Popular Pesticides Linked to Drops in Bird Populations

By Helen Thompson

Let me tell you about the birds and the bees: A family of pesticides called neonicotinoids has been linked with pollinator declines. While their involvement in bee colony collapse is hotly debated, ecologists are wondering: could neonicotinoids impact something further up the food chain?

A study published yesterday in Nature suggests that birds and bees may share a common enemy. Dutch researchers have found a correlation between bird population declines in the Netherlands and higher concentrations of the common neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid in surface water.

“There is an alarming trend between declines of local bird populations and imidacloprid in the environment, which needs serious attention to see what we want to do with this pesticide in the future,” says Hans de Kroon, a co-author and plant ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. The researchers posit that the pesticide affects these birds by killing off their bug food supply.

Concerns have been raised about neonicotinoids’ affect on bees since the chemical first emerged on the pesticide scene in the 1990s. What makes them popular is the fact that they’re supposed to only harm insect pests keen to munch on plant leaves. In insects, the pesticide binds to specific receptors in the nervous system, ultimately killing the insect. Continue reading

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Rapid loss of top predators ‘a major environmental threat’

Scientists warn that removal from ecosystem of large carnivores like the dingo could be as detrimental as climate change

dingo
Dingoes keep kangaroo and fox numbers down, which means less overgrazing and more small native animals. Photograph: AAP

The rapid loss of top predators such as dingoes, leopards and lions is causing an environmental threat comparable to climate change, an international group of scientists has warned.

A study by researchers from Australia, the US and Europe found that removing large carnivores, which has happened worldwide in the past 200 years, causes a raft of harmful reactions to cascade through food chains and landscapes.

Small animals are picked off by feral pests, land is denuded of vegetation as herbivore numbers increase and streams and rivers are even diverted as a result of this loss of carnivores, the ecologists found.

“There is now a substantial body of research demonstrating that, alongside climate change, eliminating large carnivores is one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature,” the study states.

The research looked at the ecological impact of the world’s 31 largest mammalian carnivores, with the largest body of information gathered on seven key species – the dingo, grey wolf, lion, leopard, sea otter, lynx and puma.

In Australia the downfall of the dingo, which has been largely pushed out of the country’s eastern and southern states, has had a number of detrimental effects. Dingoes have been culled to prevent them preying on sheep, while inter-breeding with dogs has also had an impact.

Dr Mike Letnic, the report’s co-author and research fellow at the University of NSW, told Guardian Australia that his studies either side of the vast dingo-proof fence showed the consequences of their absence.

“We found there were more small native animals such as poteroos and bilbies where the dingoes were,” he said. “That’s because they [dingoes] suppress foxes, which have given small mammals a really hard time since they were introduced.

“Dingoes also kill kangaroos, so losing them means more kangaroos. That means areas are overgrazed, nutrients are lost from the soil and you risk desertification of areas. More dingoes aren’t ideal for kangaroos, but they are a net benefit to the ecosystem.”

This increase in kangaroo numbers in parts of Australia has had other unintended consequences, with the marsupials targeted by farmers for competing with livestock for prime grazing land. Letnic said they may even be to blame for outbreaks of Ross River fever.

Further afield, researchers found that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone national park in the US caused a reduction in deer numbers, in turn benefiting the park’s trees and plants.

The spread of Lyme disease in the US was partially attributed to booming deer numbers, which host the ticks that carry the disease, while an increase in the number of herbivores grazing is thought to change the flow of local rivers, making them straighter and threatening creatures that dwell in slow-moving waters. Loss of vegetation also removes key carbon storage from the environment.

Letnic said: “A good example is in west Africa, where people removed lions and leopards. They then suffered an outbreak of baboons, which give small animals a hard time but also give people a hard time. They raid crops, which mean that kids don’t go to school because they have to guard the crops all day.

“Overall, we’ve got to find better ways to live with carnivores. They aren’t always easy to live with, but they are an important part of the ecosystem.

“In terms of dingoes, we need to find landscapes where they are left alone or actively promoted. In livestock grazing areas we need to work out what impact they are having and work out a system, perhaps with guard dogs, that we can use to avoid killing them off.”

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/10/rapid-loss-of-top-predators-a-major-environmental-threat

Access to the article by clicking  here

Boycotts are a crucial weapon to fight environment-harming firms

by Bill Laurence, distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University
Furniture retailer Harvey Norman has been targeted by activists, in a campaign described by the federal government as dishonest. AAP Image/The Last Stand/Matthew Newton

In October 2000, I was driving through downtown Boise, Idaho, and nearly careered off the road. Just in front of me was a giant inflatable Godzilla-like dinosaur, well over 30m tall. It was towering over the headquarters of Boise Cascade, one of North America’s biggest wood products corporations. For years, the firm had been tangling with environmental groups who blamed the company’s logging practices for declines in the extent of old-growth forests across the globe.

The huge inflatable reptile was the inspired idea of the Rainforest Action Network, who used it to label Boise Cascade a dinosaur of the timber industry. The blow-up dinosaur was headline news across the United States and the label stuck. Although Boise Cascade tried to deny it was yielding to environmental pressure, it ultimately agreed to phase out all of its old-growth wood products.

Environmental campaigns such as this one have become an increasingly important arrow in the quiver of conservation groups, for a very good reason. The world has become hyper-corporatised and globalised, with the result that, as I reported in 2008, deforestation is now substantially driven by major industries rather than by the exploits of poor people trying to make a living off the land.

Campaigns and boycotts get the attention of these large corporations, because they hit them where it hurts: their reputation and market share.

Last-ditch tactics

Boycotts are typically a last resort. The Rainforest Action Network tried for years to nudge, cajole and finally pressure Boise Cascade to phase out old-growth products, without success. Its gentler tactics worked fine with other big corporations such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, but it took a gigantic dinosaur to get Boise Cascade’s attention.

Globally, some of the most impressive environmental achievements have come via boycotts, or at least the threat of them. Just in the past year, four of the world’s biggest forest-destroying corporations have announced new “no deforestation” policies in response to such environmental pressures.

Among the worst of these was Asia Pulp & Paper, whose reputation had become so synonymous with rainforest destruction that the retailers selling its products began fleeing in droves. Today, the corporation has ostensibly turned over a new leaf and even thanked Greenpeace – one of its most persistent critics – for helping it to see the light.

Across the globe, boycotts have helped to rein in predatory behaviour by timber, oil palm, soy, seafood and other corporations. They have led to impressive environmental benefits, such as a landmark forestry peace deal in Canada and a pledge by Australia’s major supermarkets to stock sustainably-sourced tuna.

Banning boycotts?

But now, the power of boycotts might be on the brink of being reined in, after the federal government floated the idea of banning organised boycotts of companies on environmental grounds.

The move has sparked apoplexy among free-speech advocates, and came as a surprise even to observers whose expectations had already been lowered by the Commonwealth’s plan to devolve environmental powers to the states and territories.

Parliamentary agriculture secretary Richard Colbeck said the move would be aimed at “dishonest campaigns”, singling out the campaign against furniture retailer Harvey Norman, which activists accuse of logging native forests.

“They can say what they like, they can campaign about what they like, they can have a point of view, but they should not be able to run a specific business-focused or market-focused campaign, and they should not be able to say things that are not true,” Colbeck told Guardian Australia.

At odds with free speech

Predictably, environmental groups are unimpressed. Reece Turner, a forests campaigner with Greenpeace-Australia, told me:

This policy is at odds with the Liberal party’s professed commitment to uninhibited free speech. The Coalition is going to remarkable extremes to protect big industry from campaigns that are essentially focused on greater transparency of business practices. These campaigns are designed to inform consumer choices – something the Liberal party should be supporting.

One of the more notable aspects of the proposed ban is that it could directly conflict with the Coalition’s stated environmental priorities – one of which is a desire to slow global rainforest destruction as a means to combat global warming.

Of all the environmental actions undertaken to date, boycotts have probably had the greatest direct benefit for rainforests.

As an aside, the Coalition government has recently struggled to find a consistent line on both environmentalism and free speech. Straight after taking office it scuttled the Climate Commission, and is currently fighting to repeal a raft of other carbon policies. Yet it has also announced that Australia will use this year’s Brisbane G20 summit as a “catalyst” to help China, India, Europe and the United States to cut their carbon emissions.

At this early stage, it’s difficult to say whether or not the proposed ban on environmental boycotts will solidify into firm Coalition policy or merely fade away, its proponents having realised this could be too polarising an idea. Let’s hope for the latter. This is a scheme that deserves to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Source: https://theconversation.com/boycotts-are-a-crucial-weapon-to-fight-environment-harming-firms-25267?

Taking a Bite Out of Biodiversity

IN THE REVIEW “STATUS AND ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST CARNIVORES” (10 January, DOI: 10.1126/science.1241484), W. J. Ripple et al. claim that meat consumption by humans is one of many threats to carnivores and biodiversity. We argue that human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity.

Livestock production accounts for up to 75% of all agricultural lands and 30% of Earth’s land surface, making it the single largest anthropogenic land use (1). Meat and feedstock production is rapidly rising in biodiversity-rich developing countries. For example, in China, animal products currently constitute ~20% of diets, but this amount is expected to increase to ~30% or higher over the next two decades (2). For China to attain a level of carnivory similar to the United States, its projected 1.5 billion inhabitants would increase consumption of animal products by almost 30% (3). Given current trends, 1 billion additional hectares of natural habitats—an area larger than the United States—will be converted to agriculture by 2050 (4).

DSC01358

Free ranging cattle in Galicia, NW of Iberian Peninsula.

Substituting meat with soy protein could reduce total human biomass appropriation in 2050 by 94% below 2000 baseline levels (5) and greatly reduce other environmental impacts related to use of water, fertilizer, fossil fuel, and biocides. Soy protein production for global livestock markets is the second leading cause of Amazonian deforestation after pasture creation. Eliminating livestock and instead growing crops, including soy protein, only for direct human consumption could negate future agricultural land expansion, while increasing the number of calories available for human consumption by as much as 70% (6)— enough to feed an additional 4 billion people, exceeding the projected global population growth of 2 to 3 billion (6). This savings in land and calories is due to eliminating the loss of ~90% of the energy available in plants during the conversion to livestock (7).

We argue that reducing and maintaining animal products to even 10% of the global human diet would enable the future global population to be fed on just the current area of agricultural lands. Without a global decrease in per capita meat consumption by humans, the loss of natural habitats, large carnivores, and biodiversity is certain to continue.

BRIAN MACHOVINA* AND KENNETH J. FEELEY
Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199, USA. *Corresponding author. E-mail: brianmachovina@gmail.com
edited by Jennifer Sills

References
1. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and
options” (FAO, Rome, 2006); http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
2. M. A. Keyzer, M. D. Merbis, I. F. P. W. Pavel, C. F. A. van Wesenbeeck, Ecol. Econ. 55, 187
(2005).
3. S. Bonhommeau et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 20617 (2013).
4. D. Tilman et al., Science 292, 281 (2001).
5. N. Pelletier, P. Tyedmers, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 18371 (2010).
6. E. Cassidy, P. C. West, J. S. Gerber, J. A. Foley, Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 8 (2013).
7. H. Charles et al., Science 327, 812 (2010).

Downloaded from http://www.sciencemag.org on February 21, 2014

How long have humans been transforming the planet?

A call goes out for a new global effort to puzzle out humanity’s ecological history over the last 50,000 years or more By David Biello

Want to know when the Anthropocenestarted exactly? It will only cost an entirely revamped scientific effort in archaeology, ecology and paleontology, among other disciplines, at an unprecedented planetary scale, according to a new paper calling for such a scheme.

The putative start date for what scientists have begun to call the Anthropocene—a newly defined epoch in which humanity is the dominant force on the planet—ranges widely. Some argue that humans began changing the global environment about 50,000 years back, in the Pleistocene epoch, helping along if not outright causing the mass extinctions of megafauna, from mammoths to giant kangaroos, on most continents. Others date it to the emergence of agriculture some 7,000 years ago. The most definitive cases to be made coincide with the start of the industrial revolution and the dawn of the atomic age. The beginnings of burning fossil fuels to power machines in the 19th century initiated a change in the mix of atmospheric gases , and the first nuclear weapon test on July 16, 1945, spread unique isotopes across the globe.

There is little doubt from the archaeological record that humans have been altering ecosystems on a local scale for at least 50,000 years if not longer, but the extent of that alteration remains unknown. Recent work by ecologist Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and others suggests that for at least 3,000 years hunting, farming and burning have shaped most landscapes on the planet, based on computer models.

To definitively prove that with field evidence would require the kind of archaeological and ecological effort the world has never seen, a scheme Ellis and co-authors lay out in a paper in the inaugural issue of the new open-access journal Elementadevoted to the Anthropocene. That plan, they say, would have to be global in scale—to eliminate the bias in current research toward the most accessible archaeological sites—as well as unusually open. Few scientific disciplines are as secretive as archaeology, paleontology and paleoecology, given that careers are made (or not) based on access to specimens.

The payoff would be a true historical baseline for what is “natural” for the first time, complementing efforts like the Long Term Ecological Research Network and the newNational Ecological Observatory Network, among others. “What is a natural system has a cultural history as part of its constitution,” says archaeologist Dorian Fuller of University College London, a co-author of the paper and a supporter of “Big Archaeology,” who notes that the ecosystems of Amazonia, Europe and even the western U.S. are all products of at least millennia of human activity.

Prospects for such a global effort are, admittedly, dim, not least because it is unclear who would fund such work. But a global, synthetic effort is the only way to answer the question: How long have humans been terraforming? “This is great scientific work that can be done and needs to be done,” Ellis argues. “It will help us define the role of humans in shaping the Anthropocene and will mark a scientific triumph for humanity: a full empirical account of our rise to global stewardship of the biosphere.”

Source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=length-of-human-domination&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_EVO_20131209

Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies

Josh Haner/The New York Times

A United Nations panel of scientists says that globally, rising temperatures will make it harder for crops to thrive.

By 

Climate change will pose sharp risks to the world’s food supply in coming decades, potentially undermining crop production and driving up prices at a time when the demand for food is expected to soar, scientists have found.

In a departure from an earlier assessment, the scientists concluded that rising temperatures will have some beneficial effects on crops in some places, but that globally they will make it harder for crops to thrive — perhaps reducing production over all by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century, compared with what it would be without climate change.

And, the scientists say, they are already seeing the harmful effects in some regions.

The warnings come in a leaked draft of a report under development by a United Nations panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The document is not final and could change before it is released in March.

The report also finds other sweeping impacts from climate change already occurring across the planet, and warns that these are likely to intensify as human emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise. The scientists describe a natural world in turmoil as plants and animals colonize new areas to escape rising temperatures, and warn that many could become extinct.

The warning on the food supply is the sharpest in tone the panel has issued. Its previous report, in 2007, was more hopeful. While it did warn of risks and potential losses in output, particularly in the tropics, that report found that gains in production at higher latitudes would most likely offset the losses and ensure an adequate global supply.

The new tone reflects a large body of research in recent years that has shown howsensitive crops appear to be to heat waves. The recent work also challenges previous assumptions about how much food production could increase in coming decades because of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The gas, though it is the main reason for global warming, also acts as a kind of fertilizer for plants.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the principal scientific body charged with reviewing and assessing climate science, then issuing reports about the risks to the world’s governments. Its main reports come out every five to six years. The group won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore, in 2007 for its efforts.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent every year to reduce emissions in response to past findings from the group, though many analysts have said these efforts are so far inadequate to head off drastic climatic changes later in the century.

On the food supply, the new report finds that benefits from global warming may be seen in some areas, like northern lands that are now marginal for food production. But it adds that over all, global warming could reduce agricultural production by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century.

During that period, demand is expected to rise as much as 14 percent each decade, the report found, as the world population is projected to grow to 9.6 billion in 2050, from 7.2 billion today, according to the United Nations, and as many of those people in developing countries acquire the money to eat richer diets.

Any shortfall would lead to rising food prices that would hit the world’s poor hardest, as has already occurred from price increases of recent years. Research has found that climate change, particularly severe heat waves, was a factor in those price spikes.

The agricultural risks “are greatest for tropical countries, given projected impacts that exceed adaptive capacity and higher poverty rates compared with temperate regions,” the draft report finds.

If the report proves to be correct about the effect on crops from climate change, global food demand might have to be met — if it can be met — by putting new land into production. That could entail chopping down large areas of forest, an action that would only accelerate climate change by sending substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the air from the destruction of trees.

The report finds that efforts to adapt to climate change have already begun in many countries. President Obama signed an executive order on Friday to step up such efforts in the United States. But these efforts remain inadequate compared with the risks, the report says, and far more intensive — and expensive — adaptation plans are likely to be required in the future.

The document also finds that it is not too late for cuts in emissions to have a strong impact on the future risks of climate change, though the costs would be incurred in the next few decades and the main benefits would probably be seen in the late 21st century and beyond.

The leak of the new draft occurred on a blog hostile to the intergovernmental panel. In a brief interview, a spokesman for the panel, Jonathan Lynn, did not dispute the authenticity of the document.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mr. Lynn said. “It’s likely to change.”

Several scientists involved in drafting the document declined on Friday to speak publicly about it. In the Internet era, the group’s efforts to keep its drafts secret are proving to be a failure, and some of the scientists involved have called for a drafting process open to the public.

A report about the physical science of climate change leaked in August, then underwent only modest changes before its final release in Stockholm in late September. The new report covers the impact of climate change, efforts to adapt to it, and the vulnerability of human and natural systems.

A third report, analyzing potential ways to limit the rise of greenhouse gases, is due for release in Berlin in April.

A version of this article appears in print on November 2, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/02/science/earth/science-panel-warns-of-risks-to-food-supply-from-climate-change.html?

Toxins found in Polar Bear brains

Denmark: In a new study, Arctic researchers have discovered an accumulation of perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS) – a PerFluoroAlkyl Substance (PFAS) – and several compounds of the perfluorinated carboxylate (PFCAs) grouping in eight brain regions of polar bears collected from Scoresby Sound, East Greenland.

PFASs and precursor compounds have been used in a wide variety of commercial and industrial products over the past six decades.

There has shown a dramatic increase and dispersal of these substances around the world over the past four decades, and an increasing amount of information is becoming available on the toxicity of these compounds.

In the new research, the scientists, from Carleton University in Canada and Aarhus University in Denmark, used the polar bear as a sentinel species for humans and other predators at the top of the food chain.

Polar bears in East Greenland have toxins in their brains, which can impact the endangered animals’ fertility, Danish researchers have discovered. What’s worse is that the polar bears have not have ingested products containing the dangerous perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) accidentally.

Dr Robert Letcher, Carleton University, explained: “We know that fat soluble contaminants are able to cross the brain-blood barrier, but is it quite worrying that the PFOS and PFCAs, which are more associated with proteins in the body, were present in all the brain regions we analysed.”

Professor Rune Dietz, Aarhus University, added: “If PFOS and PFCAs can cross the blood-brain barrier in polar bears, it will also be the case in humans. The brain is one of the most essential parts of the body, where anthropogenic chemicals can have a severe impact. However, we are beginning to see the effect of the efforts to minimise the dispersal of this group of contaminants.”

Dietz’s team has studied 500 polar bears in East Greenland for the past 30 years.

The products in question are everyday items like Teflon pans and textile coatings. Precisely because they don’t dissipate into the environment, they travel up the food chain once they’ve been ingested by a lowly fish species. They also travel far distances inside the bodies of the various fish species and marine mammals, which is how they arrive in polar bear habitats. “When you get to the top of the food chain, where the polar bear reside, you get the highest concentration of these toxins,” explains Dietz.

Another recent study from Aarhus University has documented that PFOS concentrations in Greenlandic polar bears and ringed seals started to decline after 2006. Other wildlife populations closer to the sources in Europe and North America have also shown a decline prior to the Greenlandic animals.

Dietz commented: “It is promising to see that the PFAS are on the decline. This development should be encouraged by the authorities globally.

“In the meantime my best advice to the consumers is to go for environmentally labelled products. But avoiding products is difficult, because PFASs are so widespread in many kind of products and they are rarely declared.”

Though no conclusive evidence exists, PFAS are suspected of damaging the brain, liver and reproduction.

“There are higher levels of PFASs in the brains of Inuits (Greenlanders) as well,” explains Dietz.

Even more worryingly, people in industrialized countries who have never eaten marine mammals have PFASs in their brains, too. But, if they eat neither marine mammals nor fish, how do they ingest the toxins? Researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research are the science world’s detectives, trying to establish how the poisonous substances enter our bodies.

“The increase in PFASs in humans and polar bears is very frightening,” notes Dietz. “The good news is that production of products using these pollutants peaked in 2006. But it’s worrying that there’s still very little regulation of PFASs in China.”

Sources:

http://www.metro.us/newyork/news/national/2013/07/29/researchers-find-toxins-from-distant-countries-in-brains-of-polar-bears/

http://www.paneuropeannetworks.com/detail/news/environmental-toxins-found-in-polar-bear-brains.html

Rune Dietz Blog: http://dce.au.dk/old/danmarksmiljoeundersoegelser/en/blogs/dietz/

other papers published: http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rune_Dietz/publications/1?sorting=published

Rune Dietz Conference May 2010: http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/sectors/chemicals/files/reach/docs/events/pfoa-dietz_en.pdf

Polar Bear Specialist Group: http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/

Other Polar Bear’ threats:

http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/08-1036.1