In today’s On the News segment: Beans may help to curb the harms of climate change in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions; the earth and its oceans are warming, but one area in the North Atlantic appears to be defying this trend; more than a third of the US has passed legislation to allow marijuana to be consumed for medical or recreational purposes; and more.
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You need to know this. Beans may help to curb the harms of climate change in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions. Last Wednesday, the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research reported that 30 new lines of “heat-beater” beans have been discovered. That report states that beans are currently vital for the food security of more than 400 million people, but the amount of productive land for growing “traditional” lines of beans may be cut in half globally as a result of a warming planet. Tests demonstrated that the new beans could potentially grow in even the most dire warming scenario, such as a four degree Celsius increase of global temperatures. This means that under current projections of a global temperature increase of 2 degree Celsius by the end of the century, the “heat-beater” beans should be able to avoid a productivity crash. Remarkably, these strains of beans have been bred without using genetic modification. Rather, researchers used conventional methods to cross variations of the “common bean” – such as, pinto, white, black and kidney beans – with the tepary bean, which has been cultivated in North America since pre-Columbian times. The resulting crosses are heat and drought-resistant, and also have a higher iron content – which researchers hope will additionally curb the prevalence of malnutrition in developing countries. We still need to find ways to dramatically decrease our dependence on carbon to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios, but this is a very good indicator that some of the most vulnerable regions in the world can still look forward to a food-secure future.
The Earth and its oceans are warming, but one area in the North Atlantic appears to be defying this trend. Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research led research that examined sea-surface and atmospheric temperature data along with proxy data from ice-cores, tree-rings, coral and sedimentary samples. The goal of that research was to examine whether the area of cooling in the North Atlantic is correlated to a slowdown of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). This circulation is essential to maintaining the Atlantic’s plant and animal life, and it is responsible for bringing warm waters and air from the Equator to Northern Europe, which helps to keep winters mild in Europe. Since the industrial revolution, increased warming on Earth has resulted in an increase in ice melt from the Greenland ice sheet. Rahmstorf and his team believe that the resulting flow of fresh water onto the surface of the Atlantic is causing the circulation to fail. While scientists have been aware of this phenomenon for decades, most studies estimated that we would not start seeing the circulation slow down to this extent until after 2100. Rahmstorf and his team’s research make it clear that climate change is already disrupting our planet’s oceans, and that effects of global warming are happening much quicker than previously suspected.
Want to live healthier by eating more like our ancestors? New research published in Nature Communications last week examined the gut bacteria of one hunter-gatherer tribe in Peru – the Matses. In addition to the Matses, the University of Oklahoma researchers examined waste from a traditional potato farming community – called the Tunapuco – and from residents of Norman, Oklahoma. The results indicated that both the Matses and the Tunapuco guts had a greater diversity of gut bacteria than the residents of Norman, including several new types of bacteria. Most notable was the presence of several strains of Treponema – a bacteria that seems to help to metabolize carbohydrates. While scientists believe that Treponema has been present in humans for much of our evolutionary history, samples from industrialized societies are completely devoid of that ancient bacteria. It’s unclear what effect this has had on industrialized human digestion, but there is hope that this research may shed some light on auto-immune disorders – such as Crohn’s or colitis – in industrialized societies. For now, you may be able to eat what our ancestors ate, but you might not have the stomach to get the benefits.
Two weeks ago, France passed a new law mandating rooftops on new buildings in commercial zones must be partially covered in either plants or solar panels. That legislation aims to promote energy efficiency in cities, while providing a host of other benefits, such as decreasing rainwater runoff and reducing the impact of urbanization on biodiversity. Environmental activists originally pushed for the legislation to apply to all rooftops, and wanted every rooftop to be entirely covered with plants and soil, but the legislation that finally passed gives businesses the option to install solar panels instead. Green roofs weigh much more than conventional roofs and cost much more upfront, but provide excellent insulation and last longer than conventional roofs, resulting in significant long term savings for businesses and for cities as a whole. While it may be years before those savings translate to the country-scale and France sees substantial cost benefits, it is a clear acknowledgment that France is serious about fighting climate change and adapting to a post-carbon economy.
And finally, over a third of the United States has passed legislation to allow marijuana to be consumed for medical or recreational purposes, and advocates of marijuana law reform are looking forward to more legislation passing in more states in coming years. But as marijuana becomes more available, researchers are beginning to question the purity of what is hitting the market across the United States. Even states that have completely legalized use, like Colorado, are finding that cannabis oil products are not required to be tested for cannabinoid potency or for contaminants, such as pesticides or fungal growth. In Washington state, where testing for contaminants is required, about 13 percent of marijuana products never made it to market in 2014, as state inspectors rejected samples for being contaminated with E. coli, salmonella and yeast mold. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as these contaminants are common in agriculture – but as more states legalize medical and recreational marijuana, it’s important that we are ensuring the safety of patients and consumers, rather than simply trying to grow the strongest weed.
And that’s the way it is for the week of March 30, 2015 – I’m Thom Hartmann, on Science & Green News.