
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Joining us now to talk about the latest environmental news is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hey, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: Hi there, Steve.
CURWOOD: Mark, let's talk about this big news that came earlier this month from the field of biotechnology. Monsanto, the large agrochemical company, said it's not going to pursue seed sterilization technology, also known as Terminator seeds. This is a really big deal, isn't it?
HERTSGAARD: I think it's a very big development in the whole biotech debate, which is shaping up as one of the big debates of the early twenty-first century in the environmental field. The Terminator technology, as you mention, is essentially a seed -- a crop, rather -- that is specifically designed not to produce seeds. So, it produces the crop the year it's put in the ground, but there are no seeds left over. This is, needless to say, as anybody who grew up on a farm would know, humans for thousands and thousands of years have been saving seeds every year, out of every year's harvest. You generally save the best seeds to replant the next year. So, this is an absolutely revolutionary technology, and it's very important that Monsanto is now trying to distance itself from it. But I think that the larger issue here is really the industry itself, not Monsanto per se. And this is an industry that is now very much on the run, having enormous problems with public opposition. And it's now having, also, big commercial consequences. In fact, just recently, Deutsche Bank, the biggest bank in Europe, has announced that it has advised its large institutional clients that they should get out of biotech stocks.
CURWOOD: Why would the Deutsche Bank take that position?
HERTSGAARD: Well, not for any ideological reason. They're just looking at the marketplace, and they see that there is enormous political opposition and consumer opposition to genetically-modified foods around the world. For example, the two biggest baby food companies in the United States, Gerber and Heinz, have said, "We're not going to use genetically-modified foods." In Japan, the two biggest breweries have said, "We're not going to use genetically-modified foods." Japan is one of the biggest Asian importers of U.S. food. Down in Mexico, a 500-million-dollar-a-year market for U.S. corn farmers, the biggest tortilla maker, said, "No genetically-modified corn for us." And you can go around the world. In France and Britain, same kinds of opposition. The European Union is demanding that there be labeling. Japan has just passed a labeling law. So has Australia. Genetically-modified foods are banned in Brazil. All of these things, if you're a Deutsche Bank and you're looking at the long-term prospects for this industry, that's why they're telling their big investors, "You better get out."
CURWOOD: Okay. And what about for the farmers here in the United States? What's happening to them?
HERTSGAARD: They are very upset, as you might guess. And in fact, they have, in a rather remarkable way, made their anger public. And they have publicly accused -- the American Corn Growers Association has publicly accused the biotech industry of having, quote, "misled" American farmers by getting them to plant all these seeds that now there's not a market for. And this has happened very recently, by the way. You know, in 1995 there were no genetically-modified foods planted in the United States. Now, just four years later, over half of all the soybeans grown here and nearly a third of all the corn is genetically modified. So that's 73 million acres worldwide, 50 million acres in the United States. The farmers are not happy about this. And in fact, Archer Daniels Midland, the big food retailer, has now announced that it is paying 18 cents a bushel less for genetically-modified corn than it pays for traditional corn. That gets a farmer's attention.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about the role of the U.S. government in this. The World Trade Organization meeting is coming up next month in Seattle. I imagine this is going to be a pretty big issue there, right?
HERTSGAARD: Almost certainly, Steve. It has been a big issue in the preparatory meetings. French president Chirac has been saying, leading the charge and saying: Look, we should not be putting these products out into the market until we've tested them. The United States has blocked that, along with help from Canada. So you're going to see a very big fight about this, there's no question, and of course there are going to be a lot of activists outside in Seattle for whom this is shaping up as one of the big fights of the environmental sphere in the new century.
CURWOOD: Is the concern about this technology legitimate?
HERTSGAARD: The concern about this technology -- look, people are going to differ about this. There is a lot of opposition. There are a lot of people who say the opponents aren't thinking clearly. It's very reminiscent, in my mind, to everything that happened with nuclear technology in this country in the 50s and 60s. The industry got out front and said we're going to give you electricity too cheap to meter, but they were in such a hurry that they didn't bother to convince the public, and to make the technology safe enough for the public, to get public support. And so, in the 1970s, when public opposition began to arise, the industry reacted with arrogance. And instead of selling a lot of nuclear plants, they ended up on the ropes and basically finished as an industry. Biotechnology is in danger of that very same thing, and in fact Monsanto's chairman, Robert Shapiro, seems to have acknowledged this. He said recently that the company had, quote, "lost the public relations war by appearing arrogant." And that is something that they are trying to change now, but we'll see if it's quick enough. Because people around the world, now, I think, are pretty upset with this, and the Terminator technology is just the most extreme manifestation of this. So, this is a story that we need to keep watching. There are going to be a lot of developments between now and Seattle in November.
CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Mark. We're out of time. Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks for taking this time with us today.
HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Although the U.S. government collects thousands of types of seeds to preserve genetic material, seed saving also goes on among several private networks. These groups aren't interested in big-time agribusiness and developing the next strain of super-broccoli. No, instead they're saving old-time garden varieties. NPR's Andrea DeLeon traveled up a rutted dirt road in central Maine to visit one of America's most prolific seed savers, a man named Will Bonsall.
BONSALL: Okay, I'll start by showing you, I'm going to try to show you some things about sex your mom and dad never told you.
DE LEON: You might dub him a prophet of plants, with his wiry white beard and bare feet that appear to be unfamiliar with shoes. Several times each month Will Bonsall preaches the gospel of seed saving to gardeners who make the pilgrimage to his rustic farmstead near the town of Industry, Maine.
BONSALL: See this flower here? Can anyone tell me the gender of this flower?
WOMAN: Because the fruit's already there.
BONSALL: There we go. Well, not only the fruit but the ovary is there...
DE LEON: Dressed in an Amish-looking pair of suspendered denim pants, Mr. Bonsall is on his hands and knees in a patch of melons. He's teaching today's half dozen visitors how to make like the birds and bees. He shows them how to tell when female flowers are ready to open, and how to prevent insects from fertilizing them with unwanted pollen from undesirable melon varieties growing nearby. That would create seeds for a sort of “mutt” melon plant, different than the strain Mr. Bonsall wants to preserve.
BONSALL: I would cloister this thing. In other words I would take a paper bag, ideally, a little candy bag, kind of put it over this and paper-clip it. Keep it shut.
DE LEON: Preventing insects from getting into the female blossom before Mr. Bonsall dusts it with pollen from a male flower of the same variety. Farmers and gardeners have relied on these low-tech techniques for generations. And for more than twenty years Will Bonsall's been demonstrating the methods to anyone who will listen. He jokes with visitors about their prurient interest in the sex lives of rutabagas. But the message he hopes they will take home is serious:
BONSALL: All life depends on food. And all food depends on seeds. Whoever controls seeds controls our lives. Only by saving our own seeds can we assert any kind of control over our own lives. Especially if we're gardeners.
DE LEON: Mr. Bonsall doesn't like what is happening in the commercial seed business: the concentration of seed production in the hands of a small number of corporations. That, he complains, is creating a limited genetic base, because the seed companies abandon unprofitable varieties. Take broccoli, for example. There certainly seems to be plenty of it in the grocery store -- evenly green with tight heads and uniform stems.
BONSALL: But that's a little misleading, even though you may see a lot of broccoli in the store. We're losing the genetic base in broccoli that keeps broccoli resistant to various problems. So the limited diversity, genetic diversity in broccoli, endangers broccoli itself, and your ability to go into the Safeway and buy broccoli off the shelf.
DE LEON: This concern led Mr. Bonsall and his wife to start The Scatterseed Project.
(A door opens)
DE LEON: It's headquartered up a creaky set of wooden stairs in the couple's hand-made house. Preserved here in paper packets and old cardboard boxes are more than a thousand varieties of peas. There’s a hundred kinds of radishes, dozens and dozens of potatoes in every color you can think of, and what may be the world's largest collection of Jerusalem artichokes. The storeroom is insulated with wood shavings to ensure a constant temperature.
BONSALL: This is inventories crop by crop. Starts off the actinidia, our varieties of kiwis. We have about ten or a dozen varieties of kiwis and goes on through amblo presium, or leeks, alium sepia and so on all the way up through zia maize corn...
DE LEON: There is no electricity, and so no computer, to help Mr. Bonsall keep track of his collection.
BONSALL: If I ever lost this sheaf of papers I would just slit my throat right off. There would be no point in continuing.
DE LEON: When the dog-eared notes indicate some of his seed is getting too old to germinate well, he plants a patch to ensure its continued existence.
WHALEY: I wish that there were a dozen other people like Will.
DE LEON: Ken Whaley directs the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, a national network of seed savers. Unlike government repositories, which focus on core crops like corn, soybeans and grain, Mr. Whaley's exchange welcomes all sorts of vegetables. He says most members cultivate just one or two rare varieties that may have been passed down in their families.
WHALEY: The United States is a nation of immigrants, and each of those gardeners and farmers brought the best of their family's seeds with them when the immigrated. And that's the genetic and cultural history that we're trying to save.
(Crickets and bird song)
DE LEON: Will Bonsall is perhaps the largest private collector.
BONSALL: What do you think this is?
WOMAN 1: Beet.
WOMAN 2: Chard.
BONSALL: Yes, here's a chard.
DE LEON: And it isn't enough to till his own plot. He's spreading the word and spreading seed wherever he can.
BONSALL: We have these little gardens scattered all over our land, our neighbor's land, all over the county, all over the state. We've got about forty of them altogether now.
DE LEON: Forty gardens, all dedicated to preserving varieties that might otherwise disappear. Will Bonsall hopes the hundreds of people who tour his farm each year will plant even more. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea de Leon in central Maine.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.
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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Coming up: Major clues fall into place in the frog deformity puzzle. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
(Music up and under: "Sweet Georgia Brown")
The Living on Earth Almanac
CURWOOD: They may not be as sweet as Georgia Brown. Even so, no-cal or low-cal sugar substitutes have become part of our diet-crazed culture. But the reputation of some artificial sweeteners is pretty sour. Thirty years ago, the U.S. government announced its ban on cyclamate after studies suggested the sweetener caused bladder tumors and testicular atrophy in lab animals. While other sweeteners, including aspartame in NutraSweet and saccharine in Sweet'N'Low, are still certified by the FDA, scientists continue to debate their safety. Saccharine is banned in some nations, but in the U.S. saccharine is okay, as long as there is a label warning consumers that it is a suspected carcinogen. Aspartame is also legal in the U.S., although it can be hazardous to people with certain neurological conditions. As for cyclamate, it remains banned in the U.S., and concerns about its safety have spread worldwide. Last year, a magistrate in Malaysia found a company guilty of using the illegal sweetener in its fruit preservatives. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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Deformed Frog Detectives
CURWOOD: For years, strangely-deformed frogs have been appearing in wetlands around the nation, particularly Minnesota and Vermont. Scientists have blamed the deformities on everything from chemicals in the environment, to ultra-violet radiation, to parasitic flatworms. But, they haven't been able to duplicate the exact same deformities in the lab -- until now. Recently, a group of government and private researchers was able to replicate the frog deformities and provide a major clue for what may be causing them. Janet Raloff, senior editor at Science News and Living on Earth's science correspondent, explains that, at least in some cases, a mixture of synthetic chemicals appears to be the culprit.
RALOFF: They find that a lot of chemicals that are in water supplies throughout the upper Midwest seem to work together to disrupt the production of thyroid hormone in developing amphibians. And this leads to a whole host of deformities in these frogs. These chemicals are ones that are pesticides, some of them are industrial pollutants, and some of them are just the chemicals that naturally occur in even pristine water supplies.
CURWOOD: Thyroid, that's intriguing. Isn't that related to neurological functioning, as well as pure thyroid functioning?
RALOFF: It's related to almost everything in development. That's everything from the development of the spine and all kinds of tissues to nerves and neurological development in people. It's related to things like learning and the ability to think, reason. In fact, it's actually related to IQ.
CURWOOD: Now, how did they figure this out? What was the new twist in research that gave them these answers?
RALOFF: Well, earlier work by this group, and this group is a pretty broad-ranging group -- and they'd noticed that if you incubated embryonic frogs in water from these areas, they developed with all kinds of deformities. So it looked like there was something in the water. The question was what? They then took this water into the lab in a test system, and started isolating various components of that water to see if they could still create the same kinds of deformities they saw in the field. And they could. And they kept sort of fractionating out what aspects of it seemed to do it. And it turns out that almost every lake they looked at was actually a chemical soup. It wasn't like it was contaminated with this pesticide or that pesticide. It would more likely have five, ten, even twenty different pesticides and other industrial pollutants in it. And then trying to find out whether it was one chemical in the soup or actually the mix, the whole recipe, that was leaning to the particular kinds of deformities they were seeing in the field. And they now think that's what it is.
CURWOOD: So, no wonder we can't really figure out what the effects of some of these chemicals are. It's very complicated. They have all these complicated interactions, and if you just test for one chemical at a time you might not ever find a reaction, is that right?
RALOFF: That's right, Steve. They know that some of these chemicals alone can cause some of the kinds of problems that are there, but they appear to be additive in many cases. And the other thing is, particularly it's interesting if the thyroid hormone is affected. This plays such a critical role in every phase of development in these amphibians, and in fact in all mammals, that if it's there being sort of screwed up from a very early age, you can get all kinds of major changes, including in the skin. The skin is really dependent on thyroid hormones. And so, in this case, they are finding that these frogs have thinner skin than usual and less pigment. That could render them more vulnerable to any kinds of other stressors, such as exposure to ultraviolet light, or even to other chemicals that may make their skin more permeable so that more chemicals can get in easily.
CURWOOD: Why are researchers so worried about frogs?
RALOFF: Frogs are a sentinel species. I mean, these people, actually, that I've talked to are very concerned about frogs because they're frogs. But when you push them, they're also very concerned about what they represent for the environment. They are a particularly vulnerable species, so they're going to be the first ones to feel the effects of pollutants in the water. And their concern is that if these frogs are going, there may be a host of other species that are also poised to feel the toxic effects, including humans.
CURWOOD: So, what does all this research mean for us humans?
RALOFF: Well, nobody quite knows. But there is some suspicion that if it's deforming the development of these amphibians, it may also play a role in the development of humans if they were exposed early on. So there is a study actually now underway in Minnesota that will be looking at whether rates of birth defects are higher in the areas where deformities are also high.
CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News and Living on Earth's science correspondent. Thank you, Janet.
RALOFF: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Last year a company called Car Sharing Portland opened in Oregon's largest city. The company owned a couple of cars and about 25 people shared the use of them -- a bit like a car rental agency -- except that drivers book the vehicles out for as little as an hour. The new enterprise was welcomed by a wave of publicity but not much has been heard about it since. We asked Kristian Foden-Vencil to give us an update.
(A door opens)
WOMAN: Bye, Walt
(The door shuts)
FODEN-VENCIL: Lioness Ayers bids goodbye to one of her many cats, locks her front door, and sets off for the day. Her walk doesn't end at a car in the driveway; she doesn't own one. And it doesn't end at the usual bus stop, either. Today she's walking six blocks to the nearest car sharing parking spot -- because she needs a car for a few hours to visit a client for work. Ms. Ayers moved to Portland 14 months ago, and when she heard about the car-sharing company, she decided against shelling out for a new set of wheels.
AYERS: I'm an old hippie. Most of my friends are old hippies. This is a concept that resonates really well with people who come from a history of activism, I think.
FODEN-VENCIL: She uses the Dodge Neon for a couple of hours every week -- to do things like bring the heavy groceries home or get out of town to enjoy the vistas that are the reason many people live in Oregon. She's really happy with the deal, too. Here's how it works. First, she had to plunk down a 500-dollar security deposit. In return, she received a set of keys and a telephone number.
(A car phone rings)
ANSWERING MACHINE: Welcome to Car Sharing reservations. If you'd like to receive (beep) Please enter your member ID number, plus your secret pin code, followed by the pound button.
FODEN-VENCIL: Using a touch tone phone, she can book the car for as many hours as she needs. Then she walks to the spot where the car is always left.
(Car door opens)
FODEN-VENCIL: Members pay $1.50 an hour, and 40 cents a mile. That covers the cost of insurance, gas, and maintenance. It's a quirky idea that has worked well in Europe for decades. But in America, where the car is king, it has been slow to catch on. Russel Martin worked on a government-sponsored car-sharing catastrophe in San Francisco back in the 80s. Members refused to pay their bills and the cars kept breaking down. But, he says, the Portland company he helped found is different because it's for-profit and you have to hand over your credit card number before you join. I asked Mr. Martin whether he was surprised that a feel-good idea like car-sharing had survived.
MARTIN: Not in Portland. (Laughs) I think if it could work in any city in this country, it would work in Portland. We have a pretty diverse member base, we've got quite a few people who would fall into that category but quite a few others who wouldn't.
FODEN-VENCIL: He says the business has grown to 200 people, eight cars and a pick-up truck for two very good reasons. First, Portland has a good mass transit system, so it's easy to get around without a vehicle. And second, car sharing makes economic sense.
MARTIN: A lot of people tend to think that the cost of operating a car is about five cents a mile for gasoline. You write that check for the insurance every six months or so and you maybe have a car payment every month. But when you add it all together and then average it out over the distance you drive, it can be quite surprising that it's 50 cents or more per mile.
Russel Martin figures it's cheaper to share a car if you drive less than ten thousand miles a year. Still, if economics ruled our transportation needs, we'd all be riding bikes or the bus. Maren Souders oversees the membership base at Car Sharing Portland and says many people enroll for environmental reasons. But not everyone. Quite a few already own one car, and just don't want to pay for a second.
SOUDERS: These are people whose egos are not wrapped up in their cars. These are people who see transportation as sort of a utilitarian thing.
(A car starts up)
FODEN-VENCIL: But what does the person in the street, or outside a neighborhood grocery store, think of car sharing?
WOMAN 1: Probably a chauffeur would be the only thing it would take me to get out of my car.
MAN: It sounds like to me it would be kind of a challenge to return the car in the middle of your work day. If you had a day off and time wasn't of the essence, then I could see it working.
WOMAN 2: I think it's a fabulous idea and I'm glad that there is a program like that available in Portland. It's the next best thing to bike commuting.
FODEN-VENCIL: In fact, locally, Car Sharing Portland is considered to be quite the success story. So far, nobody has stolen a car and members keep them clean and running smoothly. Even some vehicle manufacturers are keeping an eye on this new trend. Anne Smith of Daimler Chrysler.
SMITH: At some point in the future there's just not going to be the room for many more vehicles on the road. So, we're certainly aware that you need to look for what is the best and most convenient way to move our customers around.
(Beeps; a door opens)
FODEN-VENCIL: Environmental psychiatrist Richard Katzev, answers the intercom at his loft in downtown Portland. He studied car sharing around the world and surveyed members of the Portland company.
KATZEV: They were satisfied with the vehicles, they measured up to their expectations. They were able to book a vehicle when they had made a reservation. People are very, very uncertain before they join, whether or not there will be a vehicle available when they wanted to use it.
FODEN-VENCIL: He says once that concern had been assuaged, more than a quarter of all members decided to sell the cars they had hung onto. Such numbers are music to the ears of many environmentalists who have been trying to get us out from behind our steering wheels for years. But there's still a problem. Car Sharing Portland has yet to break even. It makes enough money to pay for the cars, gas, and insurance, but the company needs at least 300 members to pay for overheads like staff and the office. But that won't be long, says Car Sharing's Russel Martin. Then perhaps they will merge with a regular car rental company or even start selling franchises in other cities. Seattle and San Francisco are currently working on their own car sharing programs.
FODEN-VENCIL: Meanwhile, Lioness Ayers walks through town to pick up her Car Sharing vehicle. She wishes her neighbors to the north and south good luck with their new programs, but, she says, there are some towns where you just have to own a car. That's the way they were built and that's the way they will always be.
AYERS: I lived for a while in Los Angeles I would not give up my car in Los Angeles.
FODEN-VENCIL: For Living on Earth, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.
(Footfalls, bells, children's voices; fade to music up and under)
Nuclear Mishaps: The Human Factor
CURWOOD: The recent nuclear mishaps in Japan and South Korea prompted some North American experts to claim that "it couldn't happen here." Commentator Suzanne Elston isn't so sure.
ELSTON: I have to admit, I do it myself. Every time I hear about a radiation leak or some kind of accident at a nuclear power plant, I immediately start figuring out why it couldn't happen in my neighborhood. Nuclear technology is so complex that each plant has something about it that makes it unique. So what we do is we hold those differences close to us, like some kind of nuclear security blanket.
But hiding from the threat of a potential nuclear disaster is a dangerous game. It's like some bizarre form of Russian Roulette, where the players know the gun is loaded but believe the bullets won't hurt them. So, "it can't happen here" has become the mantra of the international nuclear set.
After Three Mile Island, Soviet nuclear experts assured us that their reactors wouldn't have the same kind of problem. And they were right, because the Soviets have a different reactor design. After the terrible accident at Chernobyl, Canadian scientists assured the world that our CANDU reactors didn't pose a similar threat. They were right. They couldn't have exactly the same type of accident, because they don't have exactly the same technology.
Now, following the Japanese incident at Tokaimura, the Canadian and U.S. analysts are also correct. The type of accident that happened there could only happen in Japan. We don't use the same procedure to process our uranium. They were right. Technically, they're always right. But the technology isn't the issue. Human error caused every single one of these accidents. And nowhere in our nuclear equations do we allow for human error.
Science ceases to be pure science the minute you apply it. Until we can develop a technology that is totally independent of human input, then there will be accidents. If we must pursue the nuclear option, then we have to account for human imperfection. We have to abandon our arrogant assumption that accidents can't happen, and we have to learn how to include a chaos factor into the nuclear equation. Until we do, we're simply playing with a loaded gun.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Commentator Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist who lives on the north shore of Lake Ontario. She comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.
Coming up: a few handy tips for garlic lovers. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
Garden Spot: Garlic
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Halloween will be here soon, and it will be time for ghosts, goblins, and vampires, unless of course you have plenty of garlic lying around.
WEISHAN: I keep plenty in my garden, Steve.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Well, of course. That's Michael Weishan, host of Public Radio's The Cultivated Gardener. I'm visiting him in his gardens to learn about planting garlic. Michael, why grow garlic?
WEISHAN: Well, actually, that's a good question, because it's actually pretty cheap in the stores. But one of the best reasons to grow garlic is that when you grow your own, you know it's organic, and you always pay premium for organic products. The second reason is that it's an ornamental garlic. It's actually quite beautiful. The stalks rise up on these very curly, long necks with beautiful flowers. The leaves look like chives. So I actually plant it not only in the vegetable garden but in the flower garden as well. And the third reason, of course, is that it's great for you. People actually take garlic supplements now for a whole host of ailments, so if you grow your own you don't have to buy it.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) So, it's healthy. Is it one of those traditional medicinal plants? I mean, what's the history of it?
WEISHAN: Garlic has been in cultivation ever since man has been cultivating gardens. At least that's what we think. The lore goes back past the ancient Egyptians. It was fed to the slaves who actually built the Great Pyramids, to help them with strength. It was also used in the Middle Ages as an anti-plague drug. It was also fed to the Roman legionaries, supposedly to make them more courageous and fight better. Personally, I think they just frightened away everyone they breathed on. (Curwood laughs)
CURWOOD: All right, well let's plant some.
WEISHAN: Dig a hole about four inches deep. I generally make a nice, long row, because quite frankly, if you take a head of garlic and split it into individual cloves, you get quite a number, generally. You just plant them down the line in a trench about four inches deep, about four inches apart, and cover them up. We plant them now in October, because it's the perfect time into October, November, just until the ground freezes. And essentially, each clove will then, next spring, form a whole new head of garlic. And you'll harvest it in July or so, when the tops die down and all the growth is gone. And that's about it. You just dig it up, let it dry, and you have your own supply of garlic. Nothing could be easier.
CURWOOD: Okay. Now I have some garlic that I've gotten at the store. Can I plant that?
WEISHAN: You can, but you don't exactly know where that garlic has been. You want to grow something where you can verify the source, whether it's been treated organically. There is another reason why you probably don't want to grow the garlic that you find in the supermarket. Generally, that's what we call soft-neck garlic. And the neck they're referring to is the stem that rises up that holds the flowers. And it's very soft and pliable, and you can actually braid them. You've seen those ornamental braids periodically. It's great for stores, but it doesn't do particularly much for flavor. It's rather bland. The type of garlic that most people grow in their gardens is called hard-neck garlic, and that has a harder stem. The stem actually snaps (snapping sound) almost like a small twig. And it's quite hard. And the flavor of this garlic is much more intense, much more varied in flavor. You can actually grow different varieties that have a nutmeg sort of flavor, or a spicier, tangier variety. So there's a lot more interest in that hard-neck garlic.
CURWOOD: Michael, thanks for the time.
WEISHAN: It's been a pleasure, Steve.
CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is host of The Cultivated Gardener, heard on Public Radio. If you'd like to learn more, check out our Web page. Our address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.
(Music up and under)
Being with Bees
CURWOOD: When nature pays a house call, everything stops. It doesn't matter if you live in the city and you don't feel particularly in touch with living things. Natural events have a way of making you put down that coffee just to take stock. Producer Dmae Roberts is used to buzzing around to odd and wonderful places to cover stories. But, one day, the buzz came to her and landed in her front yard in Portland, Oregon.
ROBERTS: A bright sunny day. I'm sitting at my computer typing away on a story. My husband, Richard, is outside working in the vegetable garden when he opens the door and tells me to look out the window. I grab my microphone and recorder.
D. ROBERTS (to Richard): Here, just take it. Ahhh! Ahhh!
ROBERTS: Outside in my front yard, brown and yellow objects flit by my nose and ears. Honey bees. Thousands and thousands. A swarm. Like you see in killer bee movies. In the past, when other people might panic and swat, I always knew that honeybees rarely attack because when a honeybee loses its stinger, it also loses its life. So I never felt threatened by a few cute little bees buzzing around my garden.
ROBERTS: But this is different. I let Richard take the recording equipment, swimming through the sea of bees to make his way to the camellia bush where the queen and about 40 thousand of her followers have landed on a branch. Cars stop to look at the two-foot clump of buzzing, moving bees. This is not an everyday site in Portland. In Oregon, wildlife often finds its way into the city. Not long ago a bear made its way across Portland and crossed the Willamette River before getting caught and returned to woods. But looking cross-eyed at a bunch of bees trying to land on your nose in your own front yard? That's a bit freaky. But not so for Richard. Did I mention my husband is the sensible one? He called a beekeeper.
RULE: Well, in a swarm situation like this, they won't sting you unless you pinch one or something like that.
ROBERTS: Bill Rule is 80 years old and has been keeping bees since he was in the 8th grade.
RULE: In a swarm situation, they have actually gorged themselves on honey before they left their home. And they're so full of honey that it actually would pain them to put down their tail to sting you. And so a swarm normally won't bother you at all.
ROBERTS: Mr. Rule explains that when a new queen is born into a bee colony, the old queen takes about half the worker bees (which are also female, by the way) to start a new hive. I thought that was very gracious of the old queen.
RULE: ‘Cause that's what they're doing. They're looking for a home. Some place to get inside. They would not have stayed out there in the tree like that. They would go inside in a crack into your wall of your house or your attic or an out building. Anywhere they can get inside is where they're going.
ROBERTS: So we're lucky that they landed on the bush, then, instead of inside our house?
RULE: They would normally land on the bush anyhow until they found a place to go inside. Yes, this is when you want a beekeeper to get them, when they're out like this.
ROBERTS: In fact, the honey bees might have taken up residence inside the walls of our house. When bees swarm in the city, they're looking for a dead hollow tree, which is a bee's ideal home. But often they find cracks and holes inside buildings and houses. I heard later, it's best to call an exterminator within the first few days. After that, the hive will start making honeycombs that could stain and melt through the walls inside the house. We're very lucky indeed that Richard knew to call Bill Rule, the beekeeper. And the bees were doubly lucky that it wasn't an exterminator but a beekeeper who came to get them -- a beekeeper who is now fearlessly standing in our yard with a saw in his hands. Quickly, Mr. Rule cuts the branch with the clump of bees, drops the clump into the box and starts banging on it with a stick.
ROBERTS: The queen and most of her workers are now inside this box that will soon become the bee hive. The cloud of bees still swarming around seem even more excited now. They're looking for their queen. Mr. Rule keeps beating on the box to attract the confused bees inside. He does this for about ten minutes. It doesn't seem like many are going into the box. But after a while, the cloud does thin out a little.
ROBERTS: Mr. Rule stops, walks over to us, and casually mentions he's just been stung about five or six times. He laughs at my pained expression and says he's probably been stung thousands of times since he was kid. But he doesn't mind at all.
RULE: I think it's good for me. I know it's good for me. It's good for my arthritis. It takes care of my arthritis. I've known that for years. I've got severe, advanced arthritis in my neck, but I get enough bee stings and it don’t bother me.
ROBERTS: It's true that apitherapy, or bee venom therapy, is gaining in popularity as a treatment for advanced arthritis and even multiple sclerosis. It's been a bona fide medical treatment in Germany since the 1800's. And I hear there are actual bee venom clubs where people gather together to stick their hands into bee-filled jars. I shake off that image. Shots at the doctor's office are hard enough. And considering how many bees were just in our yard, I am amazed I haven't been stung. I look at the bees still buzzing around aimlessly. I ask Mr. Rule what will happen to them.
RULE: They will die. They will either go back where they come from -- if they come from somewhere close here, they will go back where they come from. If not, they will hang around here and just will die in time. There's no hope for them. They can't survive.
ROBERTS: But the bees Mr. Rule coaxed into the box will survive. He's taking take them to a field where a farmer lets him keep about 50 other hives in exchange for pollinating the crops. After Richard and I say goodbye to Bill Rule the beekeeper, we pause a while staring at the several hundred leftover bees buzzing around in circles. We stand and watch them on this summer day, a day when everything just had to stop because nature came to our house for a visit.
ROBERTS: For Living on Earth, I'm Dmae Roberts in Portland, Oregon.
(Buzzing continues, fade to music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, in the heart of Motor City, religious leaders are preaching cleaner-burning cars to combat climate change, and they are taking their message straight to the auto-makers themselves.
MAN 1: We in the religious community have a call to tend, to care for, the garden. To care for the Earth. And therefore, global warming, climate change, is at its fundament a religious issue.
CURWOOD: But other clergy say church is no place for science.
MAN 2: I think that the majority of the religious activists involved in this do not have any more scientific background than I do on the question. And therefore, would be prudent to keep their mouths shut about it.
CURWOOD: Enviro-politics from the pulpit, next week on Living on Earth. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Brent Runyon, Russell Wiedemann, and Hannah Day-Woodruff. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
(Music up and under)
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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