Newsroom | Catalyst Summer 2012
Biotech Little Help during Droughts
Farmers have better options, UCS finds
Last year’s epic Texas drought—at $5.2 billion in agricultural losses, the most costly on record—showed just how devastating droughts can be to farmers and food production. And climate scientists expect the frequency and severity of droughts to increase in some regions. In a new report titled High and Dry, UCS examined the prospects for improving crops’ performance during droughts and reducing their water needs even under normal conditions.
We found that the one crop genetically engineered for drought tolerance and approved for commercial use—Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn—is practical only under moderate drought conditions; it won’t thrive in a severe drought, nor will it need less irrigation in normal years. Classically bred drought-tolerant varieties performed at least as well, suggesting that classical and newer forms of plant breeding (combined with farming practices that build soil and conserve water) are a more effective and less expensive approach to improving crops’ resilience to drought than genetic engineering. As Congress considers the Farm Bill this summer, it should prioritize these better solutions.
Climate Science for Local Communities
UCS contributes to key federal report
The National Climate Assessment—a collaboration among 13 federal agencies—is the main conduit through which U.S. climate scientists distill their findings for local and regional decision makers. The information delivered in this report is critical in shaping infrastructure investments, emergency response plans, and other strategies that will help protect our communities from the impacts of global warming.
UCS is actively working to strengthen the findings of the next assessment, which will be released in 2013 (the last one was released in 2009), and ensure they’re communicated far and wide. A webinar we hosted in February on this topic featured Dr. Kathy Jacobs from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Dr. George Luber from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are also recruiting members of the UCS Science Network to review the report during the public comment period starting this December, and are connecting the assessment team with groups who represent communities already affected by climate change.
Learn more about the National Climate Assessment and how you can get involved.
A Lesson We Can’t Afford to Forget
UCS finds critical nuclear reforms are languishing
One year after the March 11, 2011, disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, approximately 80,000 people who lived within 12 miles of the plant are still unable to return to their homes due to high levels of radiation. Given the similarity of both the design of the Fukushima reactors and Japan’s emergency response procedures to those in the United States, UCS has been monitoring the accident’s impact on U.S. nuclear power safety policy.
In U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year after Fukushima, we commend the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) swift action in identifying needed safety improvements, but some of the most critical have not been given priority. Moreover, the NRC has deferred action on the reevaluation of emergency evacuation zones and the accelerated transfer of radioactive spent fuel from vulnerable pools to safer dry casks. We urge the NRC to follow through on these and other measures that would prevent and mitigate severe accidents before a disaster similar in scale to Fukushima happens here.
Giving Healthy Food a Fighting Chance
We show how to boost fruit, vegetable production
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that fruits and vegetables constitute half of each American’s daily food intake. However, these foods are currently grown on only 2 percent of U.S. farm acres—not enough to satisfy the USDA’s recommendations—largely because the U.S. government subsidizes things like high-fructose corn syrup that go into unhealthy processed foods. Farmers that grow healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, receive little or no support. With demand for fresh, healthy foods on the rise, it is time for U.S. farm policy to catch up.
Following on our 2011 report Market Forces, which found that local and regional food systems can create jobs and spur economic growth, UCS has identified key policies that hold such systems back. Our new report Ensuring the Harvest outlines straightforward solutions policy makers can adopt to help fruit and vegetable farmers access crop insurance and financing, allowing them to produce more of the healthy foods consumers want and need.
UCS Book Garners Widespread Attention
Since the launch of our new book, Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, we’ve been talking to audiences around the country about the importance of individual action in fighting climate change. In addition to talks hosted by book stores, museums, universities, and libraries, we’ve presented the book’s findings to employees of several large companies including Adobe and Nissan, and encouraged them to reduce their personal emissions 20 percent or more in the coming year.
The news media have also shown interest in the book. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a full-page story about Cooler Smarter on the front of its Sunday Home and Garden section, and we’ve conducted more than 40 radio interviews, including one for a program aimed at Tea Party supporters. To engage younger audiences, we’ve created a Trivia Night kit and a poster showing how scaling up small changes can have a big impact.
UCS Seeks End to Illegal Wood Trade
Law that protects tropical forests should be enforced
Illegal logging in the tropics and the associated trade of illegal wood products threatens forests, societies, and economies. In our April report Logging and the Law, UCS documents its impact—in the form of depressed world timber prices (which reduces the competitive advantage of legal loggers and producers) and degraded forest ecosystems—and outlines solutions that would promote economic and social development in the tropics and encourage sustainable forest management.
Among these solutions is the Lacey Act, a century-old law amended by Congress in 2008 to prohibit the trade of illegal plants and plant products, including wood. The law creates a disincentive for illegal logging by closing the U.S. market to these goods, but is under attack by anti-regulation groups. UCS has called on Congress to fully implement and enforce the Lacey Act, and to use it as a foundation for additional reforms that could promote sustainable forestry, improve forest management decisions in local communities, and create long-term development opportunities.
F. Sherwood Rowland (1927–2012)
UCS mourns the passing of Sherry Rowland, a renowned atmospheric scientist and ally of UCS honored for his research on the ozone-depleting effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). He died March 10 at the age of 84.
Sherry’s passion for science started in high school when he ran the local volunteer weather station in Delaware, OH. He earned a Ph.D. in radiochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1952, and in 1964 became one of the first professors at the University of California–Irvine, where he spent the rest of his career. Sherry was a towering presence on the basketball court (at 6 feet 5 inches tall, he starred on his college’s varsity team) and ultimately in the scientific community as well.
Nearly 40 years ago, he and postdoctoral student Mario Molina (who joined the UCS board of directors in 1997) discovered that CFCs, used in refrigerants and aerosols, were eating away at the ozone layer that blocks nearly all the sun’s harsh ultraviolet radiation. These findings prompted criticism from industry but were validated when an ozone hole was discovered above Antarctica in 1985, spurring ratification of the Montreal Protocol that phased out CFCs in 1987. Sherry, Mario, and Dutch researcher Paul Crutzen received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work.
In 2004 Sherry was one of 62 prominent scientists to sign our statement about the need to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making. “The public deserves rational decision making based on the best scientific advice about what is likely to happen,” he said at the time, “not what political entities might wish to happen.”