Friday, 4 April 2014

Air Pollution - A National Failure

'The UK faces fines of up to £300m a year and embarrassing court appearances after the European commission launched legal proceedings against it for failing to reduce "excessive" levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution from traffic, despite 15 years of warnings and several extensions and postponements granted to the government', stated the opening paragraph of a recent Guardian article on the UK's poor record on air pollution.

Since the 'Great Smog' of London claimed over 4000 lives back in 1952, regulations have been tightened ever since. But today's pollution is different from the smoke induced smog's of the past, which resulted from the burning of coal - the predominant fuel back then. 

In this article I'll examine the types of air pollution that typically affects a country such as the UK and what's being done to improve it and what the health affects are. The current regulatory framework will also be considered.

The EU legal action stems from a Supreme Court ruling that the UK is in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive and “the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level”.

So what are the effects of NO2 on health and what is the source of 
NO2 and other pollutants? The EU lists the following urban air pollutants:
Exposure times can vary for different pollutants. This is reflected in the Average period.
*Member state can apply for 5 year extension.
**Specific extension criteria available at discretion of EU Commission.
***New standard.
The Air Quality Directive (Directive 2008/50/EC ) was adopted in 2008 and came into force in 2010. But as noted above states can apply for an extension. The problem with the UK is that it has failed to take steps to implement the Directive, hence the legal action.

I'm not going to delve into the specifics of the Directive here (see below). But the first two paragraphs set the scene:
  1. The Sixth Community Environment Action Programme adopted by Decision No 1600/2002/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 July 2002 establishes the need to reduce pollution to levels which minimise harmful effects on human health, paying particular attention to sensitive populations, and the environment as a whole, to improve the monitoring and assessment of air quality including the deposition of pollutants and to provide information to the public.

  2. In order to protect human health and the environment as a whole, it is particularly important to combat emissions of pollutants at source and to identify and implement the most effective emission reduction measures at local, national and Community level. Therefore, emissions of harmful air pollutants should be avoided, prevented or reduced and appropriate objectives set for ambient air quality taking into account relevant World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, guidelines and programmes.
The next step in the legislative process is for member states to implement domestic legislation. In England The Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010 came into force, with equivalent regulations established by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

As the EU Directive has stated, the international regulatory framework is based on WHO standards and guidelines. It is this source that I will focus my analysis on.

Although the main emphasis of this article will be on the UK, the WHO guidelines apply on a global extent. 

The key pollutants
There are two types of air pollution; Primary (emitted direct into the atmosphere) and Secondary (formed within the atmosphere). Primary air pollutants include sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and carbonaceous and noncarbonaceous primary particles.  Secondary air pollutants arise from chemical reactions of primary pollutants in the atmosphere, often involving natural components of the environment such as oxygen and water. Secondary pollutants include ozone, oxides of nitrogen and secondary PM.

PM10,PM2.5, and ultrafine particles (PM1 or less) are typically measured within the atmosphere and monitored. The following diagram shows the size range of airborne particles (WHO):
Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are prevalent in high concentrations in urban areas - especially during busy periods. These are formed during high temperature combustion. From a human health perspective nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is of concern. This is formed via a reaction of nitric oxide (NO) with ozone (O3): 
NO + O3 → NO2 + O2.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is formed from the incomplete combustion of petrol. Full combustion would generate CO2.

The WHO report sums up the issues: 'Emissions from road vehicles are typically thought of in terms of the exhaust, though this is only part of the story (see below). Combustion of petrol or diesel fuel leads to the production of exhaust gas containing a range of potentially harmful pollutants. In many modern vehicles this passes through a control device, such as a three-way catalytic converter, before emission to the atmosphere. Pollutants emitted from the combustion of petrol or diesel fuels typically include carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, VOC and suspended particles. Some countries still use lead additives in petrol and this generates an important air pollutant emission.

Exhaust emission standards are set as limits in grams per kilometre or grams per mile of pollutant emitted over a standard driving cycle...

'While exhaust emissions are often the most important emissions from a vehicle, they are far from being the only ones. Evaporative fuel emissions can also be important, especially from petrol vehicles, and these are measured and included in inventories of emissions. Far more difficult to account for, however, are the
other non-exhaust emissions of PM from road vehicles that arise from sources such as the wear of brake components and tyres and the attrition of the road surface itself. Crude estimates have been made of the magnitude of these sources, which are included in many emissions inventories. However, road vehicles also cause the emission of particles by suspending particles from the road surface into the air, either through the turbulence in the wake of the vehicle or by the shear forces between the tyre and the road surface. These are far more difficult to account for and are not widely included in emissions inventories'.

Emissions inventories are compiled by countries from air pollution data that has been measured and collected from relevant sources. WHO explains the general process: 'In the case of road vehicles, the vehicle fleet will need to be subdivided according to the type of vehicle, the fuel it uses, and its age or any abatement technology fitted. Emission factors are developed specifically for each of these elements. In conducting calculations for an inventory, it will be necessary not only to know the type of vehicle in each category but also the annual mileage of that type of vehicle or the proportion of the total mileage that it represents on a given road link. Inventories are becoming increasingly sophisticated in disaggregating vehicles according to their age and mileage, and also in allowing for high-emission vehicles with faulty abatement devices. It is not feasible to take data directly from type approval testing and assume that a vehicle that has been operating for, say, 100 000 km produces the same emissions as a new vehicle on a dynamometer test. Test cycles, although aiming to reflect the real world, do not always do so very well'.

Receptor modelling is another method of analysing air quality. 'This method uses the measurements of air quality itself, often in combination with simultaneously measured meteorological data, to recognize and quantify the contributions of specific characteristic source types to air pollutant concentrations. In the case of PM, multi-component chemical analyses of consecutively collected air samples allow recognition of components that co-vary in time and therefore have the same source. Typically some 6–10 individual source types can be identified through their chemical profiles'.

Exposure to air pollution
WHO defines exposure as 'the event when a person comes into contact with a pollutant of a certain concentration during a certain period of time'. This follows a distinct pollution pathway: 
Source → Emissions → Concentrations → Exposure → Dose → Health effects.

Exposure also depends on location. Pollution can form in micro-environments, which may not be picked up by a stationary air monitor. So levels of exposure can vary depending on the place and time and how long the exposure lasts for. The effects of the later will depend on the pollutant and the health effect under consideration.

It should be particularly noted that exposure levels can be much higher in vehicles. For example, 'in a study of taxi drivers in Paris, the average nitric oxide concentration in the taxi was more than 11 times higher than at a city background measuring site, whereas the level of nitrogen dioxide was only twice as high. Black smoke concentrations (8-hour average) in taxis were on average almost four times higher than those at a city background site. In general, cyclists and pedestrians tend to be somewhat less exposed than people in buses and cars, although this difference can be offset by longer journey times. In addition, increased breathing rates while bicycling and walking may mean that larger volumes of pollutants are inhaled'. 

PM exposure tends to be lower indoors because of the physical barriers to the outside.

There are several ways to determine pollution levels and exposure. Effectiveness and accuracy can vary. The following table summarises the approaches to exposure assessment:
The use of personal air monitors can offer a more representative estimate of individual exposure to pollutants.

Historical monitoring of individuals and/or sites may reveal a pattern of pollution levels and exposure and might be useful in determining disease patterns related to exposure to air pollution. It is therefore important that policy makers respond accordingly to air pollution data. The following table details possibilities for policy action in relation to indoor and outdoor sources and personal activity:
It is incumbent on policy makers to establish air quality standards that take account of potential impacts on public health and the environment. However WHO notes that 'For most air pollutants, no “safe” levels have been found whereby no health effects are observed following exposure. In fact, for many pollutants, adverse effects have been associated with low, almost background levels of exposure. Since the process of setting air quality guidelines and standards aims at defining levels that do not pose adverse effects on health, how can such levels be determined when the scientific evidence indicates that no thresholds exist?'. In other words it boils down to risk assessment and what should be regarded as an 'acceptable' range of standards. Here in the UK that is determined by the EU.

WHO observes that 'Public opinion can be an important factor in influencing decisions, as the political capability of decision-makers is directly proportional to the interests and concerns of their constituents. Research has found that resources will often be directed to where the public perceives risks to be large, whether or not they represent the most serious hazards to society. When people understand the importance of air quality, they can demand action and be more receptive in complying with control measures. It is therefore in the interest of environmental and health authorities to ensure that the public is informed and educated about air pollution levels, sources, health impacts and possible solutions.

Maintaining an active communication strategy throughout the whole air quality management process may also help prevent crises, conciliate interests, provide advance notice for the implementation of control measures and inform stakeholders on compliance status. For these reasons, the development of communications tools that are understandable and accessible to the public is an important part of air quality management'. So the message is - if policy makers aren't getting it then its time to put the pressure on. 

I'll now examine how the UK is implementing air pollution policy within the context of the WHO report and the EU Framework.

The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) website offers guidance and links to air pollution monitoring. As part of this process, DEFRA along with the devolved administrations use air quality projections. These are models that attempt to predict future patterns of air quality. These comprise of background maps up to the year 2030. The maps consist of Excel datasets and can be referenced to any local authority in the UK.

The Community Multi-scale Air Quality (CMAQ) modeling system is used to forecast daily projections of air pollution. It was developed by the U.S. EPA Atmospheric Science Modelling Division. Other models are used, which are defined on the DEFRA website.
Other useful sites include:
The Health Effects of Air Pollutants
The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) is an expert Committee that provides advice to government departments and agencies, via the Department of Health's Chief Medical Officer, on all matters concerning the effects of air pollutants on health.

They have produced several publications in recent years on air pollution and health. Cardiovascular Disease and Air Pollution is an important paper published in 2006, which I'll go through briefly here. Its worth noting that there is a lot of medical based information and data detailed within the report.

In defining cardiovascular disease (CD) the report states that it 'includes all diseases of the heart and blood vessels including stroke. It accounts for 40% of deaths in the United Kingdom and a large proportion of hospital admissions.

'The most common [form] coronary artery disease (CAD), also known as ischaemic or atherosclerotic heart disease. Coronary artery disease is the most frequent single cause of death in the UK and is caused by atheromatous plaques occurring in the walls of the coronary arteries, the arteries which supply blood to the heart. These plaques appear first in young people and are widely distributed in the large and medium sized arteries of the body. The occurrence of plaques in the coronary arteries is particularly important as growth of these lesions can lead to progressive narrowing and eventually obstruction of the vessels in some cases. In addition, the plaques may rupture or fissure leaving an ulcer in the wall of the artery on which a thrombus (blood clot) forms. This may lead to complete blockage of the artery (coronary thrombosis or heart attack)'.

The report followed two research criteria:
  • A time-series approach, 'investigates whether air pollution is accompanied by short term changes in the incidence of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks. This method generally uses available data on daily counts of deaths or hospital admissions and relates these to ambient concentrations of air pollution on the same or previous days, measured by monitors situated in the study area – usually a city. Evidence from a large number of time-series studies show very clearly that, with few exceptions, all of the commonly measured pollutants (particles, ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide) are positively associated with increased mortality and hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease.
  • 'Compar[ing] the incidence of cardiovascular diseases between populations with different long-term exposures to pollution. These studies usually follow groups of subjects (cohorts) for a number of years and provide important information about the amount of life lost due to air pollution. Because large numbers of subjects are required and because the cohorts must be followed up for a number of years, few cohort studies have been done. The evidence from two American studies suggests that cardiovascular deaths are increased by living in areas with higher levels of particulate air pollution. This effect seems to be modified by socio-demographic and regional factors'.
Here I'll present a brief summary of the mechanisms involved after a subject is exposed to air pollution. The following diagram outlines the toxicological process:
The above diagram considers two mechanisms that may contribute to CD. The report explains each in more detail:
  • Inhaled particles, especially very small particles, may set up inflammation in the lung and that this can trigger changes in the control of blood clotting. It is also suggested that changes in chemical factors in the blood can affect the stability of the fatty deposits (atheromatous plaques) found in the walls of arteries in many people – especially those in the walls of the arteries which supply blood to the muscle of the heart itself. If this is true then a link between inhalation of particles and the likelihood of, for example, heart attacks will have been established.
  • The inhalation of particles and perhaps some pollutant gases may trigger a reflex that leads to a subtle change in the rhythm of the heart. The triggering of a reflex begins when some stimulus is detected by a receptor, a message is sent along nerves to the spinal cord or brain and a response follows. Well known reflexes include the production of saliva on smelling appetising food and the forward kick of the leg when the tendon below the knee-cap is tapped smartly. Coughing is also a reflex: in this case the receptors are in the airways and the trigger is an irritant: perhaps a crumb of food. Air pollutants may stimulate receptors in the airways and though coughing may not be produced, reflex changes in the rhythm of the heart may occur. Such changes may lead to the heart being more susceptible to dangerous changes in rhythm: such changes can cause sudden death. Evidence for and against this theory is also presented in this chapter. Interestingly, this hypothesis links with the one above: inflammation may be involved in the early stages of both.
The above is a very brief summary of the mechanisms involved in CD. There are other health effect related to air pollution including asthma and other respiratory diseases. To engage with the overall topic in greater depth would require two separate posts. But I hope I've covered the necessary ground in this article. If I've missed anything, do let me know!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The jet stream is changing

I'm sure wherever you are in the world, you're probably thinking the weather has been going crazy lately. In the northern hemisphere in particular we have been enduring some very unusal weather. 

Here in the UK, we've been battered by one storm after another almost relentlessly since December, whilst in North America, Siberia arrived.

The one thing that stands out - certainly here in the UK - is the total lack of preparedness. In part that's due to the remarkably nonchalant inclination to build on flood plains without due consideration to the blatantly obvious fact that flood plains actually flood! With climate change heralding even worse flooding of the sort we're witnessing now it would appear that the current Government has been caught with its pants down.

But there's more. The Guardian reports that 'The money spent on preparing the UK for the impacts of global warming has almost halved since the environment secretary, Owen Paterson – widely regarded as a climate change sceptic – took office. Critics called the cuts "shocking" and "complacent".

Figures released under freedom of information rules show annual spending falling from £29.1m in 2012-13 to £17.2m in 2013-14. The drop in funding follows a previous slashing of staff working on the issue from 38 to six in May 2013'.

Paterson has always been blasé about climate change, so he must have been surprised when he found his boss recently saying 'Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that [the floods] is linked to climate change or not. I very much suspect that it is'.

But as the crisis verges on the catastrophic, the Government has been found wanting. It has been exposed for what it is - anti-environment, negligent and effectively hopeless. An article from a world to win sums up the sentiment nicely: 'The current weather crisis has shown up the illegitimacy of politicians in charge of a system that is unable and unwilling to act for the common good. They greatly fear this exposure – it's the reason for the tide of government rhetoric about "money no object" and promises of future help.

In 2010, government chief scientist Sir David King warned of the need to plan for increased floods resulting from climate change. He proposed pulling flood defences inland, sacrificing some areas to the sea, establishing flood plains at the heads of rivers, modernising weirs, widening bridges and replacing sewers to separate sewage and floodwater.

This is the current policy of the Environment Agency and it has a backlog of hundreds of measures based on this approach. It can't complete them because of cuts and a Treasury rule that they can't invest more than £400,000 in any one project. The government's fantasy was that business and the insurance industry would step up as co-funders. As a result, of course, nothing happened'.

The fact that nothing has happened is a sad reflection on the fact that over 25 years of warnings have been totally ignored and that political ideology is paramount to science. Indeed the script was written in 1987 with the release of the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. This document formed the foundation for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, 1992 (the Earth Summit). This led to the formation of The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). And since then the UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties have been taking place on a regular basis. It led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but since then nothing concrete has emerged from negotiations.

Now, nearly 30 years after a common future, it appears that we have stepped backwards rather than forwards. We are now witnessing the sort of extreme weather that we have been waiting for, for the past 25 years or so.     
So how are the floods and the other weather events around the globe linked to climate change?

The answer lies in the melting Arctic sea ice and its effects on the jet stream. Although the science behind this is relatively cutting edge is does offer insights into the extreme weather we are witnessing.

The following excellent video looks at recent extreme weather events and features Prof. Jennifer Francis from Rutger University, Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences: 
To give a brief explanation of the phenomonon, essentially the jet steam is a current of air that marks the boundary between warm air masses to the south and cold air from the north. The confluence of these air masses coupled with the spin of the Earth drives a river of air around the globe. There is a southern equivalent. The spin of the Earth creates a force known as the Coriolis effect, which causes winds to deflect to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere. This is why the wind-flow around low and high-pressure systems circulates in opposing directions in each hemisphere.

Typically the temperature gradient between north and south of the jet stream is considerable. However to due accelerated warming in the Arctic, the gradient has been diminishing causing the jet stream to slow down. This causes the jet stream to meander. In so doing it forms ridges and troughs.

One of the effects of a slow meandering jet stream is a tendency for weather patterns to get stuck in a rut. This means that a pattern of weather may persist for a number of months. This is precisely what has been happening over the UK during the past couple of months.

However due to the high temperature gradient over North America, the jet stream has accelerated over the Atlantic, increasing the severity of the storm systems heading towards the UK. This can make the dynamics of the jet stream difficult to predict. Depending on location it can speed up, slow down or disappear altogether. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an excellent introductory article on the topic.

Within the jet stream there are ribbons of accelerated winds called jet streaks. These tend to form the boundary's of low pressure zones. The winds leaving the jet streak are rapidly diverging, creating a lower pressure at the upper level (tropopause) in the atmosphere. The air below rapidly replaces the upper outflowing winds. This in turn creates the low pressure at the surface. This surface low pressure creates conditions where the surrounding surface winds rush inwards. The Coriolis effect creates the cyclonic rotation that is associated with depressions. The strongest surface winds in any developing depression are normally seen at the left exit point of the jet streak, where the jet streak is strongest:
The black oval indicates a jet streak, the purple square indicates entry winds into the jet streak and black box indicates rapidly diverging exit winds (Source,

In The Big Chill, I detailed the wider dynamics of atmospheric change in the Arctic relative to circulation patterns elsewhere around the globe. The following diagram from the NOAA article simplifies the circulation patterns that are present reletive to the northern hemisphere:
It's the Polar Jet that affects our weather.  According to the IPCC AR5 Working Group 1 report, there is evidence of a polar shift in the jet stream with a likely intensification of North Atlantic storm systems. In addition, blocking activity is more frequent at the exit zones of the jet stream and shows appreciable seasonal variability in both hemispheres, reaching a maximum in winter - spring and a minimum in summer - autumn. Blocking is caused by persistent areas of high pressure. There is also evidence that there may be links with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and other global oscillations. 

At the time of writing, the UK Met Office has just released a new report The Recent Storms and Floods in the UK. The report examines the statistics and evidence of the recent flooding events. It then considers the Global context of weather patterns and whether climate change is a contributing factor.

One of the key issues pointed out in the report is the combined vulnerability of the south of England to sea level rise caused by global warming and isostatic adjustment, i.e. 'the rise of land masses that were depressed by the weight of ice during the last glacial maximum. For the UK this is seen in increasing land heights over Scotland and northern England and falling land heights (sinking) over southern regions'.

The report notes that 'UK rainfall is increasing in intensity. This increase in the frequency/intensity of extreme daily rainfall events, as the planet warms and the atmosphere can hold more water, has been discussed in the literature for a number of years, and robust evidence for this is increasingly seen around the world.'

Climate models form a vital role in determining climate change attribution - the science of determining the causes of unusual climate trends and climate-related events. Models are becoming increasingly powerful and more reliable. The current climate model used by the Met Office is the HadGEM3. A modified version of Met Office climate models have been used successfully in a project designed for PC use

How does this all fit in with global patterns? Well, the report covers the issues already noted above with regards to the unusual jet stream patterns being observed and the impacts of this here in the UK and elsewhere. It links the storms in the UK with the exceptionally cold weather in North America: 'These extreme weather events on both sides of the Atlantic were embedded in a persistent pattern of perturbations to the upper tropospheric jet stream. The climatological distribution of the winter jet streams shows the well-known Asian-Pacific jet stream, which extends across North Africa and out into the North West Pacific, close to Japan. A second jet stream forms over the US, extending in a north-easterly direction across the North Atlantic towards the UK. The North Atlantic jet stream acts to steer weather systems towards the UK, but there also exists a symbiotic relationship between the jet stream and the depressions that form on its flanks. The jet stream provides the atmospheric conditions that are favourable for cyclogenesis (the formation of depressions), but it also depends on the momentum from the depressions to maintain its own strength. So it is possible on occasions to observe a strengthening of the jet stream when there is a particularly active sequence of depressions, as was the case in December 2013 and January 2014. 

During December and January 2013/14 the pattern of winds over the North East Pacific and North America was very disturbed. The North Pacific jet was deflected a long way north, with a secondary branch extending southwards into the tropical Pacific accentuating the separation of the Pacific and Atlantic jet streams. The effects of this over North America and into the North Atlantic were profound. The deflection of the jet to the north led to colder air being carried south over Canada and the northern US to enter the North Atlantic jet and establish a stronger than normal temperature gradient at the entrance of the North Atlantic Jet. This acted to strengthen the jet and provide the conditions for active cyclogenesis, which in turn led to a sequence of strong storms across the UK throughout December and January'. 

Certain weather patterns tend to be associated with ENSO events. However the report points out that 'neither El Nino nor La Nina were active, with temperatures in the equatorial East Pacific Ocean being close to normal. The West Pacific remains anomalously warm, as it has done for much of the past decade. Elsewhere in the Pacific the patterns of sea surface temperature anomalies still display elements of the negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) that has contributed to the recent pause in global surface warming. Likewise the very warm waters in the North Pacific are a result of the systematic weakening of the Aleutian Low during the last decade, driven by the negative phase of the PDO'. 

The higher temperatures in the West Pacific have caused higher than normal rainfall in the region. These anomalies appear to be feeding into the wider climate system as 'the ‘buckling’ of the jet stream over the Pacific and North America became much more pronounced during January 2014, as the precipitation anomaly over Indonesia and the West Pacific strengthened. A notable feature of this anomalous area of tropical precipitation is its northwards extent into the winter hemisphere where it is able to interact with the North Pacific jet and generate Rossby waves that propagate along the jet and act to reinforce the huge meander of the jet stream off the west coast of North America. At the same time, Rossby waves propagate along the southern branch of the jet stream and enter the tropical East Pacific through the westerly duct, creating weather disturbances that can then get caught up in the entrance region of the Atlantic jet stream'. Rossby waves describe the large scale meanders in the jet stream, and are due to the variation in the Coriolis force as air moves north and south. They are fundamental to understanding the global circulation and its natural variability. It has been known for some time that variations in tropical heating associated with anomalous rainfall acts as a source of Rossby waves. Furthermore, theory says that Rossby waves can only propagate where the ambient flow is westerly. It seems that Rossby wave patterns are a crucial influence in the weather patterns that have unfolded this winter.

In addition to terrestrial weather influences, new research is revealing stratospheric influences on weather. The report states that 'westerly winter winds in the polar night jet stream were very strong during December and January. The polar night jet exceeded twice its normal strength at times during the winter, reaching speeds in excess of 100ms-1 in the upper stratosphere. A strengthening of the polar night jet often precedes periods of a strong Atlantic jet stream below and a positive North Atlantic Oscillation pattern, as was seen during the whole December to January period and consistent with the increased winter storminess this year.

Although internal fluctuations in the strength of the polar night jet cannot be excluded, there has also been an external factor in the current winter, again in the tropics, that has helped to precondition the system for a strong polar night jet. In the tropical stratosphere the winds circulate around the globe from west to east in some years and from east to west in others. This cycling of the tropical winds occurs roughly every two years - hence its name, the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation (QBO). Although it may seem remote from the North Atlantic, historical records show that when the QBO winds are westerly, this increases the chance of the positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation and a strong jet stream. The QBO has been in an unusually strong westerly phase throughout this winter, and this factor was cited in the Met Office October long-range outlook for the November to January period, which pointed out the risk of increased storminess in early winter this year'.

The Polar night jet is a river of strong winds that form around the polar vortex in the upper atmosphere, due to the strong thermal gradient created by the large cooling over the pole during the polar night. As such, it is only present during winter. With respect to the recent cold spell in North America, the jet stream formed a trough which flowed around the southern US before turning north again. This caused frigid air from the Arctic to move south. This was due to a stronger than normal Polar vortex. This caused 'the increased winds in the polar night jet; the structure of the vortex has also been stretched with the core of the vortex extending southwards over Canada. The extent to which this temporary deformation of the polar vortex played a role in the recent extreme cold temperatures over North America is unclear at present. In terms of the UK weather, the stronger than normal polar vortex throughout the winter is an indication of a less variable and colder stratosphere than normal and a strong polar night jet. This predisposes the circulation towards the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation with more stormy weather conditions over the North Atlantic'. Combined with continental cooling the result was Siberian like conditions. The following diagram shows the phenomenon:
Further research on this topic by Jennifer Francis, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. Although scientists are not totally committing to saying that climate change is the definite cause of recent weather anomalies, they do however fit the pattern. What ever way you look at it the evidence is pointing towards climate change and it is highly likely that challenging weather patterns in the future will become the 'new normal'. 

If you want to monitor atmospheric air currents yourself, the picture at the top of the page is a snapshot of a real time interactive earth-wind map. The background to the project can be found here.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Monsanto shareholders meeting - calls for GMO labelling

Today 28th January 2014, Monsanto HQ in St Louis Missouri held its annual shareholder meeting. In a change to normal procedure the event was audio streamed following an agreement with activists. One of the key demands being made by anti GMO groups present at the event was for Monsanto to agree to GMO labelling. A motion was therefore tabled by a shareholder representing Food Democracy Now. In a change to the normal format on this blog, I'm reproducing a letter to shareholders drafted by FDN Executive Director, Dave Murphy.

Although US based, its well worth signing up for email alerts from FDN. So without further ado I'll take a back seat and hand over to Mr Murphy and his excellent script!

An Open Letter to Monsanto Shareholders:

Hi, Mr. Grant, Monsanto Shareholders, I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here today. My name is Dave Murphy, I am the founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots movement of more than 650,000 farmers and citizens dedicated to reforming food and agriculture.

I am here today as the proxy on behalf of Monsanto shareholder Adam Eidinger, who is outside right now exercising his right of civil disobedience against the current policies of Monsanto. Mr. Eidinger has submitted a proposal to the board of directors calling for Monsanto shareholders to support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

I have spent my life growing up in a small town in northern Iowa. I know the importance of agriculture and I know many farmers who plant Monsanto’s seeds and other farmers who sell them. These are good people, but even they distrust this company because of its heavy-handed practices against family farmers and Monsanto’s known reputation for bending our nation’s laws and regulatory policy to their will.

I had the honor to serve as the co-chair of Prop 37 in California and helped write and pass GMO labeling bills in Connecticut and Maine. More importantly, in 2007, while on the campaign trail in Iowa, I convinced Barack Obama’s campaign that labeling of genetically engineered foods was a reasonable and common sense idea and I later videotaped it when he made that pledge in front of an audience of 400 Iowa farmers and rural residents, a promise for which he received a resounding applause, even from farmers who plant Monsanto’s seeds.

The fact is, even many of America’s farmers who plant these seeds recognize that as citizens in a democracy, individuals and mothers have the basic right to know what they’re eating and feeding their family.

Right now more than 26 states have introduced GMO labeling bills in states across the country. In the past two years alone, Monsanto has spent more than $13.4 million to defeat GMO labeling efforts in California and Washington state.

Lack of transparency is not good for free markets or a democracy. In a free market, consumers need basic information to make informed decisions, and denying simple labels means Monsanto is not an honest player in America’s market and millions of Americans are coming to realize this fact.

Already Monsanto labels their products in 64 other countries around the world. Why not America?

At this moment, citizens in all of Europe, India, South Africa, Russia and China enjoy the right to know what’s in their food. Monsanto tells Americans we don’t deserve that right.

Even citizens in Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant’s homeland of Scotland, his family can buy foods with a simple GMO label so they can eat those foods containing Monsanto’s patented genes to their hearts content.

But today, Mr. Grant and the board of directors is going to ask that its company’s shareholders vote NO, against GMO labeling. I say that’s an outrage and a vote against the future of this company and the future of our democracy.

I want to fill you in on one of Monsanto’s dirty little secrets. I hear they have a few, but today I want to focus on labeling.

While Scotland born Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s CEO today says that as Americans we don’t have a right to know what’s in their food, Monsanto is on record supporting GMO labeling.

Monsanto’s GMO Labeling Flip Flop: Monsanto was for GMO Labeling Before They We’re Against It!

In a 1998 interview Monsanto's then-CEO Robert Shapiro, stated unequivocally (in answer to a question about the labeling of genetically engineered foods) that:

"One can make a reasonable argument that consumers and citizens have a right to know anything they wish to know. It is they who are choosing these products and it is they who are choosing and judging their governments. So it is almost impossible to make a case that information should be withheld from consumers.... consumers, in my view [have an] unquestioned, right to know anything they wish to know about the products they consume.... it is not my role, or Monsanto's role, to decide these things. It is society's role to decide those questions after appropriate debate"

To the question "So you are open to labeling being introduced then?"

Shapiro answered: "Yes. Of course".

In addition, in 1998 Monsanto ran ads in Britain, promoting their support for GMO labeling. Why are they opposed now?

"Recently you may have noticed a label appearing on some of the food in your supermarket. This is to inform you about the use of biotechnology in food. Monsanto fully supports UK food manufacturers and retailers in their introduction of these labels. We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase".

Unfortunately, while Monsanto supports GMO labeling in Scotland and the United Kingdom, here in the United States of America, Monsanto’s executives have manipulated the rules and regulations to deny us that right.

Current FDA GMO Labeling Policy Based on Politics, Not Science.

Current FDA policy denies Americans the right to know what’s in their food due to the 1992 FDA draft guidance regulating biotechnology. The FDA’s current draft guidance is a scientific fraud that states that genetically engineered foods are “substantially equivalent” to those that have been bred and raised by farmers for thousands of years. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This current policy was announced by Vice President Dan Quayle, as part of the President’s Council on Competitiveness, designed to give the illusion of regulation, while allowing the new technology of genetic engineering to proceed to the market without proper safety testing.

The policy was crafted by Michael Taylor, a Monsanto lawyer who was rotated into the FDA by the first Bush administration to fill the newly created position of deputy commissioner of policy. Taylor’s tenure at the FDA and his role in crafting the 1992 FDA draft guidance has been extremely controversial, since the policy is widely seen as a politically engineered loophole designed for Monsanto’s convenience.

In an ironic twist, the Obama administration appointed Michael Taylor as the deputy commissioner of foods in 2009, where he now oversees food safety policy for the federal government. So once again Michael Taylor and Monsanto hold the power to work in favor of strong mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Unfortunately, for the growing movement of mothers, fathers, farmers and everyday citizens working to win this right, the more we learn, the more we lose faith with the basic institutions that were set up to protect our health and our democratic rights.

Wide Disagreement Among FDA Scientists Silenced in the 1990s while Monsanto and political appointees in the Bush administration tried to pretend that genetic engineering was entirely safe, and there was no material difference between GMOs and traditional crops, the FDA’s own scientists disagreed significantly.

From the start, the policy of "substantial equivalence" had many critics. The concerns by the FDA's own scientists were summed up in a memo by FDA compliance officer Dr. Linda Kahl, who protested the idea, stating, "The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks."

Confirming these concerns over risk of the new technology was Dr. Louis Pribyl of the FDA’s Microbiology Division, who wrote: “There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering, which is just glanced over in this document…Multiple copies inserted at one site could become potential site for rearrangements, especially if used in future gene transfer experiments, and as such may be more hazardous.”

Even more concerning, internal FDA documents obtained by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity during a 1998 lawsuit against the agency reveal that the FDA’s Biotechnology Coordinator, James Maryanski knew full well the potential risks but chose to override them.

In a November 1, 1991 memo to Mayanski titled “Points to Consider for Safety Evaluation of Genetically Modified Foods. Supplemental Information”, the real potential problems with new genetically engineered crops were laid bare.

Detailing the potential “undesirable effects” of genetic engineering, the FDA’s own scientists stated that the process of genetic engineering -“increased levels of know naturally occurring toxicants, appearance of new, not previously identified toxicants, increased capability of concentrating toxic substances from the environment (e.g. pesticides or heavy metals) and undesirable alterations in the levels of nutrients.

Despite this, Monsanto and the FDA continue to claim that genetically engineered foods are perfectly safe and are considered “generally regarded as safe” or GRAS under current FDA guidelines, despite growing evidence that this is not scientifically accurate.

No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety, No Matter What Monsanto Say.

You might hear the mainstream media and the New York Times repeating the frequent claim that genetically engineered foods are perfectly safe and that this is confirmed by wide scientific consensus, but these convenient “facts” are more the stuff of public relations spin than scientific fact.

Just this past fall, on October 21, 2013, the European Network of Scientists for Social & Environmental Responsibility released a statement signed by 300 scientists, medical professions and academics explaining that in no uncertain terms that “the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist” and that the claim could “lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment.”

So now, some 22 years after the FDA papered over the significant differences and potential between genetic engineering, scientists are beginning to speak up again and new peer reviewed scientific studies are confirming these concerns.

New Studies Confirm FDA’s Claim of “Substantial Equivalence” is a Not True. While the underpinning claim that GMO crops are “substantially equivalent” or not “materially different” from traditional bred crops has been used by the FDA as an official policy to deny Americans the right know what’s in their food, two recent scientific studies prove this not to be the case.

A 2013 peer reviewed study in Food Chemistry journal titled, “Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans”, found that “Soybeans from different agricultural practices differ in nutritional quality.” This blows the idea of no “material difference” and “substantial equivalence” out of the water.

According to the recently published study, “organic soybeans showed a more healthy nutritional profile than other soybeans”, which led the scientists to state: “This study rejects that GM soy is “substantially equivalent” to non-GM soybeans.”

Following up on these new revelations, another study published in the journal Proteome Science in December 2013 confirms this “showing molecular differences between genetically modified organisms and their non-GM counterparts”.

Titled: “Comparative proteomic analysis of genetically modified maize grown under different agroecosystems conditions in Brazil”, this new study reveals molecular differences between transgenic and conventional maize”.

According to the study: "Comparative proteomic analysis of genetically modified maize grown under different agroecosystems conditions in Brazil" showed differences between conventional maize and a Monsanto transgenic maize MON810, of the Bt type (modified to produce insecticidal toxins and kill the caterpillars that eat it). The experiments were conducted in two different agroecosystems in the municipalities of Santa Catarina: Campos Novos and Chapecó. The researchers found 16 different proteins between the two types of corn grown at each site (32 different proteins in total) - i.e., the differences were highly dependent on environmental conditions and were therefore more difficult to predict. The evidence also suggested that conventional maize is more stable, or has less variability, than the GM maize in different environments. The molecular functions of these proteins were mostly attributed to energy metabolism, metabolism of plant response, metabolism of genetic information processing, and metabolism of stress.”

The Movement for Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Moves Forward. With new scientific studies eroding previous claims of scientific consensus and “substantial equivalence” millions of Americans and citizens around the world are waking up to the fact that their basic democratic rights are being eroded to benefit the sales and profits of multinational chemical and seed biotech companies.

In the past two years alone, more than 26 states have introduced legislation to label GMOs. During this time, Monsanto has spent more than $13.4 million to defeat GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state, against the better interests of the American public. Despite these recent defeats, GMO labeling bills have passed in Connecticut and Maine and bills are currently being considered in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Today, we’re asking that Monsanto shareholders vote in favor of labeling of genetically engineered foods to stop the continued deception of the American public and to join 64 other countries around the world. In the past two years Monsanto and other companies who have contributed more than $70 millions to defeat GMO labeling campaigns. It is against the continued business interests of Monsanto and its shareholders to continue to fight these efforts.

The movement to label GMOs is made up of mothers and fathers who believe in the right to know what’s in their food. We understand that we are up against significant economic interests and political power, but this could be put to rest today, if Monsanto’s shareholders would vote in favor of this simple proposition to label their patented products.

We firmly believe that if Monsanto can profit off a patent in their products and label their foods in India, China, Russia and South Africa, they can certainly agree that Americans should have this basic right as well.

This movement will not stop until we win this basic right and we strongly urge you to join us on the right side of history. A vote in favor of genetically engineered foods is a vote for transparency in markets, it’s a vote in favor of democracy and it’s a vote for freedom. The freedom of providing basic information to consumers, something all American corporations should support.

Thanks again for your consideration.

Dave Murphy

Founder, Executive Director
Food Democracy Now!

Sign the letter to join us in speaking truth to power and tell Monsanto: A vote for transparency is a vote for democracy and a vote for freedom! Every voice counts!

Not particularly proud that the Monsanto CEO is a Scot. Oh well, we can't all be perfect!

I'll update if I get any further news on this. Watch this space!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Roundup not ready - never was

'As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life - a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no "high-minded orientation," no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper'. 

These words were spoken by Rachel Carson over 50 years ago in her ground breaking book Silent Spring. Yet the text of that remarkable book could be rewritten today as though it was fresh and would be just as applicable to the mindless crusade against nature that prevails today. So why is it that the lessons learned from the insane chemical barrage that took place during the 50's and 60's have been ignored? And why have farmers the world over been duped by the promise of a 'miracle cure'? I'll try to answer these questions in due course. But first, a history lesson.

A chemical wonderland
Throughout history - since the first use of synthetic agrochemicals began in earnest during the post war years - it has been a constant battle of wits between humanity and nature. It was widely recognised as far back as the 1930's that there were effective biological methods of dealing with pests and other agricultural 'intrusions'. Yet these were completely ignored in the wake of the chemical revolution. It was therefore only a matter of time before the dangers of DDT and other chemicals would be fully exposed.

These dangers and the folly that brought them to bear are fully explored in Carson's book. Yet here we are in the 21st century, discussing concepts such as ecosystems services and permacuture as though these are new concepts when they are not. The real problem here is the pathological disease of the corporation, transmitted by the chemical companies such as Monsanto, syngenta, Beyer etc. The reckless and irresponsible chemical crusades of these companies have created a barren environment in real terms. 

Yes it can be said that the incessant expansion of the intensive farming has increased productivity, but at what cost? And with agrochemicals becoming 'safer' does that mean our minds are put at rest?

Brave new world
The focus on the current series of articles on GM have been on Monsanto - with good reason. And that focus will continue as I examine the efficacy the worlds most widely use agrochemical - Roundup.

But one of the big headline makers of late has of course been the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and their connection with Colony collapse disorder in bees. This again highlights the absurdity of assuming that nature can be controlled by chemicals and just simply revisits the catastrophic ecological destruction that took place in the 50's and 60's. 

In simple plain English, we are not seeing anything new. It has happened before and it is happening again and will continue to happen again and again, like someone suffering from perpetual amnesia. Where is the communication breakdown? Are chemical companies erasing history as we go along? Where are the lessons from yesteryear? Indeed does anyone have a clue as to what is going on?

Lots of questions to be sure. But the fact is, history began to repeat itself back in the early 90's when Monsanto bombarded the agricultural industry with wave after wave of baseless propaganda proselyting the miracle of GM crops and wonder chemical Roundup in a feat that would leave a TV evangelist dazzled. And everyone fell for it hook line and sinker. Did nobody think to challenge Monsantos' claims instead of taking everything in at face value? Evidently not.

So now we have a situation where Monsanto now controls most of the GM seed stock in the US and indeed around the world, whilst bamboozled farmers are silenced by gagging orders and just about every Government agency in the US is controlled by Monsanto - not to mention the politicians that have been bought out by the company in much the same way drug addicts are dependent on their providers.

This brings us round full circle to the 'amazing' Roundup and its marriage to GM crops. This is when history repeats itself yet again. In the past DDT was the big nasty chemical, although the fact was that many other chemicals used during the post war chemical 'blitz' were much worse. It was DDT that got the bad publicity. Monsanto was a major manufacturer of DDT. 

It was following the revelations and concurrent fall out from Silent Spring that put a halt to the chemical menace and the health and ecological problems that by the late 60's were now widely known and publicised. From these chemical ashes, the GM revolution would eventually emerge 20 years later with its accompanying chemical renaissance.

We are now looking at Silent Spring version 2 as the 'adventure' starts all over again. 

Pseudo science and revelations
So how did Monsanto pull off its coup de main? I'll answer this question below. But the short answer is the corporations' political reach and penetration and its aggressive marketing tactics. The two graphics below illustrate Monsanto's remarkable reach into politics and society (source - Monsanto: A Corporate Profile):
  Monsanto's revolving door
An investigation by the Associated Press (AP), has outlined just how Monsanto cleverly shoehorned the industry to suit.

In 1996, Monsanto introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans designed to be Roundup Ready, allowing farmers to spray Roundup immediately eradicating weeds without damage to the crop. Monsanto then continued to innovate giving them an inventory of 'blockbuster products'. Following this 'Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them'.

With the technology's patented and Monsantos' acquisitions of smaller seed companies accelerating, the licensing agreements ensured everyone within the supply chain strictly adhered to the agreements. 

One of the sweeteners Monsanto used initially was a cheaper price regime. But as Monsanto increasingly monopolised the market and more people were trapped by the agreements, this gave Monsanto carte blanch to increase prices. Also 'Monsanto's provision requiring companies to destroy seeds containing Monsanto's traits if a competitor buys them prohibited DuPont or other big firms from bidding against Monsanto when it snapped up two dozen smaller seed companies over the last five years, said David Boies, a lawyer representing DuPont.

' "If the independent seed company is losing their license and has to destroy their seeds, they're not going to have anything, in effect, to sell," Boies said. "It requires them to destroy things - destroy things they paid for - if they go competitive. That's exactly the kind of restriction on competitive choice that the antitrust laws outlaw." '

Another 'trick' employed by Monsanto is to market its seed under obscure brand names. As a result farmers are paying for Monsanto's licensed products.

To sum up: 'Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will, which in turn could raise the cost of everything from animal feed to wheat bread and cookies.

'The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010'.

So what about the science and how were the farmers convinced by that? Well, the fact is initially the claims made by Monsanto were true. Roundup did what it said in the tin, it eradicated weeds whilst protecting the crop and initially the process was inexpensive. But this was a smokescreen that would allow Monsanto to increase prices once the market was cornered. And with the farmers held to licensing agreements, they were effectively held 'over a barrel'. It's very much a case of job done from Monsanto's perspective. 

But now for the really clever bit - the bit when history repeats itself - this is the bit when it suddenly comes home to farmers that they have unwittingly engaged in a battle against nature. Because now weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. And the active ingredient in Roundup - glyphosate - isn't as benign as Monsanto would have you believe.

In addition, Monsanto's Bt Cotton have also been fraught with problems. As noted in the Greenpeace report Counting the Costs of Genetic Engineering It has been discovered that hot weather affects the production of the Bt toxin, which is produced by the plant as a pesticide. Interestingly, this (heat) phenomenon has also been observed in the effectiveness of Roundup with Roundup Ready (RR) crops. 

Greenpeace notes that 'Cotton farmers in Texas report that they have experienced this problem and that Monsanto has failed to warn farmers of it. Charging the company with ‘a longstanding campaign of deception’, 82 Texas farmers have sued Monsanto, alleging deceptive trade practices (Musick v. Monsanto Co. 2006).

As I've pointed out in previous articles - Monsanto is a pathological liar. It has been shown time and again that the company is completely untrustworthy. It is highly likely that Monsanto was well aware of the scientific implications of using Roundup. That weeds would eventually become resistant and that there would be ecological and health implications to using the herbicide. In the following section I'll consider the real science behind Roundup.       

The evidence
The report Herbicide tolerance and GM crops: Why the world should be Ready to Round Up glyphosate, produced by Greenpeace in association with GM Freeze, gives an excellent overview of the emerging evidence against the use of glyphosate based herbicides such as Roundup.

First a look at the composition of Roundup and how glyphosate actually works.

Glyphosate (chemical name N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine), is water soluble and works in conjunction with adjutants, which are additional chemicals added to the herbicide to allow glyphosate to function more effectively. These chemicals enable the herbicide to stick to foliage and allow the glyphosate molecule to penetrate the leaves and enter cells and the plant’s circulatory systems. Glyphosate is then transported to all parts of the plant, including the tips of the roots.

Glyphosate works by disrupting an essential biochemical pathway in plants called the the shikimate pathway, leading to a shortage of vital molecules for building proteins and causing the plant’s death. It does this by inhibiting the function of an enzyme, 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). Glyphosate chelates (or binds) manganese, making it unavailable to the EPSPS, preventing EPSPS from working.

According to Monsanto, Roundup is a safe product and glyphosate is non toxic. However there is now clear evidence emerging that this is not the case.

The report documents cases of female workers in Argentina and Paraguay exposed to Roundup spraying programs during pregnancy who 'delivered offspring with congenital (i.e. present at birth) malformations. These birth defects showed striking similarities to those induced by glyphosate in laboratory experiments'. 

In addition, 'epidemiological studies have linked exposure to glyphosate with non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma, as well as DNA damage among people who had experienced acute symptoms from glyphosate exposure. These findings are supported by laboratory studies that demonstrate that glyphosate can cause genotoxicity, mutagenicity, oxidative stress and dysregulation of cell division. Potential chronic neurological effects include Parkinson’s disease and ADD/ADHD, while acute exposure symptoms include a wide range of effects on skin, eyes, respiratory, gastrointestinal and cardiac systems'.

Other key sources of exposure to glyphosate are food and water. The EU has set Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs). These are the maximum permitted concentration of pesticide residue in a food or animal feed (currently 0.5 mg/kg). These apply to glyphosate and its breakdown product aminoglyphosate acid (AMPA).

Generally food contamination lies below permitted MRL levels. However there are documented cases of contamination exceeding permitted levels. This begs the question - given the potential for health impacts - what is exactly a safe level? Clearly with emerging evidence of the cumulative effects of certain chemicals, perhaps there is no such thing as a safe level. This should be the subject of further investigation.

Water contamination is another major source of concern. 'Glyphosate has often been detected during monitoring of surface waters and groundwater. A comprehensive study of streams in the midwest US examined the presence of herbicides, including glyphosate and AMPA, at different stages in the crop-growing cycle. Glyphosate was detected during every season up to a maximum concentration of 8.7 μg/l. This is over 80 times the EU maximum permitted concentration of 0.1 μg/l in drinking water but substantially below the US drinking water maximum concentration of 700 μg/l. Such a massive difference in permitted concentrations is hard to justify, especially given the growing body of evidence on the harm glyphosate can cause to health and aquatic life. AMPA was also detected above 0.1 μg/l in more than half of the samples taken through the year, most frequently after crops had emerged from the soil. The maximum concentration of AMPA recorded in this study was 3.67 μg/l'.

Contamination is of particular concern following rainfall episodes as this can increase the transportation of glyphosate into water systems. This also applies to urban areas where Roundup is popular with gardeners and local authorities. Glyphosate is banned from use on hard surfaces in Denmark and parts of Sweden. The following diagram shows the pathways leading to Environmental and human health effects of glyphosate:
Glyphosate contamination can significantly impact on biodiversity. Studies have shown that 'glyphosate-based products harm amphibians at concentrations which occur as a result of their normal use in agriculture or forestry. This group of animals includes many species that are predators of pests in and around agroecosystems and forest ecosystems. Losses of the order reported in wild populations could have significant impacts upon pest populations and a long-term impact on crop yield and quality'. Water contamination has also affected aquatic organisms.

In addition to toxicity in animal species non target plants are also affected by widespread use of glyphosate - from Roundup mainly

The report summarises that 'There is a growing body of scientific evidence that glyphosate is harmful to species at many stages along the food chain, including the aquatic food chain. Scientific evidence shows that glyphosate (and its formulated commercial products such as Roundup) can have immediate and long-term, direct and indirect toxic effects on plants and animals, as well as indirect effects linked to the changes it causes in the ecosystem'.

Of particular importance is the effect of glyphosate on soil ecosystems and how soil chemistry is impacted. Much of this is determined by the soil type (e.g. sandy, clay, loam and variations of the above). The following diagram is a useful guide to soil types (source USDA): 
Depending on soil type, gyphosate can bind to soil particles or it can enter soil water and be carried into the aquatic system. Some of the key effects of glyphosate in the soil are:
  • Reduction in mineral uptake by crops
  • Increased microbial biomass and activity
  • Proliferation of phytopathogens in crops
  • Reduction in nitrogen fixation and nodulation, leading to increased demands for nitrogen fertiliser.
There is a region bordering plant systems in the soil called the Rhizosphere. 'The rhizosphere is the thin layer of soil immediately surrounding plant roots, an area that is extremely important for the uptake of nutrients into the plant. It is markedly different from the bulk soil. Glyphosate appears to interfere with the biological and chemical processes in this important rhizosphere, unintentionally affecting plant growth and nutrition'. 

Given the disruptive effect on soil biology, 'These imbalances in the soil and rhizosphere microbial community can affect soil and plant health. They may reduce the availability of plant nutrients, or cause increased vulnerability to disease'. In short, RR GM crops are less nutritious than conventional crops. This could lead to potential health impacts. Then there is the threat of disease given that GM cultivations are mass monocultures. A miscalculation here could potentially lead to a catastrophic outcome for growers. Remember the historic Irish potato famine? The diagram below details a plant's relationship with the soil:

The paper Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases published in the Journal Entropy offers a detailed analysis of the current evidence pertaining to potential health problems in humans (and indeed other animals). I don't have the space here to go into great detail but I'll reproduce the conclusion of the paper here:
'This paper... demonstrates how glyphosate’s adverse effects on the gut microbiota, in conjunction with its established ability to inhibit the activity of cytochrome P450 enzymes, and its likely impairment of sulfate transport, can remarkably explain a great number of the diseases and conditions that are prevalent in the modern industrialized world. Its effects are insidious, because the long-term effects are often not immediately apparent. The pathologies to which glyphosate could plausibly contribute, through its known biosemiotic effects, include inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, depression, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis, cancer, cachexia, infertility, and developmental malformations. Glyphosate works synergistically with other factors, such as insufficient sun exposure, dietary deficiencies in critical nutrients such as sulfur and zinc, and synergistic exposure to other xenobiotics whose detoxification is impaired by glyphosate. Given the known toxic effects of glyphosate reviewed here and the plausibility that they are negatively mpacting health worldwide, it is imperative for more independent research to take place to validate the ideas presented here, and to take immediate action, if they are verified, to drastically curtail the use of glyphosate in agriculture. Glyphosate is likely to be pervasive in our food supply, and, contrary to being essentially nontoxic, it may in fact be the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment'.
Another area of great concern and certainly the most widely publicised problem with GM cultures, is emerging weed resistance. As I noted at the beginning of this article, spraying was initially a success. But as the Greenpeace report notes 'Farmers soon became dependent on glyphosate as their main means of chemical weed control in fields of GM RR soya, maize and cotton. They were unaware - or possibly unconcerned - that weed resistance could occur on their farms. However, it was only a very short time before the first glyphosate resistant weed - horseweed (Conyza canadensis) - was confirmed in areas of soybean cultivation in 2000'. About a third of farmers across the US regard weed resistance as a serious problem.
It appears that one of the reasons that farmers failed to take the issue seriously was an expectation that the supplier (Monsanto) would come up with a solution to any problems that would arise. We know now of course that the overarching strategy employed by Monsanto was to monopolise the system and eventually raise prices.

This is Monsanto's response to the problem: 'Growers must be aware of and proactively manage for glyphosate-resistant weeds in planning their weed control program. When a weed is known to be resistant to glyphosate, then a resistant population of that weed is by definition no longer controlled with labelled rates of glyphosate. Roundup agricultural herbicide warranties will not cover the failure to control glyphosate-resistant weed populations'.
And here are the proposed solutions to the problem:
  • 'The first strategy is the use of either stronger formulations of glyphosate or of tank mixtures of glyphosate and other herbicides. For instance, 2,4-D – one of the active ingredients of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US Army during the Vietnam War – is recommended for burning down weeds prior to sowing marestail (Monsanto 2008).
  • The second strategy is to produce seeds with several herbicide tolerant genes (gene stacking) by crossing different GM herbicide-tolerant varieties so that different herbicides can be applied to the growing crop in rotation or in tank mixes. This will ensure that weeds that are resistant to glyphosate will be killed by other herbicides . For instance, Monsanto has recently announced an agreement with the chemical and biotechnology company BASF to develop crops stacked with glyphosate and dicamba tolerant genesLess is known about the toxicity of dicamba but there are concerns it may be toxic to aquatic organisms. 
  • The third strategy is to use herbicides that remain active in the soil (residual herbicides or residuals), which kill seedling weeds as soon as they germinate.
'It is clear from these strategies that weed resistance is a serious
problem for the continued efficiency of GM RR crops, and tackling
the problem requires extreme measures. Currently, no cost estimates are available for the increased amount of farmer expenditure on weed control as a result of weed resistance, but they are likely to be considerable. These extreme measures may have environmental and possibly health implications'. Put simply, it's fighting a fire with petrol. 

As the report concludes 'Thus, the promise of reduced herbicide use and cheaper and easier weed controls has not been delivered. However, it is clear that GM RR crops have brought about an escalation in the pesticides ‘arms race’, with an increasing toxic burden on the environment involving significant uncertainty about the overall safety of glyphosate for people and biodiversity'.

In actual fact is some farmers are returning to more traditional methods of weed control. As the Counting the Cost report notes 'With glyphosate ineffective against the weed, agricultural supply stores in the Mississippi Delta region have reported that common garden hoes have returned from obscurity to become one of the fastest-selling items. “We haven’t chopped [weeded] cotton in a long time,” says an Arkansas cotton grower. Hand-weeding on heavily infested plantings is costing Georgia cotton farmers as much as $240 US dollars per hectare. Farmers who don’t hand weed or
apply additional herbicides are risking disaster, say weed scientists'.

The message being conveyed is simple and straight forward. If we don't want to return to the horrors of Silent Spring, then we must reign in our widespread use of agrochemicals. Over the past 60 years or so it has been crystal clear that these chemicals are useless at controlling pests. Regardless of whatever technology is employed, the effect is the same - an inevitable 'arms race' between humanity and nature. Agrochemical corporations are surplus to requirement and have no place in a sustainable planet. Their products are useless and only work because of a sustained policy of misinformation and deception. Whether it's Roundup or neonicotinoids, they pose a danger to the natural world. The only way forward is sustainable agriculture - and that will be the subject of a future article.