Here is an archive of the CSWA member guest blogs. They cover a wide range of topics, some have been picked up by major international media outlets, others have become the subject of national news stories in Canada, and some have made the top science communications article lists for the year they were posted. If you are a CSWA member and would like to contribute a guest post just contact bloggerboss via email from the members page. 

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  • 29 Mar 2018 12:29 PM | Anonymous member


    Photo: The growth of toxic algae explodes worldwide with the help of growing volumes of human and animal waste.

    Last October, just before the provincial government relaxed regulations to allow for many more hogs to be produced in this province, George Matheson, Chair of the industry group, “Manitoba Pork,” testified before a legislative committee.  

    In an astonishing display of corporate hype, Matheson seemed to think he could, with a single statement, obliterate years of solid scientific research, conducted in his own province.

    “Hog manure is not getting into our rivers and lakes,” he declared. “The vast majority…about 85 per cent, is injected into the soil of farmland or immediately incorporated into the soil. This method of application essentially stops manure from running off the land. I cannot overemphasize this point. This means manure does not get into rivers and lakes. In fact, it is illegal for manure to leave a field.”

    In her long career with the University of Winnipeg’s biology department, Dr. Eva Pip has come to a dramatically different conclusion. After visiting more than 400 sites in Manitoba and publishing a series of meticulous, detailed studies, the veteran water quality expert has found, “The two land use categories with the highest nitrate concentrations bleeding into adjacent surface waters were urban sewage and livestock/poultry operations.” 

    Dr. Eva Pip taught biology at the U of W for 

    more than 50 years before retiring in 2016. 

    She has published almost 100 peer-reviewed 

    articles in her career. More than 800 scientists 

    in serious academic circles around the world 

    have cited her work, as a building block for their own.

    Nitrates act as nutrients which promote the rapid growth of harmful and often poisonous algae. As Dr. Pip explains, “These mar beaches, overgrow submerged surfaces, clog filters and fishing nets, and foul drinking water with objectionable tastes, odours and toxins. Local fish and invertebrate kills have occurred both in summer and under winter ice.” 

    Many big livestock operations, including hog “mega-barns,” have been operating in southern Manitoba for years. This doesn’t make sense to Dr. Pip. “Our provincial government was irresponsibly allowing barns where periodic flooding was very likely, even certain. Since floodwaters flow into Lake Winnipeg, and also to Lake Manitoba via the Portage Diversion, this means that waste affects a very large area, not just the immediately adjacent waters.” Epic flooding in the Red River Valley in 1997 washed a host of human-related contaminants into those lakes, including waste from hog lagoons. 

    A study Dr. Pip supervised in 2006, confirmed that three substances harmful to water quality “increased significantly during flooding.” They were, dissolved solids and different forms of the two main nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous. And human and animal waste were also “major factors” directly affecting water quality near the shore at 90 sites she surveyed along the southern half of Lake Winnipeg. Communities of mollusks (snails and native freshwater mussels), considered important indicators of environmental health, were dwindling, and many are endangered. She recommended another look be taken at management policies affecting the lake, in order to “reduce further habitat decline.” 

    In 2012, she published another study showing even more clearly, just how baseless Matheson’s testimony was. For an entire ice-free season, she and one of her students took water samples both upstream and downstream of a small hog and poultry operation in southeastern Manitoba. The farm, complete with waste lagoons and fields where the waste was sprayed, was located between the Brokenhead River and one of its tributaries, Hazel Creek. The study detected significantly higher levels of several substances harmful to water quality in the downstream samples, compared to upstream. These included phosphorous, some nitrogen, solids and fecal coliform bacteria, which increased when it rained. “ The study suggested that environmental loading of livestock waste adversely altered natural stream water quality.” And it called for producers to spread manure “during drier weather conditions, to minimize the large-scale escape events.”  

    “Our study demonstrated unequivocally," explains Dr. Pip, "that manure was getting into those waterways from the spread fields after the manure had been spread, and not just small amounts either.” 

    The Brokenhead River flows into Lake Winnipeg, the subject of another study published in 2012. Entitled, “The rapid eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg,” it was conducted by a team of researchers headed by another water quality expert, Dr. David Schindler of the University of Alberta. It concluded that poisonous blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) “have nearly doubled in size in that lake since the mid 1990s,” thanks to rapid increases in phosphorous levels."

    David Schindler is a Rhodes scholar and 

    internationally celebrated scientist, with 

    a Ph.D in ecology. He co-authored the 

    book, “The Algal Bowl: Overfertilization 

    of the World’s Freshwaters and Estuaries.”

    This, in turn is due to “rapidly increased livestock production and use of synthetic fertilizer in the Red River Valley, with smaller contributions…from the city of Winnipeg and other human development in the Red and Winnipeg river basins. Most scientists agree, increasing inputs of phosphorous and nitrogen, abundant in human sewage, the excrement of livestock and synthetic fertilizers applied to agricultural land (a process called eutrophication), are the earth’s most widespread water quality problem. They cause harmful algal blooms, fish kills and many related problems both in fresh waters and in coastal seas that are adjacent to areas with large human populations.” 

    But, could human health be at risk here, too? 

    Further research by Dr. Pip less than four years ago, shows that indeed, it could be. It found a dangerous neurotoxin called BMAA at three places near the shore of Lake Winnipeg’s south basin. Levels of it were found to increase significantly after heavy “blooms” of the blue-green algae and when solids were suspended in the water. BMAA is found worldwide, wherever the algae are found. It has been linked to human ailments including Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). It has also been found in the hair and brain tissue of Canadian Alzheimer’s patients.

    There are several troubling pathways humans could be exposed to this toxin. These include consuming the milk or meat of livestock or waterfowl who’ve been exposed to tainted water in dugouts or wetlands, or even from bathing in it. Of the three locations studied, the highest levels were found at Patricia Beach, a popular spot for bathers.

    As bad as they sound, BMAA toxins are not the end of the story, as Dr. Pip explains. “We found other more important algal toxins in Lake Winnipeg (microcystins, anatoxins) that are much more immediate and potent, and these should be mentioned. We found that microcystins were related to phosphorus and nitrogen in the water. They can be inhaled, absorbed through skin, or ingested. 

    They can be lethal to animals, and make people sick. Many communities as well as cottagers draw their drinking water from the lake.” Coliform bacteria (such as E coli) were also associated with phosphorus levels.

    A dog swims in a toxic 

    soup of blue-green algae.

    Despite all this, Premier Brian Pallister, like the industry, seems more than willing to simply write off all those years of collective scientific wisdom. When announcing last spring his government would relax important environmental regulations so thousands more hogs could be produced in Manitoba, he told reporters,“There’s no compelling evidence that any of these changes will put water at risk."

    Lake Winnipeg. Photo credit. 

    Cdn. Space Agency.

    Meanwhile, Lake Winnipeg, the world's 10th largest freshwater lake, gets increasingly polluted with algal blooms that can be seen from space. And, a report commissioned by the Government of Manitoba in 2011 concluded that phosphorous levels in the lake were “three times higher than they were in Lake Erie when that lake was described as dead!”

    What about water quantity?

    Quite apart from the role big hog operations play in impacting water quality,  is the question of usage - the volumes needed to water the livestock and clean the barns. The amounts are staggering. Figures on volumes already being consumed are hard to come by. But we are already getting a taste of what an expanded industry will look like. Applications are now pouring in for new barns and permission to expanded existing ones. The big pork processing company, HyLife alone, has applied to build no less than 16 big barns, housing some 50,000 hogs in the RM of Killarney, in the southwest. The company estimates all those barns, together, will require something like 48m imperial gallons, or 218m litres of groundwater per year!  The hogs will produce well over 31m gallons of slurry, to be stored in several new earthen lagoons the company proposes to dig. The barns are to be located in the Pembina River watershed and built on land which is currently in crop production. 

    What about the stink?

    But are the threats being posed by the Pallister government's crusade to expand the hog industry, confined to our waterways only? What about the stench produced by massive quantities of hog manure? The industry claims, expansion will do little to worsen that problem.

    Yet odours from intensive livestock operations nationwide, have been recognized as a problem in Canada for well over 20 years. In its “Handbook on Health Impacts,” (2004), Health Canada notes, “Among all the animal production sectors, hog farming, given its constant growth since the 1970s and its expansion in many rural and even near-urban areas, is often publicly perceived as one of the most polluting agricultural activities. The number of complaints about odours from animal production operations has increased sharply since the 1970s, mainly because of the transition from solid (manure) to liquid (slurry) waste management. As a result, in 1995, odours from buildings and slurry storage facilities were 5.2 times stronger than they were in 1961; and odours from spreading activities were 8.2 times stronger.”

    But hog barn odours can be more than just a nuisance. The Handbook warns that gases including ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and methane can not only irritate the eyes and upper respiratory tract, they can, in high enough concentrations, be lethal. “Half of all cases of severe manure gas poisoning are fatal,” it states. “And a few farm workers in Canada die from such poisoning each year,” usually while cleaning out confined spaces such as manure gutters below the barns.

    There is, however, anecdotal evidence that modern technology may be offering some relief. That technology allows farmers to inject the slurry into the soil when fertilizing their fields, rather than spraying it on from above.

    In the words of one informed source, Eric Rempel, "The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. It's quite possible to drive past a field where manure is being injected, and not be aware of it. Of course there is some odour, but with skillful operators, it is much reduced. On the other hand, where the liquid manure is being sprayed, the odour is powerful." While he believes that injection is now the dominant method of application, there are reasons it cannot be used everywhere. Many barns are located on marginal land, usually reserved for pasture or hay crops. In those cases, spraying is preferred because injection would "negatively affect" those fields. And injection does not work when the ground is muddy, either.

    A hog barn on the Springhill colony 

    near Neepawa. PinP photo.

    He believes the large, industrial farms actually do a better job of managing their waste than either smaller farmers or Hutterites, who operate large barns on several of their colonies in the province. And, Rempel adds, the push to continue spreading slurry onto farmland in winter, widely viewed as a harmful environmental practise, comes, not from the industrial farms, but small farmers. He once owned a Manitoba company which helped industrial pig farms manage their manure applications.

    Meanwhile, claims by the Manitoba industry that it doesn't contribute much to climate change, either, do not seem to match evidence elsewhere. While the industrial livestock industry in the U.S. is much larger than ours, it's style of production (confining large numbers of animals in big buildings), is pretty much the same. Recent research by the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy (IATP) of Minnesota, finds that the biggest American meat and dairy operators, together, emit more greenhouse gases than any of the oil giants - Exxon, Shell or BP - do individually! 

    “One consequence, among many," IATP concludes,"is that livestock production now contributes nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even more than the transportation sector. If production continues to grow as projected by the FAO, emissions will escalate to the point where industrial meat and dairy production alone will undercut our ability to keep temperatures from rising to an apocalyptic scenario. It’s now clear that the world cannot avoid climate catastrophe without addressing the staggering emissions from the largest meat and dairy transnational conglomerates.”

    But, could our big slaughterhouses here at home also be contributing to global warming in a way that few of us may even think about - by the very way they kill their hogs? A consultants study describes how HyLife Foods of Neepawa, the country's largest pork processing plant, does it. They lower about seven pigs at a time into a pit filled with carbon dioxide (C02), where they suffocate in about three minutes. That asphyxiation system, along with a separate dry ice system, each use a 50 tonne steel tank. They're replenished by trucks twice a month. Environment and Climate Change Canada does not keep track of this C02. But, given that millions of hogs are apparently slaughtered in this province in this way each year (soon to be many more), perhaps they should! (C02 is the most common greenhouse gas contributing to our current climate crisis.)

    Living with an “industry-friendly” media.

    Last spring, the publisher of the weekly newspaper, the Neepawa Banner, Ken Waddell, wrote, “A hog produces about the same amount of manure as a human.” Waddell, a prominent Conservative, is a fierce promoter of both industrial hog production and the push by the Pallister government to expand it. (Neepawa is also home to HyLife, the biggest private employer in town.)

    Since his flat statement came with a distinct odour attached, I decided to check it out. So I e-mailed Ming Z. Fan, Ph.D. He is a professor of nutritional ecology at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Here’s how Dr. Ming explains it. It takes a piglet about 5 or 6 months to grow from 2-3kg to a market-sized hog of about 110kg. (Roughly speaking, it would take a human - depending on the individual - about 20 years to reach full maturity!) So, in Dr. Ming’s words, “Simply because model lean pigs grow much faster and eat much more, they will produce much more manure than humans under a given period of time."

    Waddell’s statement also ignores the fact that pigs now probably outnumber people in Manitoba, by more than six to one! A study prepared for the University of Manitoba shows that, about eight million hogs were being raised in the province in 2015! Yet Manitoba’s human population that year was only about 1.3 million.  

    And, according to Stats Canada, in the five years leading up to 2017,  Manitoba experienced “the largest absolute increase in pigs” in the entire country. 

    South of the border, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has concluded, “Confined Animal Feeding Operations (known in Canada as ILOs) produce over 300 million tons of waste per year—twice the amount of waste produced by the human population of the U.S!” 

    So just  how many more pigs and how much more manure will there be right here in Manitoba, once the government’s ambitious (some say reckless) plan to increase production, comes to pass? And is the American experience really one we want to emulate?

    Surely all of this begs the question; just how big is big enough for the fragile eco-systems of any one province to bear?

    Larry lives in Shoal Lake, Manitoba where he publishes www.PlanetInPeril.ca

    -30-

    Related: "In Hogs We Trust."

    Part #1  Antibiotic overuse in Manitoba's hog industry.

    Part #2 Government subsidies.

    Part #3  The consequences of livestock diseases, worldwide and here at home.

  • 16 Jan 2018 11:22 PM | Anonymous member

    Photo credit - Government of Quebec.

    The beautiful Snowy Owl, like so many other wild creatures on Earth, faces an uncertain future. The “Red List,” a British agency, has just put the graceful, white bird of prey on the “vulnerable” list for the first time. Earlier estimates had placed the birds' numbers at as high as 200 thousand individuals, worldwide. Now, they've been revised drastically downward, to as low as 10 thousand! 

    Snowy Owl numbers have proven hard to judge since they fluctuate so widely, depending on the availability of food. Factors in their decline may include illegal hunting, collisions with vehicles and power lines and climate change, which can affect the availability of their prey. So the agency’s prognosis is a somber one. “This species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.” 

    Snowy Owls nest in the Arctic, but have a range that spans the northern hemisphere.”

    "Red List" been assessing the status of wildlife species for some 50 years. 

  • 27 Nov 2017 10:24 PM | Anonymous member

    by Larry Powell

    It’s not looking good for the vaquita. 

    Photo: NOAA - C. Faesi / Proyecto Vaquita 1992.

    The vaquita are porpoises which measure only about 1.5 meters, fully grown. They’re among the smallest of the cetaceans, an order of marine mammals which includes porpoises, dolphins and whales. Their numbers have now dwindled to fewer than 30 in Mexico’s Gulf of California, where they live. 

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports vaquita numbers have declined an astonishing 92% since 1997. Gill net fishing is the main culprit. The vaquita have become “collateral damage” as poachers target a fish whose bladder brings a handsome price on the black market.

    Mexico has imposed a permanent ban on the taking of vaquita. But authorities have been unable to enforce the law sufficiently to make a difference.

    Now, the magazine, Science is reporting, an eleventh-hour bid by a team of conservationists, to bring them back from the brink, has been a heartbreaking failure.

    A rescue team has been trying for some two years now to capture enough live animals to breed them in captivity, so their numbers can recover. But the vaquita have proven so sensitive to the stress of capture, two females have now died. And the rescuers have decided it's just not worth risking the lives of any more. So the effort has been called off with no plans for another.

    The rescuers do not regret having tried. They’re just sorry they hadn’t started sooner.

    So where does this leave these vulnerable, intelligent, beautiful creatures? 

    According to the author of the Science article - "in extreme peril.”

    -30-

  • 15 Nov 2017 9:04 AM | Anonymous member

    Part 1: How the Manitoba government’s return to a deregulated hog industry could actually contribute to a world health emergency.

    The Pallister government has just passed its “Red Tape Reduction and Government Efficiency Act.” The bill makes it easier (and cheaper) for pig producers to build new factory barns, expand existing ones, store and dispose of the waste and to even spend less on fire protection. 

    According to the industry group, “Manitoba Pork,” as many as 100 new factory barns may now be built over the next ten years.

    A CanStock Photo image.

    What the Bill will not do is stop the dangerous overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Livestock owners around the world (including Manitoba’s hog producers) have long been giving these medicines to their animals, whether to treat the sick, prevent the healthy from getting sick, or simply to fatten them up for market.

    This is all perfectly legal here and in many other countries.

    While it's true that antibiotics are sometimes used and abused in human medications too, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates “80% of all antibiotic use in Canada occurs in the raising of animals for food.” 

    And, about three out of every four doses given this way, are identical to the drugs you and I need to fend off deadly infections.

    The PHAC goes on, “There is increasing evidence that the use of antimicrobial agents in livestock production is an important contributing factor to the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans.” AMRs are sometimes called “superbugs” which, because of this inappropriate use, have developed a resistance to treatment by most or all of the medicines available today. 

    So scenarios where doctors have to advise their patients that “There’s nothing more I can do for you," are becoming alarmingly more frequent. 

    Three days before the Manitoba bill was approved, the World Health Organization sounded its most urgent alarm yet over the administering of antibiotics to food animals. The WHO says things must change, if we are to preserve the effectiveness of these life-saving medications.The UN agency advised farmers and the food industry everywhere, to simply stop giving animals such medications altogether, whether to promote growth or prevent disease. Healthy animals should only be treated if disease is diagnosed elsewhere in the same herd. And, even while treating animals already sick, only medications not considered critical for the treatment of human infections, should be used.


    Image credit - OECD

    But data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are even more alarming. Representing 35 developed countries, it notes that AMR is “highly prevalent” in its member countries (including Canada). It estimates the yearly loss of life, worldwide, probably runs into the tens of thousands, already. But current rates of resistance are increasing to the point where ten million people a year could be dying in this way by 2050! This, the OECD notes, would "move the needle" on the human cost of AMRs, from “substantial” to “enormous.” While the bulk of the deaths would be in Africa and Asia (see OECD table), there could still be 700 thousand in North America by that time. (No breakdown is given for Canada.)

    Why, you ask, would an economic organization get involved in a health issue? Because, it expects future increases in health costs to also be enormous; almost $3 trillion by 2050, for OECD countries alone! That's because AMR patients are sick longer, need more (and costly) treatments, more tests and are three times more likely to die.

    With new barns and more hogs now on Manitoba’s horizon, only pro-industry spin-doctors would dare to argue that this won’t mean more antibiotics, as well. (The OECD expects such usage to increase by a staggering two thirds by 2030.) 

    I have e-mailed both Premier Pallister and “Manitoba Pork” to ask them about these concerns. Neither has responded, so far.

    So, if the world pays as little heed to this prevailing medical wisdom as the Pallister government and the industry seem to be doing, for this Manitoban, "optimistic" just got harder to be. 

    Larry Powell  is a journalist living in Shoal Lake, MB where he publishes www.PlanetInPeril.ca

    Coming soon - "In Hogs We Trust" Part 2  - “The Price we Pay for Corporate Hog$.”

    -30-

  • 08 Nov 2017 12:51 PM | Anonymous member

    Larry Powell writes from SHOAL LAKE, MANITOBA. 

    The World Health Organization is ramping up its warnings about the health risks of giving antibiotics to animals raised in intensive livestock operations (ILOs) everywhere. 

    In a major announcement in Geneva this week, the UN agency had some straight talk for the world’s food industry and animal farmers in the form of several formal recommendations:

                  Stop giving antibiotics to food animals altogether if it’s just to speed their growth - or prevent disease

                  Don’t give them to healthy animals unless disease has already been diagnosed in another part of the same herd.

                  Cut back on the amount of antibiotics given to animals for any reason. 

                  And even when animals become sick, only give them antibiotics not considered critically important in the treatment of human infections. (Drugs used in both animal agriculture and human medicine are often identical.)

    As the world's appetite for meat keeps going up, so too do the volumes of medications which producers either inject or feed to their animals. 

    This overuse happens in humans, too. But, in many countries the WHO does not name, about 80% of these medications are applied to food animals - mostly to fatten them up for market!

    “The new recommendations aim to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by reducing their unnecessary use in animals,” states the WHO news release.

    “A lack of effective antibiotics is as serious a security threat as a sudden and deadly disease outbreak,” says the WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He concludes,“Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide and keep the world safe." Such steps are needed, warns the WHO, ominously, since “There are very few promising options in the research pipeline. 

    The WHO claims its recommendations are based on "consistent evidence;" showing the effectiveness of antibiotic reductions. The agency believes this can also be achieved with little or no negative impact on animal health, welfare or production costs.

    "Many countries have successfully achieved complete restriction of growth promotion... demonstrating the feasibility of this recommendation."

     The Agency also refers to a study just published in “The Lancet Planetary Health.” It finds that restricting antibiotic use in food animals reduces "superbugs" by as much as 39%. And a study of chickens in Canada comes up with similar findings. (No link available.)

    The overuse of antibiotics leads to “antimicrobial resistance” (AMR), where traditional medicines are no longer effective.

    WHO figures show almost half-a-million people around the world come down with tuberculosis that is resistant to several drug formulations each year. While TB is said to claim five thousand lives yearly, just how many of those would be attributable to AMR, is not immediately clear. But it is also known that AMR is complicating the fight against HIV, malaria, cancer chemotherapy, caesarean sections and even hip replacements.

    Canada does not keep statistics on AMRs. But, as long as ten years ago, a story in the Globe and Mail estimated that 8,000 Canadians were dying yearly due to to hospital infections which were difficult or impossible to treat. 

    The giving of antibiotics to food animals (completely legal in Canada) is also believed to be widespread in this country, although the extent of it is hard to get a grip on.

    (My search for “antibiotics” on the website of  the industry group “Manitoba Pork,” has yielded no results.)

    So I e-mailed “Manitoba Pork,” to see if they'd comment, both on on the amount of antibiotics they use and on the WHO recommendations. 

    I haven't heard back, so far.

    And, any day now, the Government of Manitoba will introduce legislation which will pave the way for a major expansion of hog “ILOs”  in this province.

                                                                                         -30-

  • 07 Oct 2017 1:43 PM | Anonymous member

    by Larry Powell

     Three out of four samples of honey tested in a global survey released this week, were tainted with neonicotinoids, the world's most widely-used insecticide.

    A honeybee forages on canola. (Almost all of the canola in Canada is grown from seed treated with "neonics.") PinP photo. 

    A five-member Swiss research team tested almost two hundred honey samples from every continent except Antarctica, for the five main compounds in the "neonic family" (acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam). Several isolated islands were even included in the survey.

    At least one of those compounds was found in 75% of all samples tested. (Fourty-five percent contained two or more, while ten percent showed traces of four or five.)

    The levels detected were considered too low to pose a risk to people who actually eat honey. But, for adult bees, honey is their only food in winter and when flowers aren't blooming. While "neonics" may not always kill the pollinators outright, they've been shown to have "sub-lethal effects," which damage the way they grow, learn, fend off disease, navigate and reproduce.

    The test results show that "neonics" are now used everywhere, and that bees, probably including thousands of wild varieties, as well, are exposed to the toxins in their food, worldwide. 

    "Neonics are suspected of being a key factor for a global decline not just in honeybees," states the report, "but in pollinators, generally. And, despite some recent efforts to decrease their use - the contamination (documented in this latest research), confirms the inundation of bees and their environments with these pesticides." 

    And while "neonic" levels in the honey are considered low for human consumption, the research paper also hints - that may not be the end of the story. 

    "There are increasing concerns about the impact of these systemic pesticides, not only on...honey bees ....but also on...humans."

    Other research has already implicated "neonics" in the declines of insectivorous birds such as swallows, probably by depriving them of the bugs they normally eat.

    Another study demonstrates negative effects on the rare Japanese crested ibis. It was found to have better breeding success when "neonics" were removed from its environment.

    Obviously, the concern here is, if the consequences of "neonics" can "jump" species barriers, how long can we rule out potential harm to other vertebrates, including we humans?

    In Canada, three kinds of "neonics" have been detected in our waterways at levels considered harmful to important food sources for fish, birds and other animals, such as midges and mayflies.

    Researchers hope a total ban such as the one France will soon introduce, may reverse "neonic" readings there, over time. But, despite a partial moratorium imposed by the EU a few years ago, readings in Europe are still among the highest.  

    The report warns that "pesticide cocktails," where more than one "neonic" compound may be used at once,  "may increase harm" even more.

    The researchers, headed by Edward Mitchell of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, call on authorities to tell the public more about how many pesticides are being used in their areas, and to make that information more clearly and easily understood.

    Reaction to this new research from other experts in the field, has been swift and, in some cases, angry.


    Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex (above) laments, "Despite repeated warnings from scientists that they are impacting the bees, butterflies, aquatic insects and more...few governments have listened. Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.

    "Some of us have been pointing this out for years. It is hard not to feel a sense of deja vu: Rachel Carson was saying the same things more than 50 years ago, but we seem not to have learned any lessons. It is high time that we developed a global regulatory system for pesticides, to prevent such catastrophes being repeated over and over again."


    Meanwhile, Chris Connolly of the University of Dundee,  Scotland (above), calls these latest findings “Alarming and sobering." He says "neonics" are being overused, unnecessarily and ought to be "heavily restricted." 

    Dr. Connolly fears, while the chemical may not kill bees outright, it might "hinder their ability to forage on, and pollinate, our crops”

    This is unsettling news, indeed, since it's often been said that "One out of every three spoons full of food we put in our mouths are made possible by pollinators!"

    This latest research was published in the journal, "Science" on Thursday.
  • 08 Feb 2016 10:46 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Chelsea Matisz

    I research inflammatory bowel disease. A few days ago I started a new experiment, using human cells from a cell line called THP-1. Not being very familiar with these cells, I was interested in where they came from. The results of a Wikipedia search left me speechless. They are derived from the peripheral blood of a one year old human male with acute monocytic leukemia. One year old.

    My son had his first birthday less than two weeks ago. On that day he had his first taste of cake (red velvet with buttercream frosting). The cells I am using in my experiment came from a little boy whose first birthday was likely his last. These cells are identical to those that used to course through the circulatory system of a little boy the same age as my mine. Through the arms he used to hold his favourite toys, crawl up the stairs, and hug his mum.

    Cell lines are a population of genetically identical cells that are all descended from a single individual cell. Normally, cells don’t live forever. However if they have mutations that prevent their natural cell death from occurring they will madly proliferate, and given the right conditions, live forever. For a cell line to exist, these mutations are necessary. But in a living organism, these cells are cancer.

    Journalist Rebecca Skloot deserves credit for investigating the human story behind immortalized cell lines. Her Pulitzer prize winning book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” delves into the life of a woman whose cancerous cervical cells were used to establish the ‘HeLa’ cell line-the line used for most cancer research done today-without her knowledge or consent. The book humanized the woman whose cells have become immortalized in science, but also highlighted the ethical and legal complexities of using biological tissues in research.

    It was in 1980 that the THP-1 cell line, established in a Japanese lab, was reported to the scientific community in a published paper. Based on some details in the paper, the cells were probably extracted from the little boy around 1977. Did his parents know his cells were cultivated into a cell line? Who owns the discarded biological tissues from patients and research participants? What level of control should donors have over their samples? Should we limit the rights of tissue donors in favour of the benefits of tissue-based research?

    These are challenging moral and philosophical questions that legal experts are currently debating. I cannot comment on what ethical and legal frameworks were in place when the boy’s cells were extracted, and the THP-1 cell line established. I can tell you that in Canada, upon the parents’ request, the existence of THP-1 cell line would be disclosed. Additionally, the parents could withdrawal their consent for the cells being used in research. Whether there is an obligation for researchers to disclose this information without the donor’s request is being debated. The profits from a commercial cell line would likely not be shared with the donor.

    I can tell you that in Canada, research involving human biological tissues involves intense scrutiny via the research ethics board, and similar protocols are in place in other countries. While it varies from country to country, human tissue-based research operates under the core principles of respect for human dignity, informed consent, patient privacy & confidentiality, minimizing harm, and maximizing benefit.

    I can also tell you that THP-1 cells have contributed immeasurably towards our knowledge of the immune system, cancers, bacteria and viruses, and have played a key role in the development of drugs and vaccines. I can tell you that as a mother, I am conflicted about the thought of using the cells that killed my son for medical research. I can tell you as a scientist, I care both about the ethics of, and recognize the necessity for, tissue based research.

    But I still wonder about that little boy with acute monocytic leukemia. According to WebMD, the survival rate for this kind of cancer is 24%. Did he survive? How was he feeling on that day his blood was drawn? Was he scared? Did his mum hold his hand? Did his parents know what happened to their son’s cells, that they inhabit research laboratories across the globe? Do they have any idea that the mother of a one-year old son is thinking about theirs?

    Chelsea Matisz is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Medicine, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, University of Calgary, AB, Her website is: sciencesoup.net.

  • 04 Feb 2016 9:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    by Meredith Hanel

    Peaches and nectarines are the same fruit minus a small genetic variation that makes nectarines hairless. When I first learned this little trivia tidbit I wondered about the difference in flavour. I prefer nectarines to peaches, but wondered if the taste difference was all in my head. Well, it’s not.

    The genetic variation affects flavour, aroma, size, shape and texture. While the rough location of the genetic change has been known for some time, the exact gene and the exact change in the DNA sequence of “nectarineness” has been a mystery. In March, scientists from Italy finally identified a disruption in a “fuzz” gene that is absent in peaches.

    Agriculturists in China gifted fruit lovers with the peach about 4000 to 5000 years ago. At least 2000 years ago, again in China, nectarines burst on to the scene. Charles Darwin pondered about how nectarines popped up on peach trees and vice versa and described the odd finding of one fruit that was half and half. Would we call that a “peacharine?”

    Darwin, and others, deduced that the nectarine was a peach variety. In 1933, scientists determined a recessive gene variant was responsible for the inheritance pattern of the nectarine's hairless (glabrous) skin. The glabrous trait was given the designation G, with big G for the normal fuzzy peach character and little g for the glabrous nectarine character. Each fruit has two copies of this gene. Each parent gives one to the offspring fruit, which can be either GG, Gg, or gg, and only the gg fruits are nectarines.


    The chromosomal location of the G trait was already roughly landmarked but the Italian research team zoomed in on the spot, sort of like how you zoom in to street view with Google maps. Many DNA sequence differences exist between nectarines and peaches that are not located in genes but are useful as landmarks along the chromosomes. These are called genetic markers. To zoom in on the G trait, the researchers crossed peach and nectarine trees and followed the offspring through two generations. The offspring had a mixture of peach and nectarine markers along their chromosomes but certain genetic markers, the ones closest to the G trait location, always went along with the nectarineness. These genetic markers landmarked the region to search for genes with mutations that could explain a nectarine’s fuzz-less-ness.

    Within the landmarked region, the researchers identified a disrupted gene. The peach to nectarine gene disruption is a genetic modification by the hand of Mother Nature, an insertion of a transposable element. This type of DNA element can move because it contains its own code for the production of an enzyme that can “cut”and “paste” the transposable element to other locations in the genome. Transposable elements can get pasted right in the middle of genes, disrupting the DNA sequence. They are a known cause of genetic variation in plants. If you like chardonnay wine, you can thank a transposable element for disrupting the cabernet grape genome long ago.

    In nectarines the transposable element stuck itself right in the middle of a gene called PpeMYB25. Genes with similarities to PpeMYB25 in other plants are important for making plant hair, called trichome, which can occur on the stem, leaves, flowers and fruit of plants. The PpeMYB25 gene is the recipe for making a protein that is a transcription factor, a type of protein that controls when and how much other genes are turned on, so a mutation in this one gene could explain not just baldness in nectarines but other nectarine characteristics as well, depending on what these other genes are that it controls. In this report the researchers focused on the peach fuzz characteristic. When they looked at flower buds during the period when fuzz or trichome first develops, they found PpeMYB25 to be active in the peach but not the nectarine buds.

    This is the first description of a specific genetic modification that can explain the difference between peaches and nectarines, something that has long been a mystery.

    This research makes a strong case that nectarine lack of fuzz is due to the inability of nectarines to produce the PpeMYB25 protein. How lack of PpeMYB25might lead to the other nectarine characteristics — flavour, for instance — still needs to be worked out.

    References:

    Vendramin, E. et al. (2014) A Unique Mutation in a MYB Gene Cosegregates with the Nectarine Phenotype in Peach. PLOS ONE. 9: e90574

    Ien-Chi, W. et al. (1995) Comparing Fruit and Tree Characteristics of Two Peaches and Their Nectarine Mutants. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 120(1):101-106. </a>

    Darwin, C. (1868) The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Volume 1, pg 363.

    Images:

    Peach flower, fruit, seed and leaves as illustrated by Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1885) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Nectarine Fruit Development by jjron - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  

    Meredith is a science writer who once enjoyed life in the lab as a biomedical researcher. She blogs at BiologyBizarre and tweets @MeredithHanel

  • 03 Feb 2016 11:42 AM | Anonymous member

    By Claire Eamer

    I spent much of the summer researching a new kids’ science book. (Sorry – can’t get specific yet.) It’s about a very hot research topic – so hot that fresh stories seemed to hit the news every other day all summer long.

    If you’re writing one of those news stories, it’s exciting. You can get your story out in days, if not hours. If you’re writing for a magazine or another long-form medium, you have a problem. Your story might not appear for a couple of months or even longer. That means you have to dig deeper into the background of the story and give your readers the tools to evaluate the hot-off-the-press news stories that will continue to crop up.

    But pity the poor book writer! The authors of non-fiction books can spend years researching their topics, reading the literature, interviewing experts in the field, grappling with the complexity and implications of the topic. And that’s just the beginning. The process of editing, designing, proofing, printing, and publishing usually adds at least another year to the process.

    I write science books for kids, and that gives me an advantage. The books are shorter, so the turn-around time is faster. Still, the book I’ve been working on since late last spring won’t hit the shelves until next fall. And that’s a long time for a hot topic.

    Still – you have to try, even if you’re writing for kids. Maybe especially if you’re writing for kids. They are the scientists and science-consumers of tomorrow, and they need the best, most accurate information writers can give them. Kids’ science writers generally try very hard to provide that.

    And sometimes that relatively short lead time for kids’ books works to our advantage.

    A few years ago, I spent months researching material for Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past, a book for kids aged 10 to 14 on the history of eight different buildings around the world.

    (Yes, I know this blog is supposed to be about science, but we’ll get there. Promise!)

    One of the doorways was the grand entrance to the Treasury, or Al Khazneh, in Petra, Jordan. You’ve probably seen it. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy dashed up a wide stone stairway and through the imposing doorway of the Grail Temple, he was really dashing up the steps and through the entrance of the Treasury.

    In this 2010 photo of the Treasury, the grating covering the 2003 excavations is visible to the left of the great door. Photo by Arian Zwegers, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

    Of course, there’s no Grail Temple on the other side of the door – just a big empty room carved into the red-stone cliff. Both room and façade were created by the Nabateans, who controlled the desert trade routes for several centuries until the Romans took control of Petra in 106 CE.

    The Nabateans built the Treasury about 2000 years ago, and the circumstances of its building and its purpose were lost in time. In 2007, when I was researching my book, the best source of information was Jane Taylor’s beautiful 2002 book, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabateans. The author listed the most common speculations about the purpose of the Treasury, and the reasoning behind them. That should be enough, you’d think. After all, I was writing a single chapter in a book for kids – 20 short pages at most, with lots of pictures.

    The trouble is, you have to be sure. So I searched academic journals, trawled the Internet, and poked through proceedings from archaeology conferences.

    (See – I told you we’d get back to science!)

    Although the journals produced nothing new, the Internet kept throwing up tantalizing references to recent excavations. But – no journal articles, no first-hand accounts, no contact information.

    Finally, I searched for email addresses under the names I’d identified and sent messages to all of the addresses in the hope that one would connect. It did. Dr. Suleiman Farajat of the University of Jordan and the Petra Archaeological Park responded and kindly sent me a draft report with the information I needed.

    In the summer of 2003, with tourism in Jordan all but dead because of political tension, Jordanian archaeologists had done some long-delayed excavating in front of the Treasury, where ground-penetrating radar suggested there was something interesting. And indeed there was. The broad steps and huge entry were not, it turned out, the base of the structure. They were, in fact, one storey up. Beneath them, buried in millennia of flash-flood debris, was an entire storey – tombs, some still holding skeletons and the remains of offerings to the dead.

    The 2003 excavations revealed this narrow stairway leading down to the tombs that once formed the main-floor level of the Treasury. Photo courtesy of Petra National Trust.

    The mystery of the Treasury – still a mystery in the 2002 book – was a mystery no more. The Treasury was a mausoleum built to honour the royal family of Petra and to awe and impress visitors. Its grand entry had once loomed metres above the heads of visitors and worshippers, who filled the plaza beneath it with the smoke of their offerings and the murmur of their prayers.

    When Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past – a book for kids – came out in 2008, it was the only publication with that new information, apart from a print-only annual report on excavations that was shelved in a library in Jordan. And that remained true for a couple of years, until the rest of the publishing world caught up.

    Sometimes, all those awkward timelines just work out right.

     

    Website of the Petra National Trust and its list of archaeology projects: http://petranationaltrust.org/UI/showcontent.aspx?ContentId=79

    A guide to Petra as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World: http://www.theworldwonders.com/new-petra.html

    An account by a tourism operator shortly after the 2003 excavations: http://www.diggingsonline.com/pages/rese/arts1/2004/petra.htm

    A story about Petra and celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Europeans’ “rediscovery” of the city (the Bedouins knew it was there all the time): http://www.gadventures.com/blog/200-years-of-discovery-petras-re-discovery-bicentennial/

    “Preserving Petra Sustainably (One Step at a Time)” in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (2013): http://www.psupress.org/Journals/Journal%20PDFs/JEMAHS_mockup_FINAL.pdf

    A rather breathless documentary about Petra from the program, Digging for the Truth – but with some good video and an interview with Dr. Farajat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeKabIpA69A

     

    Claire Eamer  is a BC-based science writer who writes popular science articles and books for both kids and adults, as well as writing and editing major scientific reports for international science-based organizations.

  • 07 Jan 2016 3:32 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    By Sarah Boon

    Despite many excellent examples to the contrary, science communication remains plagued by two overarching stereotypes that seem to pit scientists and communicators against one another:

    1. Scientists often are terrible communicators; and,

    2. Communicators often get the science wrong.


    These perceptions are slowly beginning to change, however, as people realize that scientists and communicators don't live on fundamentally different planets.

    For example, in a recent article for BioScience, Vancouver science writer Lesley Evans Ogden cited research that found that scientists and communicators are generally comfortable with each other’s worldviews - likely because those worldviews are actually more similar than they think. Evans Ogden quotes COMPASS director Nancy Baron, who says: “They’re two sides of the same coin…Journalists want to dive in, dig deep, kick hard, and move on, whereas scientists delve deeper and deeper into their topic…Because science is slow and ongoing, that difference of time frames makes for tension.”

    Another factor in changing the communications’ stereotypes is that scientists are realizing that they must communicate better - and are actually learning how to do it. At the same time, communicators are more easily able to access scientific publications, blogs, and scientists themselves, so are more readily able see and address potential reporting errors.

    With this in mind, scientist-turned-science-communicator Nick Crumpton last month argued that better and more accessible scientific publications are critical given increasingly open access to the scientific literature, and the subsequent need to engage the new audience accessing this literature. In addition, scientists increasingly understand the need to convince people of the relevance of their work – especially in an era of government budget cuts and public mistrust of science. Good communication by scientists is also vital to inform ongoing policy debates around science-related topics such as climate change, vaccination, and GMOs.

    Aware of their reputation as poor communicators – and knowing what’s at stake - many scientists are keen to remedy the situation. Ecologist Stephen Heard attributes the dull and unintelligible nature of scientific writing to three factors: a lack of respect for scientists who write creatively, editors and reviewers squashing creativity in scientific articles, and the fact that it rarely occurs to scientists that their writing could aspire to rise above a strictly fact-based writing standard. He champions improved and more accessible science writing, and is writing a book on that very topic to be released in 2016.

    Understanding their previous failings, scientists are increasingly reaching out publicly through social media and blogging to share their research. While these efforts are largely attempted on an individual basis, scientists are also taking communications training such as that offered through international programs like COMPASS Online and the Leopold Leadership Program, and Canadian programs like the Banff Science Communications program or the University of Toronto’s Fellowship in Global Journalism.

    On the other side of the coin, science communicators increasingly understand the need for rigour in science reporting. In a recent post on the Talk Science To Me, Amanda Maxwell outlined some of the methodological difficulties she faces when determining the quality of the science she’s communicating. “Is the experimental design robust? Are the inferences supported? Does the news come from a genuine source? Am I propagating rubbish?”

    Her post shows not only the difficulty in interpreting science, but the careful attention paid by many communicators to make sure they get it right. Science communicators are turning to tools like the UK’s NHS Behind the Headlines to help them assess scientific studies, Retraction Watch to show which studies have gone off track, and the unfortunately now-defunct Knight Science Journalism Tracker to assess how studies are covered. Science writers can also connect with professional organizations such as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and with media organizations that facilitate fact-checking with scientists – such as science media centres in Canada, the UK and other countries, with one also planned for the US.

    This two-pronged approach (scientists improving their communication skills and communicators improving their reporting skills) has had some great results, from active scientists like Dr. Ray Jayawardhana publishing popular science books, to journalists like Jude Isabella winning awards for their scientific reporting.

    Unfortunately not everyone agrees with this approach. Some feel that science writing should be left to the experts, rather than relying on scientists to bring their communication skills up to snuff.

    For example, editor Iva Cheung suggests that perhaps academic writing should be done by communications professionals - at least in the biomedical sciences. “Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp,” she writes. She also says, however, that “liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.”

    As a scientist and freelance writer for over a decade, I’ve seen the benefits from both sides. Switching between communicating to a scientific versus a general audience isn’t always a smooth process – and I’ve definitely had missteps along the way. However, my communication skills have been invaluable in preparing high quality, readable scientific manuscripts; in teaching students complex concepts in understandable ways; and in preparing conference presentations that clearly engage with existing research while presenting new ideas. As a communicator, my scientific training has been critical in distilling scientific literature to its key components, and ensuring that the focus is on a well-supported story. I’ve also found that science communication has encouraged me to step back from the minutiae of the science itself to gain a broader perspective on the practice and culture of science. This provides excellent context for understanding how various science studies contribute to society – and how scientists themselves view that contribution. I’ve also found that scientists are sometimes more comfortable talking about their research with someone who’s familiar with science and/or academic culture, and can thus converse in a semi-shorthand about scientific methods and results.

    I think that – where possible – it’s more effective for scientists and communicators to meet in the middle and learn from each other, thereby benefitting both fields. As Evans Ogden concludes in her BioScience article, the divide between scientists and communicators isn’t as defined as we may think, and both sides have a lot to gain from each other.

    For more on the relationship between scientists and communicators, see this recent Guardian article.

    Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro

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