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Monthly Archives: August 2011

The southern United States is experiencing some very dry times. Record high temperatures and below average rain fall have set off timber fires in Georgia, scorched crops in New Mexico and crippled wildlife populations and over-burdened electricity grids in Texas.  And experts say this extreme weather could be here for a while.

A map that monitors drought, stains the state of Texas deep red. Nearly 250,000 square miles are listed at the highest intensity of drought- D4: Exceptional. This is the worst drought-year on record; July was the hottest month and 2010-2011 was the driest year since Texas started keeping records in 1895. The strain of cooling homes and offices has sent the state’s electricity meters surging past levels not expected till 2014, just avoiding the need to call for rolling blackouts.   Farmers of wheat, cotton and peanuts are all expecting thin harvests.  Ranchers have moved cattle across state lines, to Kansas, for water.

Though 2011 has been extreme, Texas has endured similar droughts for much longer. Many long time Texans remember the decade-long drought of the late 1940’s and 50’s, known as the Drought of Record.  But before the Drought of Record, before any drought records, and before the Lone Star was a gleam in America’s eye, actually- even before there was America; Texas trees logged the dryness. 

The science of tree rings: dendrochronology, tells us that there have been several decade-long droughts in Texas history; the worst being 1716-1725; the worst 20 year drought happened between 1697-1716.  And just a few years before Columbus’ first voyage, the Texas-Mexico region was just emerging from a half-century long drought.  Doian Burnette, an instructor of Geo Sciences at the University of Arkansas describes the life of these trees as "longevity under adversity."  

Which could be the forecast for all life here.  Climatologists attribute the current drought to the La Nina weather pattern.  Experts say there's a 50 percent chance the same system will continue into the fall.

According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, if the federal government increased funding for 100-500 farmers markets, it could create 13,500 jobs in just five years.  The report, Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems, says that farmer's markets kick start local economies and keeps money recirculating through that economy.  
According to the Congressional Budget Office, last year the USDA gave $13.725 billion in crop insurance and supplemental disaster assistance to large industrial farmers.  Less than $100 million went to regional farmers.  The UCS is calling for an increase in funds to local food systems to help stimulate local economies, improve American diets and reduce environmental impacts of our food.  
Public funding for local food systems can create a myriad of opportunities.  According to the Farmer's Market Coalition, without any federal incentives, between 2002 and 2007 the number of female farmers rose by almost 30% . Eighty percent of vendors from New York, California and Iowa reported that farmer's markets offer the best opportunity for business development with real time feedback on new crops.  
In New Orleans, the Crescent City Farmers Market alone generated $9.8 million in total economic impact in 2010.  With federal support, more opportunities for jobs open in a number of industries. Farming, transportation, meat processing and dairy bottling can all be strengthened and expanded. 
In West Virginia, 34 farmer's markets created 119 jobs with a net increase of 82 jobs and a net increase of $1.1 million in output.  In Iowa, 152 markets led to the creation of 576 jobs and $59.4 million increased output.  According to the UCS, in 2007 farmer's markets added up to a $1.2 billion-a-year industry but its reliance on volunteers stunts its expansion. 
The UCS is calling for the federal government to support local food markets, farm-to-school programs and invest in rural regions.  The UCS is also calling for the expansion of the acceptance of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits.  Currently around 900 markets accept SNAP and 3,300 markets accept vouchers from programs such as the Women, Infant and Children (WIC).  
There are a number of positive signs for the future of farmers markets.  Between 2009 and 2010, the amount of SNAP benefits redeemed at farmers markets grew nearly 60% and the number of markets accepting SNAP grew 30% between 2007 and 2008.  Despite a lack of federal funding, these markets have flourished across the nation in recent years on their own.  In 2000, 2,863 markets existed.  That number leaped to 6,132 markets in 2010.  

It used to cost about $400 for a genetic ancestry test.  For that price you could spit in an envelope, mail it to a lab and they'd tell you a story of your genetic history and what medical conditions you might expect.  Now, that luxury test has been opened up for a limited time.  A company called 23 And Me is offering free genetic testing for 10,000 African Americans who want it.  The company annouced the deal last week at the National Urban League confernce in Boston and more than 1,000 people have alread signed up online.

You can learn more about at "Roots Into the Future"  


Little is known about the connection between DNA and disease in African Americans. With your help, 23andMe can counter this trend. Roots into the Future will increase understanding of how DNA plays a role in health and wellness, especially for diseases more common in the African American community.

The ReThink the Food Label contest held by UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's News21 program and Good Magazine has yielded promising results.  The contest aimed to get the public's creative juices flowing to design a new nutrition label for food packaging that would be both easy to read and help people make healthier choices. 
Graphic Designer, Renee Walker's creation came in first place.  With bright and bold color coordinated blocks, her design allows the consumer to see how much of each ingredient is in a product at a glance.  Each ingredient is represented by a color.  Preservatives and additives (which many would prefer to avoid) get assigned dreary shades of grey while fruits, vegetables and wheat have colors such as bright red, green, and yellow.  The size of each block indicates the amount of each ingredient.  So at a glance, you can tell whether your peanut butter crunch has a host preservatives you are trying to avoid.
The judges of the contest come from the food industry. Michael Pollan, whose book The Omnivore's Dilemma brought him fame, picked Walker's design as his first choice.  "I liked being able to see the visual breakdown of foods, although I wonder how her design would work with more complicated products, like Lucky Charms. What I’d like to see next is some sort of color coding for the food groups and some attempt to show the degree of processing of various foods." 
The goal of the contest was to inspire better food and nutrition literacy with easy to understand labels.  UC Berkeley has also joined forces with the Art Center College of Design's Designmatters course on food and health.  Together students will participate in a summer long project to redesign the nutrition label, product packaging and reconfigure grocery stores to promote healthy eating.  The final project will be showcased on the ReThink the Food Label website.  

Photo courtesy of Renee Walker

The summer of 2011 has brought about not just massive heat but also massive drought as well.  According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 40% of the U.S. in July suffered from a lack of rainfall, setting the record for the highest percentage of the U.S. in drought ever recorded.  The U.S. Drought Monitor measures drought on a scale of D0, abnormal dryness, to D4, exceptional drought. 
Texas experienced the worst dryness with three fourths of the state in the D4 range of exceptional drought.  But plenty of other states were hit hard as well. All of New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma found themselves under the dry spell with almost half of each state in D4 range.  Nearly all of South Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas found themselves to be suffering from exceptional drought in July as well.
The U.S. Drought Monitor is maintained by the National Drought Mitigation Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Although the Monitor has only existed for the past 12 years, over 300 climatologists and other agencies contribute data to the Monitor.  
The U.S. is not the only country suffering from a shortage of rainfall.  Famine has stricken all of the Horn of Africa as a result of extreme dryness.  More than 2.4 million people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya have been displaced by the ongoing drought and civil war.
In February, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural agency said that 12.75 million of China's 35 million acres of wheat crop were suffering from extreme dryness.  It was the worst drought in more than 50 years and as a result, 2.57 million people and 2.79 million heads of livestock faced water shortages. 
But in June, a heavy downpour ended China's dry spell.  However rather than relief, massive floods resulted in southwestern China killing nine and forcing 6,000 to move.  Now, refugees in the Horn of Africa are suffering through similar circumstances.  Heavy rains flooded refugee camps in Somalia's capital of Mogadishu.
In the U.S., hope for relief lies with the coming Tropical Storm Don. Climatologists hope that the western Gulf Coast states will see some improvement of rainfall. However, rainfall will not mean an end to the drought.  According to the Drought Mitigation Center, those states may only see an improvement of one category from exceptional drought to extreme drought.

When residents in Mossville, Louisiana felt the US Government wasn’t protecting their right to a healthy environment, they reached past the 14 petrochemical facilities surrounding the town. They also reached past the American regulators, legislators, courts who are supposed to protect them. The people of Mossville took their grievance to the highest human rights court in the western hemisphere. Now candid approval from the highest U.S. environmental regulator appears to have boosted their petition. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.

The Conoco Phillips oil refinery is one of several facilities that release pollution including dioxins in Mossville. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

Many Mossville residents have left their homes due to the pollution. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the meantime, the Mossville case has already opened an avenue for Americans to resolve environmental human rights abuse. A Navajo group fighting a uranium mine in New Mexico, has just filed their own human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission. And they cite the Mossville case as supporting their claim. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

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