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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"  

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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.

In California, furniture manufactures must meet some of the stringent regulations in not just the country, but the world.  Stuffed furniture such as couches and beds must withstand 12 seconds of flame without catching on fire.  To comply with standards, manufacturers drench stuffing in a chemical called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) to make it flame resistance. 
 But a new study of pregnant women in California suggests that exposure to this chemical may be doing more harm than good.
The study followed 416 mainly Mexican women in Monterey County, California from 1999 to 2000.  With each year that the women lived in the U.S., their blood level of PBDE increased  4%.  Pregnant women who had the highest levels of PBDE in their blood suffered from reduced thyroid hormone concentrations and difficulties becoming pregnant.  Other studies with animal and humans have also linked PBDE to neurological disorders in both the mother and her offspring.
Old furniture is believed to pose the biggest risk.  In 2006, California law makers banned the use of pentaBDE, the most commonly used flame retardant, but furniture built before 2006 would still contain this chemical.  As old furniture breaks down, the toxin is released and contaminates household dust that can then be breathed directly into the body.
Foam items such as mattresses, pillows and car seats will likely contain PBDEs if made before 2005.  Be careful around fabrics that are not completely encased in protective fabric.  You can also use a vacuum fitted with HEPA filter to help remove contaminants.
Researchers will now turn their focus to how children born to women with high blood levels of PBDE are affected.  The study will be looking for links with modern day health issues such as changes in the start of puberty in children, neurodevelopment and behavioral disorders such as autism.
 

The Amazon rainforest is amongst the largest in the world, spanning nine countries including Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and the three guianas. With nearly 20% of Earth's oxygen being produced by the Amazon, it has earned the nickname, "the lungs of our planet."
Globalization drives the clearing of the Amazon as emerging economies need more and more resources. Huge domestic and foreign markets for timber, soy, beef and cocaine fuel the clearing of the southwestern Amazon.
Brazil's National Institute for Space Research tracks deforestation from outer space. In the month of May of 2011, 268 miles of the Amazon were cleared, a 144% increase since May of last year. 35% of this deforestation occurred in the state of Mato Grosso where agricultural expansion is responsible for much of the clearing. More than 70% of cleared land of the Brazilian Amazon is turned into pasture land for cattle that supplies the fast food industries.
In the northeastern region of the rainforest however, much of the Amazon is still untouched by roads, mining, oil exploration and agricultural expansion. Indigenous tribes such as the Zoro, Diahui, Cinta and Surui have lived in the rainforest for millenia and are as connected to the rainforest as their ancient ancestors were. The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is an environmental group of social entrepreneurs who advocate and protect the Amazon by working with indigenous tribes.
ACT has worked with the Surui Indians for more than a decade. By combining the Surui's expertise of the Rondonia and Brazilian border and modern technology, together they mapped their land with GPS systems and labtops.   “It brought together generations of ancient knowledge with 21st century technology” says Dr. Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team.
Dr. Plotkin says globalization can be better managed. “I don't want to see these forests turned into chop sticks for the Chinese or burgers for fast food. There's no easy solution [but] It's never too late.”
By mapping important trees and plants used for medicinal purposes, bodies of water and breeding areas for wildlife, tribes can define their borders and manage and maintain the biodiversity of their land.
The Suruis and other indian tribes were given the rights to their land decades ago by the Brazilian government.  Yet they have endured years of grave abuses and murders by loggers and miners who consider any attempt to organize as a threat.  
ACT has won $1.6 million from the Skoll Foundation to protect 114 million acres of Amazonian forest through the Biocultural Conservation Corridor initiative. The Skoll Foundation was founded by Jeffery Skoll, the first employee and president of eBay.  ACT is the first environmental group to win a Skoll grant.  The grant will fund to train indigenous tribes how to be park guards, learn to communicate with state and national governments and provide them with the technology needed. 

Lack of access to health food has long been blamed for the rise of obesity in low income neighborhoods.  We are often reminded of the abundance of McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC's and Chinese food carry outs compared to the scarcity of green grocers.
But a new study out of the University of North Carolina has found that simply building super markets isn't enough to improve diets.  The study tracked 5,000 adults, ages 18-30 in Birmingham, Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland for 15 years.  Researchers found that those who lived in food deserts and had access to large grocery stores did not necessarily eat a healthier diet.
A food desert is defined as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, typically found in low income communities.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 23 million Americans live in such a place and as a result eat more fatty, cheap food.
While proximity to fast food restaurants increases one's consumption of fast food, proximity to grocery stores does bring increases to consumption of fruits and vegetables.  For one thing, grocery stores also sell plenty of cheap, fatty and processed foods.
Penny Gordon-Larsen, an author of the study and associate professor at University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, says that multiple approaches are needed to effect positive changes in people's dietary habits.  "Dietary behaviors are complex.  There needs to be attention to the quality and costs of foods offered, promotion of healthier food items [and] educational efforts."
Obesity experts are calling for a comprehensive plan to improve what people are eating that involves programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.  The program provides year round vouchers to low income women for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Education is equally important in the voucher program as the money.  In a 2010 study, educating voucher recipients of the program was key to helping them make better choices in the super market.  

Pollution and chemicals have long been blamed for disrupting our hormone systems and permanently altering how our bodies carry out vital functions. Evidence has pointed to endocrine disruptors causing girls to hit puberty at younger and younger ages, causing undescended testicles in young boys and lowering the sperm counts in men.  Now, yet another study is pointing to toxic chemicals in the environment that are causing women to experience menopause at much younger ages than average.
The study done by London's Imperial College found that one in every sixteen women are experiencing premature menopause or Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) in the UK.  In some cases women are experiencing menopause 15 years earlier than the average age of about 50.  Researchers examined the health records of 4,968 of 50 year old women across the UK and found links to smoking, poor diet and PFC's which are chemicals found in non stick cookware and food packaging.  Women who had the highest levels of PFCs were found to have the lowest levels of estrogen in their blood.
Endocrine disruptors such as PFCs not only affect estrogen levels but also can disrupt the pituitary and thyroid gland which plays an important role in regulating hormones.  The study found that hydrocarbons in cigarette smoke led to egg cell death.
Poorer women were more at risk due to increased chances of a combination of poor diet, smoking and inadequate health care.  Poor women are not the only women at risk however.  In a Daily Mail interview, leading nutritionist Dr. Marilyn Glenville said that "as we become more of a stress driven, sedentary society with young girls exercising less and drinking much more than previous generations, we may be looking at an epidemic of POF in years to come."
The study did produce some good news however.  Premature menopause was not found to be linked to birth control pills and although there were hereditary links found in some cases, genetics did not always decide a woman's fate.  Rather, POF was found to be an auto-immune response as a result of stress, poor diet and trauma.  However, once a woman's reproductive system shuts down, she may never regain her ability to have children. 

 


A pipeline owned by Maple Energy burst on Sunday in the Peruvian Amazon spewing toxic oil into the Mashiria River.  Indigenous community members from Nuevo Sucre were then hired to clean the spill and equipped with nothing but rags and buckets.  No training, no protective gear and no warning about the potential health hazards were given to 32 Shipibo workers whose families fish and drink from the Mashiria River every day.  
This is the sixth oil spill in just two years that Maple Energy is responsible for.  Sunday's spill marks the second time since 2009 that locals have been hired to clean up the mess with their bare hands.  During previous clean ups, Maple Energy employees only "supervised" the Shipibo workers without participating in clean up efforts themselves.  
According to a 37 page complaint filed with the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) by local human rights groups, Maple Energy refused to allow community members to leave Nuevo Sucre after another spill in 2010.  The oil company was accused of renting out all the boats in the community to ensure that no one left.   The company told community leaders "no one can leave Nuevo Sucre for Contamana, because everyone is going to work here, the young and adults too."  Maple Energy was also accused of human rights abuses, refusal to pay for goods and sexual harassment. 
In 2007, the IFC granted Maple Energy $40 million to expand their operations in the Peruvian Amazon.  Over 70% of the Peruvian Amazon is now open for drilling as a result of the former Garcia administration who pushed for the oil boom.  In 2009, tensions between government police and locals exploded in violence during a protest against the oil companies and their human rights abuses.  The protest left 23 police officers and at least 10 protesters killed.  Locals say however that the number of protesters killed is much higher but was concealed by dumping the bodies in the river.  
Indigenous rights groups such as the Federacion de Comunidades Nativas del Bajo Ucayali (FECONBU) are now asking Maple Energy to compensate community members in the form of clean drinking water, food and health assistance.  They are also asking that Maple Energy extend the most basic courtesy, to provide workers with protective gear and fair pay.

Photo by Amazon Watch