Oceans Awash in Plastic

Ever wonder what happened to that plastic wrapper or water bottle you accidentally dropped on the sidewalk the other day?

Alex Roslin
The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, November 15, 2008

If you think it wound up in a garbage dump or recycling depot, think again. A lot of the plastic debris that litters Montreal streets is flushed into the city's sewers and straight into the St. Lawrence River.
It then floats off into the Atlantic, where circular ocean currents slowly bring it to the centre of the North Atlantic.
Scientists are growing alarmed about massive floating garbage patches that are believed to be building up in the calm centres of the gyres in the middle of nearly all of the world's oceans.
The best-known patch, dubbed the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, consists of an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic debris that has accumulated in the North Pacific gyre. Environmentalists call it the Pacific Trash Vortex.
It is believed to be at least half the size of Quebec and possibly up to 10 times its size, depending on how it is measured. And it seems to be growing. Plastic from the vortex is increasingly washing up on Hawaiian atolls and being found in the guts of seabirds and fish.
An estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year from eating or being entangled in debris - mostly plastic - in the North Pacific alone. Hence the vortex's other nickname: the Plastic Killing Fields.
Plastic in the sea doesn't biodegrade like other garbage. Instead, it slowly breaks up into tinier and tinier pieces that float on the ocean surface or sink to the sea bottom and can take years to finally reach the ocean gyres.
The vortexes are increasingly seen as environmental disaster zones. Plastic contains many toxic chemicals; it also soaks up other dangerous substances already present in the ocean, like carcinogenic PCBs and DDT.
While the oceans may seem far away, Montrealers are directly contributing to the plastic vortexes, say environmentalists like Hélène Godmaire.
Godmaire is the Montreal director of Great Lakes United, a Canadian-U.S. environmental group. The group will issue a report in coming weeks on how antiquated sewage systems in Montreal and other cities in Quebec are discharging massive volumes of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence.
The sewers lack filters and grates to prevent plastic and other street litter from being swept into the river, Godmaire said.
Indeed, 80 per cent of the plastic in the ocean gyres is believed to come from the land, while the remainder is litter from cargo ships, cruise boats and other sea vessels.
"Next time there's a rainstorm, just look at what's in the gutter," said Elaine MacDonald, a Toronto scientist with the environmental group Ecojustice Canada.
"The sewers are directly connected to our rivers and lakes." In a 2005 survey, Ecojustice gave Montreal's sewage system a failing "F" grade - the second lowest grade in the country after Victoria.
The group faulted Montreal for having an antiquated system of sewers. Two-thirds of the island has sewers that combine storm water and sewage in the same pipes.
In normal conditions, the city's sewage-treatment plant filters out plastic and other debris in the rainwater.
But when there is a heavy downpour, the pipes often back up, and raw sewage and debris are discharged directly into the St. Lawrence, said Duong Dao Dang, an engineer at the plant.
Ironically, the situation isn't much better in more recently developed areas of the island where storm and sewer pipes are separate - mostly in the West Island. Here, storm water flows directly into the river, with little filtering of debris.
Grates over gutters catch larger litter, but smaller pieces of floating garbage often wash into the St. Lawrence, Godmaire said.
Montreal city spokesman Philippe Sabourin confirmed culverts that discharge rainwater into the river don't have gratings or filters. "That could create a blockage," he said.
sss Richard Thompson is one of the few scientists studying plastic in the oceans. The marine biologist at England's University of Plymouth first noticed the problem in the early 1990s while working on his PhD at a lab on the Isle of Man, between Scotland and Ireland.
He helped organize a beach cleanup day and was stunned by the amount of garbage - mostly plastic - that had washed up on the island's shores. He borrowed the lab's pickup truck to carry away the debris, expecting he'd have a single load.
"We made six or seven trips and still hadn't touched a fraction of the quantity on the beach. It brought home for me the enormity of it," he said.
"Look at a street after a fair or busy shopping day. You don't have to walk long to see people dropping litter. It doesn't have to be dropped into the sea to wind up there." In a landmark study in 2004, Thompson looked at old samples of plankton collected in the North Atlantic starting in the 1960s. He found microscopic pieces of plastic in the water that had been scooped up with the plankton.
What's more, the amounts of plastic had exploded. The latest water samples had about four times more plastic than the earliest samples from the 1960s. That coincided with a 25-fold increase in plastic production worldwide between 1960 and 2000.
Even more alarming, the water samples were from an area of the Atlantic north of Britain that isn't even in the gyre. No one has ever studied the amount of plastic in the Atlantic gyre itself.
Thompson's studies reported other alarming research: Ninety-eight per cent of dead seabirds studied in northern Europe have plastic in their stomachs.
More than 260 animal species are known to eat or get entangled in plastic - turtles, fish, marine mammals, even small creatures like mussels, barnacles and beach flees.
Ten per cent of all plastic debris eventually winds up in the sea.
Ocean currents and winds are slowly bringing all that debris to the centre of five major ocean gyres in the North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific and the Indian Oceans, said Marieta Francis, executive director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in Long Beach, Calif.
But despite the ever-growing plastic blobs in the oceans, the Pacific gyre is the only one that has been studied.
That research started when the Algalita foundation's founder, an avid boater named Charles Moore, chanced upon the Pacific Garbage Patch during a 1997 yacht race.
"There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see," he told the U.S. News & World Report.
"Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic." The vortex was in the North Pacific gyre, where a high-pressure zone forces debris into a central area that has low currents and winds.
Sailors used to fear getting stuck in gyres because the paltry wind could leave ships stranded without headway for weeks on end.
Moore returned with a scientific vessel to study the vortex and netted everything from a cathode-ray tube to a truck tire, a mass of fishing net and a chemical drum.
One of his most outlandish finds: a 16-kilometre-long slick of Taco Bell plastic baggies. He estimated there were 6 million.
Moore found up to 970,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in some areas of the vortex.
That was triple the density found in an earlier landmark study in the western Pacific by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That study, done in 1988, was the first to document large amounts of plastic in the Pacific. One area 1,000 kilometres east of Japan had 315,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.
The density in Moore's gyre is much higher. "You can go for days and days and see plastic everywhere," said Francis.
Moore estimated in 2002 that the volume of plastic in the gyre had tripled in the previous 10 years.
While much of the debris is large and conspicuous, most of it has disintegrated after years of washing around in the ocean.
The plastic pieces are usually five millimetres across or less and must be scooped up in nets finer than a window screen.
"It's not quite what people think. It's like a soup," Francis said.
In the Atlantic, the only research on plastic garbage is more than 30 years old. A survey in the northeastern Atlantic in the early 1970s found 160,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in some areas.
Back in Canada, the growing plastic vortexes still seem far from the official radar. At the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, oceanographer Denis Gilbert is one of Canada's leading experts on the St. Lawrence and Atlantic environments.
Gilbert said no one in his office is studying plastic debris entering the St. Lawrence River. As for plastic accumulating in the Atlantic gyre, he had never even heard of it. "We have no one working on that," he said.
Thompson, for his part, hopes to cobble together funds for a scientific sea voyage to the heart of the North Atlantic gyre to confirm for the first time that a plastic trash vortex is indeed gathering there, just as in the Pacific. He also wants to study the impacts on the environment.
"I'd be very keen to go. This stuff is here for generations to come. We haven't really begun to comprehend the impacts."
- - -
Our Toxic Trash Winds Up in the Sea

Plastic accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of all the human garbage in the world's water bodies. Here are some more plastic facts:
8% of the world's oil production is used to make plastic.
40% of plastic is used for packaging material.
500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
5% of plastic is recycled in the U.S.;
20% in the European Union.
10% of all plastic debris is thought to wind up in the sea.
80% of plastic in the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch comes from the land.
1.7 million pieces of plastic were found per square kilometre of shoreline in a 2005 worldwide survey.
100 million tonnes of plastic is in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, estimates the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.


Marieta Francis says there is a simple solution to the growing soup of plastic trash in the world's oceans. "We need to stop it on land," says the California environmentalist.
Marine biologist Richard Thompson agrees. The first solution, he said, is not to litter the streets. "Any litter that is dropped has a high potential to get into waterways," he said.
Thompson's other solutions come from the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle:
Reducing plastic use. Thompson said two-fifths of plastic is used for packaging, which is typically discarded after a single use not long after a product is bought. Another big culprit: plastic bags. Some countries and cities have banned them outright, while others have slapped taxes on them.
Improving recycling. Just 5 per cent of plastic waste in the U.S. is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Canadian rate isn't known, but Toronto scientist Elaine MacDonald said it would be quite low, too. One reason: Each municipality has its own recycling program, while provincial guidelines are generally weak, she said.
Designing smarter. A lot of plastic products can't be easily recycled because they use different colours or types of plastic that can't be combined during recycling. "We should design products with a high potential for recycling," Thompson said. Japan is often seen as a model for this idea. Its goal is to achieve a "closed loop" economy in which all used products are recycled into new ones.
Developing biodegradable plastic. Scientists are experimenting with new biodegradable plastics that slowly break down when exposed to sunlight or water. Some of the products are made from corn or pea starch.
Canadian environmentalists Hélène Godmaire and MacDonald say Montreal and other older cities on the St. Lawrence Rivers and Great Lakes need to improve antiquated sewage systems that discharge a lot of plastic and other garbage into the water. They propose:
Filtering storm water. A lot of plastic gets into the sea through outdated city sewers that release debris directly into rivers and lakes. Solution: screens and grates to catch the litter. (Also important: cleaning the screens regularly.)
Upgrading sewage systems. During heavy rain, Montreal's sewage system often backs up, discharging untreated sewage and rainwater carrying plastic and other garbage into the St. Lawrence River.
Thompson said the public has a strong appetite for change.
"Already we are seeing consumers turning away from plastic bags. I think you'd find very quickly consumers would vote with their feet. The public is keen to do the right thing," he said.

What are plastic garbage patches?

Scientists say they believe plastic trash blobs bigger than most countries are forming in the middle of the world's oceans. The debris is slowly brought there by circular ocean currents called gyres that sweep up debris and bring it to their centres. Think water funneling down the toilet.
The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is the only one that scientists have studied up-close. It's estimated to contain 100 million tonnes of garbage and its size is estimated at anywhere from 700,000 square kilometres (half the size of Quebec) to 15 million sq. km. (10 times Quebec's area) and at least 60 metres deep. Some scientists say it might actually be two trash vortexes - one between Hawaii and California, the other between Hawaii and Japan.

Where are they?
Plastic garbage patches are believed to be accumulating in five gyres - in the middle of the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

What's in them?
All sorts of litter has been found in the gyres - everything from a cargo spill of millions of plastic baggies to bottle caps, Styrofoam, syringes, water bottles, traffic cones, lighters, tires and toothbrushes, beach balls, plastic bags, shampoo bottles and plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles and fishing line.

Where does the trash come from?
One-fifth of the plastic in the oceans is thought to be litter from ships. The rest comes from land: Much of it is litter from city streets that is swept into sewers and gets discharged into rivers and lakes, eventually making its way into the sea. Some can also blow into the water from poorly secured trash bins or get taken there by seagulls having a snack at a garbage dump.
The trash can take years to bob its way to the ocean gyres, where it slowly breaks up into ever-smaller pieces until it resembles dust.

What does it look like?
Some of the plastic debris can be seen bobbing on or near the surface but much of it has broken down into tiny pieces after years of floating in the sea and is barley visible, so the garbage patch is often described as plastic "soup." Most pieces are less than five millimetres across. About a third of the debris floats on or near the surface - 60 metres down or more - while the rest sinks to the sea bottom.

What is the impact of the plastic garbage in our oceans?
Over 260 animal species are known to eat or get caught in the plastic debris. About 100,000 marine mammals are estimated to die from doing so in the North Pacific alone. On Midway Island in Hawaii, 400,000 albatrosses feed their chicks nearly five tonnes of plastic a year, John Klavitter, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey, has estimated. A European study found 98 per cent of dead seabirds had plastic in their stomachs.
Scientists fear toxic chemicals in the plastic may enter the animals' bodies. People may also ingest microscopic pieces of plastic when they eat fish.

Finding the Right Formula for Nursing

Just three per cent of Quebec mothers breastfeed exclusively until their babies are 6 months old, statistics show. A big part of the problem, says one mom, is the difficulty and cost of finding medical professionals who offer support.

Alex Roslin
The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, October 4, 2008

When Marie-Andrée Bossé had her first baby in 2005, she was all set to breastfeed. She knew breastmilk was the best food for her child.
But she soon started to feel pain and burning sensations during breastfeeding sessions. She consulted a long list of medical professionals—CLSC and hospital nurses and several private lactation consultants—but the problems only got worse.
Soon, there was intense pain in her breasts even when she wasn’t breastfeeding. She was advised to change how the baby latched onto her breast, but the changes helped only a little.
Adding to the pain, she learned she had contracted a host of breastfeeding-related illnesses with strange names she had never heard of before: candidiasis of the nipple, vasospasms and something called bleb—painful blisters around the nipples.
Still, Bossé, a sexology instructor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, insisted on breastfeeding. It was three months before the pain and ailments finally went away with the help of lactation consultants, who showed her how to improve her baby’s latch, and a sympathetic doctor who prescribed medications.
A big part of the problem, she said, was the difficulty in finding medical professionals specialized in breastfeeding issues and the cost of the help. She estimates her expenses for the consultations and drugs at $400 to $500.
“My problems required specialized expertise, and it’s very hard to find those services. That’s why most mothers stop breastfeeding when they encounter problems,” she said.
Breastfeeding experts say Bossé’s story is common and a key reason why, according to a 2006 study by the Quebec government’s statistics institute, just three percent of Quebec moms breastfeed their babies exclusively until they’re six months old. That’s the period of time recommended by Health Canada and the World Health Organization.
Seven years after Quebec adopted one of Canada’s most ambitious policies to promote breastfeeding, the province still has one of the lowest rates of sustained breastfeeding in the country.
For comparison, 19 percent of mothers Canada-wide breastfeed exclusively until six months; in Sweden, the rate is 70 percent.
Now, health officials are reviewing the province’s breastfeeding policy and trying to figure out the reasons for the glacial progress.
The problem, say breastfeeding experts, is that while most Quebec women start out breastfeeding their babies, health professionals are failing to provide proper support and advice when women encounter problems like a bad latch, soreness or poor milk supply.
That, coupled with abundant supplies of infant formula that companies give for free to most Quebec hospitals, makes it hard for women to keep breastfeeding when they encounter problems, said Howard Mitnick, a family doctor at the Jewish General Hospital’s Goldfarb Breast-Feeding Clinic.
“We live in a world where people don’t see breastfeeding and don’t know what it looks like. They have a baby and are suddenly expected to be experts, and people are not around to help them,” he said.
The stakes in the battle over the breast are huge. Research shows breastfed babies have fewer ear and respiratory infections, reduced allergies and diarrhea, a stronger immune system, higher IQ, less risk of diabetes later in life, better development of speech, jaw muscles and baby teeth, and better bonding with mom.
Mothers also benefit by losing weight quicker, experiencing faster contraction of the uterus and having lower risk of osteoporosis and ovarian and breast cancers.
In some cases, research shows breastfeeding is literally a life-and-death issue. A May 2004 U.S. study of 9,900 infants published in the journal Pediatrics found a 27-percent higher chance of death among kids who had never been breastfed compared to those who had, including a 19-percent greater risk of sudden infant death syndrome and 69 percent more chance of death by injury.
“Promoting breastfeeding has the potential to save or delay approximately 720 post-neonatal deaths in the United States each year,” the study said.
The poor situation in Quebec is especially ironic because it was the first Canadian province to officially mandate in 2001 that its hospitals and CLSCs get certified under an international pro-breastfeeding program called the Baby Friendly Initiative.
The initiative, created by the World Health Organization, sets out 10 measures for hospitals to adopt to encourage breastfeeding.
They include training for maternity-ward nurses and doctors, better education on breastfeeding techniques for moms and reduced reliance on formula.
The Quebec government set a target of having 20 hospitals and 40 CLSCs certified as Baby Friendly by 2007, as well as 75 percent of moms breastfeeding exclusively at birth—meaning no infant formula, water or other food—and 10 percent doing so at six months.
Quebec has fallen well short of those goals. Just 13 Quebec hospitals and CLSCs are now Baby Friendly, while only half of moms breastfeed exclusively at birth and just three percent do so at six months.
The failed targets don’t come as a big surprise to Mitnick. He said the province has devoted few funds to train medical staff on breastfeeding techniques, provide more breastfeeding education to parents, create more free lactation clinics or reduce reliance of formula in hospitals.
“The more money the health system puts into breastfeeding, the more money it saves through reduced hospital re-admissions, infections and malnutrition,” he said.

Why do so many moms stop breastfeeding early on? A study of Quebec moms in August found the main reasons for giving up are latching problems, pain and poor milk supply.
Most of these problems can be resolved with some expert help, said Louisa Ciofani, a lactation consultant at Royal Victoria Hospital.
Just three percent of moms actually can’t produce enough milk to breastfeed their babies exclusively, usually due to damage to the breast from cancer, burns or surgery, Ciofani said. But even these women can still usually breastfeed to some extent. Less than one percent of women can’t breastfeed at all, she said.
Long ago, it used to be that new moms got help for breastfeeding problems from their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. But after infant formula companies started touting their product as being as good as breastmilk in the 1950s—a belief that numerous studies have since discredited—several generations of women lost that knowledge.
Today, most women must rely on doctors and nurses for help. But few of those professionals have taken the 20-hour training course on breastfeeding that the WHO recommends for maternity-ward staff, Mitnick said.
“People (in hospitals) don’t have the skill set,” he said.
Without help from experts, many breastfeeding moms end up giving up, said Carole Dobrich, a lactation consultant at Mitnick’s clinic and president of the Quebec Association of Lactation Consultants.
“Mothers who are well-supported can get through it, but you have to have that support,” she said.
Tammy Sawyer, a registered massage therapist in Montreal, said she encountered unhelpful hospital staff when she gave birth to her daughter Sophie in August. Her daughter was born with a cleft lip and palate, and medical staff told her to avoid breastfeeding because they believed her baby wouldn’t be able to suck well.
“They said my baby was pretty much going to starve if I breastfed,” Sawyer said.
She said hospital staff advised her use to a pump to manually extract breastmilk, but didn’t show her how to use one.
She later discovered Mitnick’s clinic, where she learned how to breastfeed her baby successfully. She said Sophie is now growing nicely.
Dobrich said hospital staff are often too overworked to teach moms breastfeeding techniques. The result: infant formula is often seen as a quick-fix to feeding problems, she said.
“The quick answer is, ‘Let’s give mom formula because we don’t have time to teach her,’” she said.
Provincial government statistics show half of moms who breastfeed while in hospital are not doing so exclusively and are being given formula to supplement their babies.
The problem is early use of formula can disrupt the establishment of breastfeeding and, later, make it harder for moms to stick with it when they encounter problems or one too many sleepless night, Dobrich said.
The high rate of formula supplementation in hospitals runs counter to WHO guidelines on breastfeeding. The WHO says formula should be used only in cases of dire medical necessity, such as when babies or their mothers are severely ill or the baby has birth weight under 1.5 kilos.
Dobrich said the WHO guidelines are routinely flouted. Mitnick said Quebec hospitals also accept free formula from companies in violation of the WHO guidelines, which call on hospitals to pay at least 80 percent of the market price.
What’s wrong with hospitals accepting free formula? If it’s free, staff hand it out too readily, Mitnick said. “The more formula that’s around, the more it’s going to leak into the maternity rooms.”
And the province’s support for breastfeeding may soon actually diminish, said Isabelle Cloutier, president of the Nourri-Source Federation, a group of volunteers who help moms with breastfeeding problems. She said proposed government cuts to prenatal education classes will make it even harder for mothers to get breastfeeding information.
“We need the will and the cash to change practices,” she said.

Oct. 1 to 7 is breastfeeding week in North America and will be marked with a world-wide "breastfeeding challenge" on Saturday, Oct. 11, when organizers are trying to get the most women possible to come together to breastfeed at one time. In Montreal, last year's winning city with the most moms participating, there are 10 locations this year, including the Palais des Congrès, where the breast-in starts at 11 a.m. For more information and registration, visit Babyfriendly.ca.

For more info on breastfeeding:
Quebec government's statistics institute 2006 report on breastfeeding
Ask Lenore: website of Montreal lactation consultant Lenore Goldfarb
Quebec Nourri-Source Federation's website
Toronto lactation consultant Dr. Jack Newman's website

The Clones On Our Plates

Is food from cloned animals safe to eat? The debate continues, but some of the meat and milk is already making its way into the marketplace in the U.S. - and possibly Canada.

by Alex Roslin
The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, September 06, 2008

Clones. To some, the word evokes Frankenfood or Star Wars Stormtroopers. To veterinarian Donald Coover, it conjures a miraculous world of super-cows with high milk and meat yields and horses as fast as Secretariat, the legendary Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred.
Coover is helping to lead the clone revolution out of tiny Galesburg, Kansas, a village of 150 with one convenience store and two churches, surrounded by fields of wheat and cattle ranches.
This is the home base of Coover's company SEK Genetics and its thriving business of selling semen from elite cows to farmers. He says he has also sold enough semen from cloned cows to inseminate tens of thousands of farm animals, and he says "dozens at least, hundreds probably" of other cloning businesses in the U.S. are doing the same thing.
Despite a request by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that farmers respect a voluntary moratorium on selling food from clones to consumers, Coover says he has sold dozens of clones and their offspring to farmers for use in food production since 2001.
"It's not illegal, and it's not unethical," he said. "Instead of having just another damn horse, you have Secretariat every time. That is why it's enormously useful." Cloning is a way to create a perfect genetic copy of an adult animal. Its cell material is transferred to an egg that is grown into an embryo and implanted in a surrogate mother.
Advocates like Coover say the process can help farmers duplicate top livestock and improve meat and milk yields.
"It's frustrating to me that we've been able to develop this incredible technology, and people are bitching and moaning about it," he said.
Food from clones is still banned in Canada, but Health Canada is now considering whether to lift the ban.
Surveys show widespread public unease about the technology. In a 2003 survey for the Canadian government, only 24 per cent of Canadians and 32 per cent of Americans supported the use of cloned animals for food.
The most common concern was "long-term risk to human health," cited by 37 per cent of Canadians.
After a seven-year scientific review, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last January okayed meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs and goats and their offspring as being safe to eat.
The selling of clone food to consumers is still on hold while the U.S. Department of Agriculture works out a plan to assuage the concerns of consumers in the U.S. and abroad. In the interim, it has asked cloners and livestock farmers to continue to respect its voluntary moratorium.
"The food in every respect is indistinguishable from food from any other animal," FDA official Stephen Sundlof told reporters last January.
But the scientific debate about clone food still appears far from over. In fact, Sundlof's statement seems to be contradicted by a 2006 background paper on cloning prepared by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that was obtained through an access-to-information request.
The CFIA paper and the FDA's own 968-page scientific review published last January depict cloning as an unpredictable technology fraught with problems that almost always leads to outright failure or disfigured animals that aren't safe to eat.
Even in cases where clones and their offspring look healthy, they appear to suffer from genetic abnormalities and research is sparse on whether their food is safe, the documents say.
"There is not enough data to indicate there will be no problem," said Pascale Chavatte-Palmer, one of the world's leading cloning researchers, whose studies are cited over 50 times in the FDA report.
"I think we should know more. We feel there is a rush to accept those clones," she said in an interview.
In Europe, food from clones isn't being sold because of formal and informal moratoriums in various countries. But this week, the European Parliament voted 622-to-32 to urge the European Union's executive branch to ban food from clones, citing concerns about food safety, consumer confidence and animal suffering.
The move followed a report from the European Food Safety Authority in July that said, while there is "no clear evidence" food from cloned cows and pigs is unsafe, more study is needed because of the lack of data.


Chavatte-Palmer is no anti-biotech Luddite. She's dined on what she calls "very good" cloned Kobe beef, which she thinks was most likely safe to eat. Yet, she paints a picture of a technology that's about as precise as a steamroller.
Out of 1,000 attempts, a clone embryo is successfully developed and implanted into a surrogate mother only about 100 times, said Chavatte-Palmer, who is a research leader at the French government's Institut Nationale de la Recherche Agronomique, the leading agricultural-research institute in Europe.
Of those 100 embryo transfers, just five fetuses are typically born alive, she said.
The rest mostly miscarry due to genetic or physical defects or abnormal placentas. Their most common abnormality is called large offspring syndrome, which results in fetuses 20- to 85-per-cent larger than average.
The animals that survive to birth also often have large offspring syndrome - which occurs in up to half of clone births - or other severe problems like a deformed head, contracted tendons, extreme diarrhea, diabetes, respiratory failure, heart disease and kidney problems. Many die shortly after birth.
A Japanese study cited in the FDA's review painted an unsettling picture of several clone calves that had died. "The neck was bent backwards, the hind legs were stretched tightly or the second joints were bent toward the opposite direction from the normal position," it said.
"Calf No. 12 was disemboweled at parturition and the face of calf 16 was warped."
Some of the calves had been born with "an 'adult' appearance" and displayed "many wrinkles in the skin, thick bone structure and rough hairs resembling those of adult males."
Indeed, Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell in 1996, lived for only six years, half the average lifespan for her breed, and developed obesity, lung cancer and premature arthritis.
Even the few clones that appear to be healthy really aren't, said Chavatte-Palmer, who is one of a small handful of scientists worldwide to have studied the long-term health of clones.
"Cloned animals, although apparently normal, are however significantly different from (conventionally raised animals) maintained in the same conditions," she wrote in a paper in the journal Animal last year.
The CFIA came to a similar conclusion in its paper. "There is an inadequate amount of information on any species to determine long-term physiological effects (of cloning)," it said.
"Early research suggests that these animals have subtle gene expression abnormalities."
The CFIA said cloning "could have long-term effects that compromise animal health and survival."


So is food from clones safe to eat? The FDA's review concluded that meat and milk from deformed clones, which die early in life or need to be euthanized, is unsafe.
But in a little-noticed passage deep in its report, the agency okayed this food for entry into the human food chain if it is treated in a meat-rendering plant.
Rendering plants process dead animals from zoos and shelters, old meat from grocery stores and butcher-shop trimmings by chopping them up, then cooking them at high temperatures.
Rendering leads to several products that enter the human food chain directly and indirectly, including lard, tallow, protein for livestock feed and crop fertilizer.
The FDA report cites no research on whether or not rendered food from abnormal clones is safe.
"There is not a single study of that," said Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Food Safety.
Hanson said it can't be assumed the rendering process makes all animal products safe to eat. "They don't let animals with mad cow disease enter the food supply through rendering," he said. "They have a belief this is safe. Belief is wonderful for a religious organization."
As for healthy-looking clones, the FDA says their food is identical to that from other animals. "These products are not different than food from traditionally bred animals," Bruce Knight, a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official, told reporters last January.
But the CFIA paper and the FDA's own review raise questions about this conclusion as well.
"The use of (cloning) may have an effect on gene expression in the resulting animals and thus alter food characteristics, such as biochemical composition, which may be a food safety concern," the CFIA paper says.
"Stress-related developmental problems in young clones may also present an indirect food safety concern. This may lead to increased usage of antimicrobials for the treatment of such disease-prone clones and could also have an effect on the shedding of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria."
The FDA's review acknowledges no large-scale studies of the meat and milk of clones have been done. It relies on 10 small-scale studies involving an average of just five clones each.
Five of the 10 studies found statistically significant differences between food from clones and conventionally bred animals.
Chavatte-Palmer did one of those five studies. She found cow clones reached puberty an average of 62 days later than normal animals, which she said "probably will affect the quality (of their meat) ... The full maturation of muscle is delayed in clones."
As well, she found milk from cow clones had different levels of some fatty acids and enzymes than milk from conventional animals. She concluded more research is needed on whether the differences could cause food allergies.
For pork, the FDA cited only two studies involving seven clones in total, both done by biotech company ViaGen. They found the clones grew 30-per-cent slower than normal animals and had less meat. Two of the clones had so many health problems their data wasn't even included in the final results. The FDA questioned the study because of the small number of clones.
No studies have been done at all on food from goats, the third clone species that the FDA okayed.


For all the talk about clones, the fact is we're actually unlikely to ever see a clone T-bone at the butcher shop. That's because clones are up to 10 times more expensive to produce than conventional animals - $10,000 to $16,000 for a cow and $6,000 for a pig.
The main source of clone-derived food is likely to be naturally bred offspring of clones. The FDA says clone offspring have fewer health problems than clones and are identical to normal animals.
But the CFIA background paper says there is "limited" data on food from clone offspring and cited two major U.S. reviews of the issue that expressed concern about the "inconclusive evidence" about the safety of their food.
The FDA's report cited no studies on meat or milk from the offspring of cows or goats and only two studies on pork from the offspring of pig clones. The clone offspring were mostly the same as conventional animals, but like the clones had several differences: Of 58 nutrients tested, clone offspring meat had significantly less of seven nutrients, while more of two others. It was also somewhat fattier, more acidic and shrunk more during cooking - indications of poorer quality.
There is also little longer-term research about the health of offspring as they age.
The FDA review says the offspring seem to be healthier than their clone parents because their genetic errors are "reset."
But one of the scientists the FDA cites in its review says he disagrees with the agency's conclusion.
Dean Betts, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Guelph, is one of the few scientists to have looked into the health of clone offspring.
Betts found the offspring of goat and sheep clones have genetic abnormalities - significantly shorter telomeres, which are the chromosome endings that are believed to control aging and susceptibility to cancer.
Shorter telomere lengths could explain why many clones seem to age faster than normal animals. Dolly the sheep was also found to have shorter telomeres.
"We don't know what it means or if it has health impacts," Betts said. "I would say not enough study has been done ... There could be some impacts on the species itself over generations."
In France, Chavatte-Palmer had hopes of getting some definitive answers to the questions about the health and food of clones and their offspring. But her cloning work has ground virtually to a halt. Funding has dried up, she says, because cloning is a sensitive issue for grant-funding agencies.
"We have piles of data that we haven't had time and money to get help to analyze," she said. "It's very difficult to get funding in this area of research. It's frustrating, very frustrating."

Are we already dining on clones?
No labels on clone food in U.S., FDA says

Canadians may have been consuming food from clones for years without knowing it, despite a Health Canada ban.

That’s one of the surprising revelations from documents on cloning from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency obtained under the access-to-information legislation.

About 800 cloned dairy cattle produced through an early version of cloning called embryonic-cell nuclear transfer and from embryo splitting have been registered in Canada since the 1980s, said a CFIA background paper on cloning written in 2006.

The CFIA paper said food from these clones can be sold to Canadian consumers. “There is generally no restriction on the marketing of products, by-products or the progeny of animal clones that are produced using the embryo-splitting technique in Canada or elsewhere,” it said.

The CFIA paper didn’t say whether milk from the cloned cows was indeed sold to consumers. An agency spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Health Canada, however, says no food from clones, including embryonic-cell nuclear-transfer clones, can be sold in the country. “It shouldn’t be on the market,” said Paul Duchesne, a department spokesman.

Embryonic-cell nuclear-transfer was used in the 1980s and early 1990s but was replaced in the mid-1990s by an improved technique called somatic-cell nuclear-transfer cloning, which replicates an adult animal, instead of an embryo.

Donald Coover, a Kansas veterinarian who says he has sold clones and their semen to farmers in the U.S. for years, said hundreds of embryonic-cell nuclear-transfer clones were produced in the U.S. and that their meat and milk quietly entered the U.S. food supply without any official safety review.

He said it’s very likely the same thing happened in Canada. “Nobody at the time made a big deal about it.”

And now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has okayed clone food for human consumption, the CFIA again seems to have no plan for keeping it out of the country, according to an internal email sent by a manager at the agency.

“CFIA has no specific regulatory controls for animal clones,” said the email, dated Feb. 14, a month after the FDA’s decision last January. “There are no special tracking provisions.”

The issue of tracking food from clones is complicated by the fact that the FDA has decided not to label the food, and there’s no way to test if a particular animal is a clone.

“All we’ve had are some preliminary discussions on… the feasibility of detection,” said a CFIA official, who spoke off the record because she is not authorized to talk with journalists. “Nothing has been put in place, and no policies have been created around that.”

Quebec farmers shrug off cloning—it’s too costly

Quebec farmers don’t seem to be rushing to embrace cloning. The Union des Producteurs Agricoles, representing 44,000 Quebec farmers, says it has no position on whether to embrace food from clones.

“We haven’t discussed it very much,” said spokesman Patrice Juneau. “It’s not a very important issue for us.”

The 3,800-member Fédération des producteurs de porcs du Québec, also has no position, said spokeswoman Nathalie Hansen.

“The steps required to produce a live (clone) animal are almost a nightmare for farm applications,” said Roger Sauvé, a cow veterinarian in St. Louis de Gonzague, 45 kilometres southwest of Montreal, who specializes in reproductive services for farmers.

“It’s very, very expensive to produce cloned animals right now. Farmers are not ready to pay that kind of money. Practically, it doesn’t make sense.”

Sauvé said existing reproductive technologies are more efficient and cheaper and also offer the advantage of improving a herd’s genetics if two top animals are bred together, while clones can only be as good as their progenitors.

For more information:
- European Parliament reports on cloning
- The Center for Food Safety’s report on food from clones

No Green for Green

Much-Touted Subsidies Might Just Cover Taxes

Alex Roslin
Business Observer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

When my wife and I started thinking about getting our own house, we had visions of a fun, green-friendly eco-home. Perhaps we’d live in a yurt, or some little abode suspended in the forest that we could swing to on vines like Tarzan and Jane.

We had heard the government offered subsidies for green building. At the home fair, we collected shiny brochures from enthusiastic civil servants who assured us they could help with our dream.

Then we read the brochures. The much-touted subsidies turned out to be barely enough for vines, let alone green features like solar heating, energy-efficient appliances, green-friendly building materials or better-insulated windows, walls and roof.

In fact, green-building subsidies in Canada are so pitifully small, they’re typically just about enough to pay for the taxes on a green-construction project, says Emmanuel Blain-Cosgrove, a Montreal ecological-building consultant.

And they do little to convince anyone to build green who wasn’t already planning to do so, effectively making them little more than subsidies for well-off people.

You may wonder why this is important. Why should society help a few tree-huggers who want to live in their silly eco-homes?

The fact is, there’s no better place for governments to spend our climate-change dollars. Building construction and maintenance is responsible for 40 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada. And scientists agree the building sector is by far the industry where there’s the biggest bang in efforts to reduce gas emissions.

Each $100 invested can cut 5.3 to 6.7 tonnes of emissions in the building sector, compared to 2.4 to 4.7 tonnes in the energy-production sector and 1.6 to 2.5 tonnes in better transportation technologies, according to the United Nations’ Nobel-winning International Panel on Climate Change.

So what kind of leadership is on display in Ottawa and Quebec?

Not much. Amazingly, the feds don’t offer a single green-building subsidy for new residential construction. The rationale: Home owners don’t need subsidies because going green will create enough cost savings over the long run to pay for the extra up-front expenses.

How short-sighted can you get? Did anyone stop to consider that most developers set out to build as cheaply as possible and are justifiably worried that buyers won’t cough up extra money for a green house?

Or that most home buyers are going to look first at the asking price of a home—especially with today’s runaway real-estate market—and aren’t likely to be motivated by uncertain cost savings from green construction, which they won’t see for many years? Or that many home owners won’t live in a single house long enough to see the full cost savings?

In Quebec, things are a little brighter, with the province offering $1,500 to $2,500 for energy-reduction measures in new homes, plus another $2,800 from Hydro-Quebec toward an energy-efficient geothermal heating system.

The geothermal subsidy covers a decent, if minor chunk of the $25,000 to $30,000 cost to install geothermal heating in the average home, but here again, it’s effectively a subsidy for the well-off; geothermal heating doesn’t pay for itself in energy savings unless the house is fairly large—at least 2,500 square feet.

Ottawa and Quebec do offer additional subsidies for green renovations of existing homes, but those typically cover less than 10 percent of the cost of the project.

Other jurisdictions show how far behind the feds and Quebec lag. Municipalities in Alberta, of all places, have taken the lead in reducing or waiving building-permit fees to developers that get certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building program.

Some U.S. states and municipalities offer grants of $10,000 to $20,000 to builders of a LEED-certified home. Other municipalities like Vancouver, Calgary, Kingston and Ottawa have committed to building some or all new facilities to LEED standards, as have the provincial governments of B.C., Alberta and Manitoba.

Every dollar spent on LEED certification leads to long-term savings of $12 to $16 due to lower energy, water and maintenance bills and improved worker productivity and health from better indoor air quality.

Yet, in Quebec, no municipality has followed suit. Neither has the province. In fact, Quebec has dithered for years about simply upgrading its building code to a long-awaited, more environmentally friendly standard.

The next federal election could centre around Stéphane Dion’s proposed carbon tax, a regressive measure likely to fall most heavily on lower-income people. Why not focus instead on proven programs like green-building subsidies that have the added benefit of improving the places we live and work?

TAGS: green building, LEED, global warming, climate change, emissions, energy

A Tough New Row to Hoe


The Green Revolution that began in 1945 transformed farming and fed millions in developing countries. But its methods over the long run are proving to be stunningly destructive. Alex Roslin reports

The idea was to reduce hunger through the magic of economies of scale. The plan was to implement a new approach to farming across the developing world.

And so, starting in 1945, the U.S.-backed Green Revolution did to farming what the Model T did to auto production. It subsidized peasants in developing countries to abandon centuries-old, small-scale farming techniques that used diverse, locally adapted crops and instead plant vast fields of single crops specially bred for high yields. And, since the new monocrops were often less suited to local conditions, farmers were also encouraged to use plenty of pesticides and fertilizers to improve harvests.

Playing a major role in the Green Revolution was the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), set up in the Philippines in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations with the collaboration of the Philippine government.

Now, almost half a century later, the Green Revolution's key innovations - chemicals and monocultures - are being blamed for a recent pest and disease epidemic that has ravaged Asian rice fields and sharply curtailed the supply of the main food staple of half of the world's population. The shortages have helped to send rice prices into orbit and sparked unrest across the developing world.

"This pest outbreak is actually man-created," says Kong Luen Heong, an insect ecologist at IRRI's headquarters in Los Banos, 60 kilometres south of Manila. "It's a symptom of an ecosystem breakdown."


The brown planthopper is a nasty-looking little insect that is the scourge of Asian rice farmers. It has devastated crops in Vietnam, China and Malaysia and is one of the main reasons that the price of rice has shot up fourfold since 2003, Dr. Heong says.

Ironically, a growing body of research shows that the plant-hopper is thriving because of the very pesticides that governments and chemical companies encourage farmers to use to control it.

The reason: Pesticides kill the planthopper's natural predators - spiders and crickets - which normally control the destructive insect. In a 14-year study at an experimental rice farm at IRRI, Dr. Heong found that cutting pesticide use by 88 per cent led to 75-per-cent fewer destructive herbivores as a portion of all the insects at the farm.

Dr. Heong's methods have a proven track record. In 1994, he helped the Vietnamese government create a campaign to encourage rice farmers to reduce pesticide use. Use of the chemicals dropped by half, while farm yields remained unaffected and the planthopper vanished.

But early this decade, Vietnamese farmers reverted to their old ways when rice prices started to creep up. The farmers, anxious to safeguard their increasingly lucrative crops, resumed the use of pesticides as a preventive measure and, in so doing, weakened the health of their crops, Dr. Heong says.

That led, in 2006, to the first massive planthopper outbreak Vietnam had seen in years. In order to ensure that there was enough rice for the domestic market, the government temporarily suspended rice exports, which further stoked price increases, which in turn led to more pesticide use, often with the misguided encouragement of government officials, Dr. Heong says.

He warns that should the planthopper infestation spread in Vietnam - the nation worst hit in the outbreak and the world's third-largest rice exporter - the government there will probably reinstate the ban on exports, sharply escalating the food crisis.

"Importing countries will have a panic reaction and that would further drive the price up," he says.

But his biggest fear is that the spiral of orbiting rice prices and greater chemical use could lead to a nightmare scenario of the planthoppers spreading to Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter.


Dr. Heong's views coincide with those of a growing group of food experts who agree that farming methods must change in order to prevent future food crises. They say reform is especially needed because the methods instilled by the Green Revolution are ill suited to cope with climate change. And like Dr. Heong, they say much conventional wisdom about modern agriculture isn't borne out by recent scientific evidence.

David Pimentel, a Cornell University entomologist who has also linked pesticide overuse to planthopper outbreaks in Asian rice fields, says that when Indonesia sharply restricted the use of the chemicals on its rice crops in the 1980s, yields increased by 12 per cent in five years.

In a 22-year study he reported on in 2005 in the journal BioScience, Dr. Pimentel compared organic and conventional crop yields in Pennsylvania and found that organic methods produced the same or better harvests, while eliminating the use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers, reducing watering needs and leaving the soil healthier.

In another study that challenged conventional thinking, Mark Winston, a bee expert at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University, found that canola farmers in Alberta who let some of their land go fallow saw dramatically improved yields compared with those who planted their entire farm.

The uncultivated land became an oasis for bees, which, in turn, helped the canola flourish with improved pollination, Dr. Winston and his co-authors reported in a 2006 study in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and the Environment. Leaving 33 per cent of a field unplanted would have more than doubled the profit from the remaining crop because of its greater yield, the study found.


"The data is very strong: Plant less and make more money. It's a whole different mindset," Dr. Winston says.

The stakes in all this are significant and go beyond the current food crisis, says David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist who just wrote the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He says the world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is being replenished, mostly because of Green Revolution-era agricultural methods - such as excessive tilling and monocultures - which leave vast tracts barren after harvest and thus more vulnerable to erosion. "Some day we are going to run out," he says.

Dr. Montgomery found that soil mismanagement was a major factor in the decline of many civilizations, including those of ancient Greece and Rome, early China, the Mayans and Easter Island. "The state of the soil can be seen as helping to define the resilience of a society," he says.

"The challenge in the next century will be to adapt farming to the land. We've been trying to adapt the land to farming. But the earth bats last."


While the Green Revolution did produce higher yields at first, they plateaued in the 1990s. What's needed now, Dr. Heong says, is a new round of changes to farming practices that would amount to a second Green Revolution.

Dr. Heong is no radical environmentalist. His institute, which gets funds from the World Bank, agribusiness and two dozen nations, including Canada, played a major role in encouraging Asian farmers to adopt the very practices he now criticizes.

But in June, at the International Planthopper Conference in Los Banos, he touted what seemed to many the radical idea that Asian government officials must enact policies to rein in pesticide use.

Another solution, Dr. Heong says, is to reduce reliance on monocultures. He is working with Vietnamese officials to encourage farmers to plant a greater diversity of rice varieties and allow parts of their fields to go to grass - methods that he says would create healthier farms without reducing yields.

"In the face of climate change," he says, "more diversity will help the system be more robust."

TAGS: food, pesticides, farm, soil, rice, Green Revolution, International Rice Research Institute, monocultures