Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Native Hawaiian ducks repopulating the island chain

Okay, not much cuter than a mama duck and her ducklings.

Laysan ducks, the most geographically isolated duck species in the world, has now leapfrogged across the Hawaiian archipelago, from its Laysan home to Midway in 2004 and last year to Kure Atoll.

(Image: Laysan duck and her clutch. Credit: DLNR.)

Laysan ducks, Anas laysanensis, which are sometimes called Laysan teals, were once found throughout the Hawaiian Islands, up and down the chain from the high islands to the tiny atolls to the northwest. 

But under pressure from humans, other predators like rats, habitat loss and other issues, they finally were only present on Laysan. Laysan is a sandy island with a central marsh that’s located about halfway up the archipelago from Kauai to Kure.

The species is currently the rarest species of duck in the northern hemisphere, with the smallest range of any 

In 1911, under pressure from introduced predatory rats and from rabbits that ate much of the island’s vegetation, the population at Laysan was down to 20 birds. But with rabbit and rat removal, the population began expanding. 

Eventually, with numbers on Laysan at several hundred birds, wildlife officials felt the population was healthy enough to try to develop new populations. The risk of the entire population being on one small island was too great. 

The first move was to take a bunch of the birds and shift them to Midway, where wildlife officials are stationed and could keep an eye on them. 

And here at RaisingIslands, we take some small credit for the survival of these birdies. We were aboard the voyaging canoe Hokule`a in 2004, before Laysan ducks were transplanted from Laysan to Midway. 

The crew of the canoe dug up plants of the native sedge, makaloa, which ducks particularly like. We transported the plants aboard the canoe as it sailed up the Hawaiian archipelago, and we delivered them to Midway, where they were planted alongside ponds dredged for the benefit of the ducks.

That original transplanting of ducks to Midway had its problems, from disease to tsunami, but 11 years later, the Midway flock of Laysan ducks is doing well. Here is a 2007 RaisingIslands post on the duck boom.

In 2008, a botulism outbreak killed many of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ducks, including a quarter of the Midway population.

Today, the population of Laysan ducks on Midway is in the neighborhood of 400 birds. They’re doing so well that 28 of the Midway birds were transplanted last year to Kure Atoll, the westernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago. 

As occurred with Midway, the transfer followed the removal of rats, the digging of ponds and the transplanting of native plants to the island, to provide the ducks with the best habitat possible. 

The translocation was a joint project of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wildlife Refuge System, the U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaii Wildlife Center, Kure Atoll Conservancy and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument,. (The Monument is managed by the NOAA, USFWS, and the State of Hawai’i._

And the ducks have done well on Kure.

“We documented that all 28 founder birds translocated to Kure in the fall of 2014 had survived six months after their translocation and release,” said Cynthia Vanderlip, Kure Atoll state wildlife sanctuary manager. 

In the spring season of 2015 on Kure, the 28 birds produced 19 ducklings, bringing the population to more than 40—an auspicious beginning.

“Everyone working on this project to help save an endangered species is thrilled that this reintroduction may reduce extinction risk of this rare Hawaiian endemic duck. We all feel like proud parents,” Vanderlip said.

You can see a video of the ducks here.

Here is the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ press release on the ducks and ducklings. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Comet's clues critical in solar system origin probe.

Okay, you expect to find weird stuff if you go digging on comets.

But this weird?

(Image: Three rocks [left] and fine-grained dust [right] from Wild 2. Credit: R. Ogliore & Z. Gainsforth.)

Geophysicist Ryan Ogliore, of the University of Hawai`i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, looked into the comet Wild 2, and found a bizarre assemblage of materials.

“The comet's nucleus today is made up of small rocks and ice, separated by fractions of an inch, that originally formed billions of miles apart. Some rocks have seen temperatures above 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, but adjacent ice has been kept close to absolute zero for billions of years. Every tiny grain we look at has its own fascinating story to tell.”

Here is the University of Hawai`i press release on their findings.

Ogliore and his team studied samples from the comet that were collected by the NASA Stardust mission. Wild 2 is a comet that used to travel outside Neptune’s orbit, but was diverted to nearer Earth’s orbit in 1974, when it got too close to Jupiter’s gravitational zone.

The team’s findings were printed in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. The citation: Ogliore, R.C., Nagashima, K., Huss, G.R., Westphal, A.J., Gainsforth, Z., Butterworth, A.L., Oxygen Isotopic Composition of coarse- and fine-grained material from Comet 81P/Wild 2, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (2015), doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2015.04.028

They found both tiny dust particles and larger rock bits, but the evidence suggest that different particles were formed in vastly different places in the solar system. Some, as Ogliore said above, had at some point gotten very hot. Others have been beyond icy cold for immensely long periods of time.

Some of the larger rocks appear similar to rocks found in primitive meteorites. But the tiny dust particles, strangely for something orbiting out in Jupiter’s zone, looks like the dust that you’d expect from the inner solar system.

What could be going on?

“Does the fine-grained dust from comet Wild 2 represent a diverse sampling of many inner-solar-system objects that were transported to the outer solar system, or in fact, the raw starting materials of the solar system?” said Ogliore.

They’ll be looking into that. It may provide clues to how the Solar System developed. Wild 2 has some interesting clues for us.  

“The comet, in an orbit beyond Neptune since its formation, retains an intact a record of early-Solar-System processes,” Ogliore and his team wrote. 

It may be, they write, “A window into the birth of the solar system."

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Center for Food Safety pesticide report disappoints

When we make public policy, we depend on accuracy of information. 

Which raises the issue of repeated error in the Center for Food Safety’s new “Pesticides in Paradise’ paper

The mistakes in the report begin in the first paragraph, and just keep rolling along.

It’s been a few days since the report’s May 6, 2015 release, and it has not generated much discussion. 

That may be appropriate.

It would be perfectly possible to write a serious public policy document critical of genetic engineering in Hawai`i agriculture without misstatements and misdirection, but this CFS report doesn’t go there. Instead, the study makes one questionable, out-of-context or misleading statement after another. 

It begs the question, what were they thinking with a document so readily debunkable?

Throughout, the report connects genetic engineering with pesticide use, which can be related but are not the same thing. There are genetically engineered traits that have nothing to do with pesticide resistance (think Rainbow papaya, resistant to the papaya ringspot virus), and some genetic traits are actually designed to make pesticide use unnecessary (think Bt corn, which kills the larvae of the European corn borer so farmers don’t have to spray pesticides to kill it.) 

You wouldn’t know that stuff from most of the Center for Food Safety report. You have to read carefully to find the concession that “Virtually all GE crops grown commercially today have only one or both of two traits: herbicide-resistance and/or insect resistance.” 

And even that is transparently wrong. Modern plant varieties have lots of traits, some introduced through natural selection, some through conventional breeding, and occasionally some through genetic engineering. The insect resistance feature, which actually reduces pesticide use, is severely downplayed. 

“Pesticides in Paradise” opens with the statement that five companies have purchased ag land on four islands: “On O‘ahu, Kaua`i, Maui, and Moloka`i, chemical and biotechnology companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow Chemical, and BASF have purchased prime agricultural land.”

There’s a germ of truth there. Some of the companies own some land, but they lease most of their land. None of them owns land on all four islands. None owns any ag land on Kaua`i. (We called all four of them to ask, since it seemed unlikely a national organization like CFS would make that big an error in their very first sentence.)

Later in the paper, CFS concedes “About 85% of the land occupied by the Big Five pesticide-seed firms is leased.” 

This is not a significant error—more a case of intellectual sloppiness—but it serves as a sample of the fare to follow.

The study leaves readers with the perception that all seed company activity in the Islands involves genetic material testing and pesticide testing, which of course is also far from the truth.

Again in the very first paragraph, the paper suggests the companies are in the Islands “in order to field test crops that have been genetically engineered (GE) to withstand ever greater applications of pesticides.”

That’s certainly some of what they do.

But it’s not what they came to the Islands for initially. 

It’s not all of what they do and not even most of what they do. 

Most acreage farmed by the big companies is used in parent seed production—growing crops that will help produce hybrid seed for farmers. And that use is pure farming, not testing.

“These farms use both conventional as well as biotech plant breeding methods to grow seed crops,” says one of the serious scientific reports on the industry, Loudat and Kasturi’s 2013 “Hawaii’s Seed Crop Industry.” 

The companies were in the islands growing seed crops long before genetic engineering had a significant role in the industry. And a lot of what they were doing back  before genetic engineering, they’re still doing. 

CFS says, “plants genetically engineered in Hawai‘i, by and large, are engineered to resist ever greater application of herbicides.” Really? Once a crop is resistant to a particular herbicide, what would be the purpose of “ever greater application” of that herbicide?

The CFS study suggests the seed industry’s employment is minimal: “Despite claims that the seed industry is a pillar of Hawai‘i’s economy, it only employed 1,397 workers in 2012, representing just 0.23% of total Hawai‘i jobs.”

It is also fair to say that agriculture employment of all kinds is today a much smaller part of the state’s economy than it once was.

Let’s look at that the employment numbers another way. How does the seed industry compare within Hawaiian agricultural employment? 

Loudat and Kasturi say, “At current employment levels, the seed crop industry percentage of all agricultural jobs equals: 20.2% of statewide agriculture jobs; 27.8% of Oahu agricultural jobs; 12.4% of Neighbor island agricultural jobs.”

And, of course, there’s a lot of associated employment by companies that provide goods and services to the seed companies, and that benefit in other ways from the presence of a large agricultural sector. 

Loudat and Kasturi go on to say: “Seed crop industry direct annual contributions to the Hawaii economy from annual expenses equals $239.4 million. This is 33.3% of total direct annual contributions to Hawaii’s economy from all Hawaii agriculture. Seed crop industry labor income equals to $69.2 million.  This is 28.1% of the total labor income of Hawaii’s agricultural sector.”

And why is the seed industry’s contribution to labor income higher than its contribution to statewide ag jobs? Because they pay better than most industries, Loudat and Katsuri say: “Overall average earnings for the seed crop industry are 11.1% greater than the statewide average.”

The Center for Food Safety is fully capable of putting out, and does put out credible data. We cited one of their reports in our previous blog post. But this one is different.

It all raises the questions, what was this document intended to accomplish, and in a year when farming issues are highly political, why did it show up only after the Hawai`i Legislature’s 2015 session? 

When the Center for Food Safety announced the opening of their Honolulu office last year, they promised more.

“Hawaii Center for Food Safety is ready and equipped to add the legal, scientific, and organizational capacity that community groups need to push their efforts forward,” local program director Ashley Lukens was quoted as saying in Pacific Business News.

On its website, CFS offers to make presentations about the report to community groups. It is to be hoped that they make a whole lot of corrections before they do.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

In the Islands and across the globe, organic food is burgeoning

Organic is on a roll.

Hawai`i shoppers looking for organic foods are no longer limited to neighborhood health stores and Whole Foods, but can now find big organic sections in many Safeways, Walmarts and other big stories.

(Image: U.S. organic food sales by category. Source: USDA)

In the middle of a global battle over how we grow food, about genetic engineering vs conventional breeding, about whether organic pesticides are more dangerous or safer than ones that don’t carry the organic label…

In the middle of all that, organic products are moving.

A recent story suggested that Whole Foods markets are losing some of their cachet—but not because people aren’t buying organic. It’s because everyone else is selling organic. It’s no longer a niche. 

The Center for Food Safety cheered when Kroger, Safeway and a bunch of other stores opted not to sell genetically engineered salmon, calling it “part of a growing trend of food companies distancing themselves from GMO foods.”

The 2012 Census of Agriculture found organic food sales jumped 83 percent in the 5 years from 2007.

The market research firm Research and Markets reported that “an overwhelming majority of consumers in the US give more preference to health and hygiene than cost, which is expected to further boost organic food consumption over the next five years.”

It said organic is a $45 billion industry in the U.S. alone. The Organic Trade Association puts the 2015 number at $39.1 billion.

That’s on par with the total combined global sales of Monsanto (2013 $14.8B), Syngenta (2014 U.S. $15.2B), Dow Agrosciences (2014 global $7.3B) and DuPont Pioneer (2012 $6.3B). 

All that said, and while organic is a growing market, it’s still a pretty small part of the food system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that in 2012 it was just 4 percent of total food sales. And little of it was represented in the processed food category. More than half of all organic sales are fruits, vegetables and dairy.

And while the argument over genetic engineering versus organic threatens to suck all the air out of the room, there’s a suggestion of a new category of food emerging—in between them.

The USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) is developing a new label,  GMO-free. It will represent foods that are not genetically modified, but aren’t organic either, said The Associated Press.

Said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: ““Recently, a leading global company asked AMS to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such. AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.”

Presumably that covers the folks who choose traditionally bred crops, but also use conventional agricultural chemicals as opposed to the chemicals approved for organic use. (If you’re surprised that organic farmers are authorized to use pesticides, including synthetic pesticides, see our earlier post on that topic.)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015