Radiation Fallout

Japan may be thousands of kilometers away from the metro Washington D.C.  area, but U.S. scientists are keeping an eye on possible elevation of radiation levels because of the failing Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. 

Already, a radiation laboratory in the U.S. state of Maryland has detected a minute amount of  iodine 131, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear plants.

Mirna Alpivar, who heads the radiation lab, says it’s an extremely small level of iodine 131 that turned up in an air filter at one of the lab’s gamma-ray counters.

The radiation lab, equipped by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of the Food Emergency Response Network, was set up about 30 years ago to conduct what it calls “surge” radiological food testing as needed.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper reports I-131 is the first environmental sample in Maryland that contained any trace of Japan’s nuclear fallout.   In Europe, traces of radioactive iodine have been detected in several countries, including Iceland, Scotland and Spain.

Seawater near the site of the Fukushima nuclear reactors has registered radiation at several million times the legal limit, sparking fears about the dangers of eating fish caught in nearby Pacific waters.  Some fish have already shown higher levels of both I-131 and cesium 137.   The radioactive iodine decays in a matter of weeks, but cesium can stick around for several centuries.

Coffee and Sustainability

Oh, how I look forward to that first cup of coffee in the morning.  Apparently, though, I’m not the only one.  Worldwide, the International Coffee Organization estimates about 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day.   So, while enjoying that cup of joe at a local cafe, do you ever  think about where the coffee comes from and who may have picked the beans that ended up as coffee in your cup?

For most of the coffee growing regions of the world – in Africa, Asia and South America – deforestation is a major ecological problem.   Coffee beans are often grown on a farm stripped bare of other flora.  It’s hot, it’s dry and it requires a lot of pesticides according to Marc Monsarrat of the Rainforest Alliance.  He says around thirty or so years ago, farmers were encouraged to start growing coffee in the sun – not its natural habitat.

“This has been taken across the full spectrum to the point where people are only growing coffee under the sun and some parts of Kenya are like this, where you have plantations that have absolutely no shade at all.  It’s very, very hot.  The ground is scorched bare.”

That’s why the Rainforest Alliance works to certify sustainable coffee, among other products like tea and cocoa.  In addition to trying to protect the environment, the Rainforest Alliance says it also tries to help improve the livelihoods of the people who grow, pick and dry the beans.

That’s important to Maryland coffee roaster, Martin Mayorga, who buys some of his beans from Rainforest Alliance certified farms or cooperatives.  Mayorga grew up in Latin America and says he saw firsthand some of the inequalities of the coffee industry when he got into the business to help a family friend.

“[I] Felt an obligation to go back and do something that makes some kind of a difference.  I never expected it to be anything more than me going down there and trying to buy coffee and make them an extra few pennies a pound.”

Sustainability and improved livelihoods, says Mayorga, shows up in the quality of the cup.

“When you look at a really high quality coffee, it’s typically high elevation, shade grown, hand-picked, hand sorted.  To get to that quality requires ultimately a lot of things that are good for the environment, good for the community, and good for the workers.  If you’re not paying a worker well, he or she’s not always going to pick the best coffee. ”

Whether a coffee worker picks the best coffee or not may also depend on where those beans eventually get sold.  Sustainable agricultural products, like everything else, are dependent on demand.  So the Rainforest Alliance’s Monsarrat would like consumers to understand exactly what they’re buying.

“Consumers can really have a strong impact on how the coffee is produced by just choosing one brand over another, by choosing the Rainforest Alliance certified brand over another.  Because that directly translates all the way down through the supply chain to more sustainable practices on farms.”

Coffee exports, according to the International Coffee Organization, total up to more than 98-million bags at 60 kilograms each.  That’s a lot of coffee.  More and more of it is coming from Rainforest Alliance certified farms.  To date, they’ve  certified more than 90-thousand farms for what they say is environmental, social and economic sustainability.

The Return of the Monarch Butterfly

Butterflies are one of the few insects that most humans actually like to see.  Some even like seeing them in their gardens so much so that they plant special flowering bushes to attract them.  So, here’s a bit of good news for butterfly enthusiasts.

Monarch butterflies spent the winter in Mexico’s Michoacán pine forests in larger numbers this past winter.  An insect ecologist at the University of Kansas says Monarchs wintering in Mexico in  the 2009/2010 winter was at an all-time low.  But  Live Science reports that favorable conditions saw much larger numbers return for the 2010/2011 winter.    That means, hopefully, we’ll see more of the colorful creatures in their migration north to the United States and Canada.

FYI…this picture is from the Smithsonian website of the National Museum of Natural History, which has a live exhibit of butterflies.

Insult to Injury in Japan

Japan is now in crisis mode, as if the massive tsunami wasn’t enough.  Thousands of people are still missing with more than 5300 reported dead.  And, another 200,000 people have been evacuated from a 20-kilometer radius around the earthquake damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.  The United States has urged Americans living close to the plant to evacuate even farther away – at least 80 kilometers.

Hollywood couldn’t have written a script more riveting or tragic.  There’s also much confusion as to how close the nuclear plant is to a complete meltdown at one or more of its four reactors.  Meanwhile, Japan disagrees with a U.S. official’s estimation that the pool surrounding unit four had lost most of its water and that there is a crack at unit three, which could also lead to a loss of water.  If the situation worsens, this could indeed be catastrophic.

Japan Nuclear Reactor

ABC News has a report on Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s comments to Congress.

Does Not Look Good for Japan…or Nuclear Power

Radiation has been released at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant – with some U.S. helicopter crewmen aiding the Japanese relief effort exposed to radiation.  After being scrubbed down, officials declared them contamination free.  Phew.

The Telegraph newspaper in London has more on the story.

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

It should be noted, however, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory commission, Gregory Jaczko,  says U.S. nuclear facilities are safe.  The New York Times quotes him as saying U.S. reactors are designed to withstand “the most severe natural phenomena historically reported.”

Because of the potential meltdown in Japan, some in Congress would like to stop or at least retard the licensing process for more nuclear power plants in the United States.

Cold Snap or Oil Spill?

The recent deaths of dozens of newborn bottlenose dolphins along the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Mississippi raises questions over the continued impact of last year’s massive BP oil spill off the Louisiana Coast.  Marine scientists are divided into basically two camps – those that believe the oil and chemicals used to disperse the spill are to blame for the unusually high dolphin death rate, and those that believe two untimely cold snaps in the Gulf waters are responsible.

Scientists at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama fall into the latter category.  Although he doesn’t completely discount toxicity in the water as a factor, Monty Graham, a senior scientist at t he Dauphin Island lab is quoted by Reuters news agency as saying, “the cold weather could  have been the last straw for these animals.”

Photo: NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Whether cold weather is the culprit or not, marine scientists, fishermen, offshore oil workers and others who live and work along the Gulf Coast are in disagreement about the long-term effects of last year’s oil spill.  As someone who grew up in south Louisiana, the quandary of the debate hits home.  Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama desperately need the jobs that the oil industry provides.  Yet, I can’t imagine the coast of Louisiana, the marshy waterways and hauntingly beautiful moss-laden cypresses deadened by an underwater oil slick that many insist is still there.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall

April 20th will mark the one-year anniversary date of the BP explosion and oil spill off  the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Look for an update on the status of the oil spill soon!

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Tamargo

Biofuels – Not Just for Corn Anymore

One of the more valid criticisms against corn-based ethanol is that it takes food off the table and puts it into cars, thus driving up food prices and reallocating valuable agricultural resources for non-food production.  But corn is not the only product that can be made into ethanol.  Sugar cane is also used, especially in Brazil, which has built a pretty successful model in the production of ethanol from sugar cane.  Still, sugar cane is an important food crop.  So, making fuel from it takes away from some of  its other uses – such as being processed into granulated sugar, an important ingredient in some of my favorite things like cake!

Algae, though, is not an ingredient in anything I like to eat.  Others may disagree.  But I believe I’m in the majority here.  Algae can be a biofuel and it doesn’t take anything out of the all-important food pyramid.

I have to take a moment to marvel at modern technology and the spark of brilliance that created fuel from that icky stuff on top of ponds.  The U.S. Navy is already using algae-based biofuel to power some of its jets.  That is pretty impressive.  I spoke to Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, earlier about his push to cut the Navy’s use of fossil fuels in half.