Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | April 9, 2015

Will We Industrialize Ourselves Right Out of Food?

Mordor, eat your heart out...

Mordor, eat your heart out…

Three stories I have read in the last few days from three different locations (albeit two in Inner Mongolia) each stoked an all-too familiar fear: how long before our reckless industrialization of the planet’s food production zones begins to provoke mass starvation of our burgeoning population? I was just struck by how each story held the same thread: our pathetic myopia toward industrial “progress”, especially the need to electrify everything, is paving over farmland, poisoning livestock and grasslands and threatening to literally inundate one of the few teeming fisheries we have left.

Stepping back from any industrial rationale, it seems simply suicidal.

The first was Simon Denyer’s account in the Washington Post of China turning riot police on protesters in Inner Mongolia who were decrying the chemical pollution that they say is poisoning their livestock and grasslands, killing fruit trees, rendering crops inedible and poisoning drinking water.  Although China later said it was closing the chemical refinery, protesters said the government has done so before, but reopens it within a couple of weeks.

Next was a tale, also from Inner Mongolia, but from Baotou, its largest industrial city, where Tim Maughan penned a frightening report for BBC Future on the wages of our lust for technological wizardry.  Apparently created by damming a river and flooding farmland in favor of mining rare earth minerals and manufacturing Digital Age gadgets, Baotou sits beside a giant toxic lake.  Maughan writes: “Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.”

Indeed, watching the video, I kept looking for the orcs of Mordor.

Finally, was Melody Kemp’s piece in the UK magazine Geographical about Laos’ plans to build several dams across the main stream of the Mekong River and its major tributaries in the Si Phan Don (‘Four Thousand Islands’) region, one of the world’s richest freshwater fishing grounds.  The area’s 2.6 million tons of fish annually is estimated to contribute as much as eight percent of Laos’ GDP and to be worth US$2 billion a year to all of the Mekong riparian nations.

One of those dams is the Don Sahong, a 300-megawatt, 75-foot-high hydropower dam across Hoo Sahong, the largest and deepest of two major waterways through which fish migrate upstream to spawn. Despite Laos’ supposedly rigorous and transparent environment and social impact assessment (ESIA) process, it has issued no documents for Don Sahong. Little wonder, given what Kemp found in the ESIA and a critical review.

Although the ESIA consultants propose enlarging surrounding waterways to facilitate fish migration, the ESIA’s reviewers observe that even if other channels are modified, the fish will follow their instincts to what they know to be the deepest channel, meaning that the dam’s turbines will kill large numbers as they follow primordial, hormonally driven behavior.

A fisheries expert who spoke to Kemp on condition of anonymity delivered a scathing assessment, saying that the waterway the dam will block is the only place where migratory fish can easily pass at the peak of the dry season, as well as being the main bi-directional migratory route for fish year round.

And if it isn’t enough to virtually shut off the source of 90% of the region’s protein, the ESIA actually admits that the dam will likely “finish off” any remaining Mekong River dolphins, as the power station will be situated adjacent to the pool where the last few individuals live.

Is it just me, or do we have a collective death wish?

Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | March 11, 2015

Bravo, McDonald’s…and Arcadia!

At an evening presentation by Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture on “superbugs”, the new class of bacteria resistant to antibiotics important to human health, a discussion among attendees concluded that the changes needed in the food supply system would be driven by customer demand.

It was almost eerie that, two days later, McDonald’s became the latest in a string of fast food and chain restaurants in the U.S. that includes Chick-fil-A, Panera and Chipotle that have either already abandoned antibiotic-feed chickens or intend to do so within a few years.

Apparently, they are all coming to realize what Dr. Lance Price, Professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told the gathering: “Using antibiotics in animals doesn’t make bacteria go away, it just makes them resistant!”

For its part, Arcadia’s parent, Neighborhood Restaurant Group, sells only meat raised without antibiotics at its Red Apron Butcheries.

No antibiotics, PLEASE!

No antibiotics, PLEASE!

Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | March 9, 2015

Congratulations, Conservation Ecology Centre!


Don’t worry, he’s just yawning!

Just a month after posting about the fantastic efforts of the Great Ocean Ecolodge and its parent, the Conservation Ecology Centre, to preserve wildlife on Australia’s Great Ocean Walk along Victoria’s south-west coast, they were named a finalist in the annual World Legacy Awards!

The sister operations were nominated in the “Conserving the Natural World” category, which recognizes “outstanding support for the preservation of nature, restoring natural habitat and protecting rare and endangered species, whether on land or in the oceans.”  The Centre and the Eco-Lodge, its social enterprise, work to maintain fragile habitats for koalas and rare tiger quolls by fund-raising and educating travelers from around the world.

The World Legacy Awards, a partnership between National Geographic and ITB Berlin, highlight areas of progress in addressing conservation challenges.  In a post, the centre wrote: “We are delighted to have been recognized for our innovative approach, community engagement and successful outcomes in working towards our vision of an Otways region which is once more vibrant with wildlife.”

Those who can, should not forget to enjoy a cold Spotted Ale from the Prickly Moses Otway Brewing crew to celebrate (100% of profits support Tiger Quoll conservation)!


Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | February 18, 2015

Sipping to Save the Spotted Tiger Quoll!

Some hiking buddies returned from completing Australia’s Great Ocean Walk, located on Victoria’s south-west coast, with exciting wildlife sightings and conservation strategies that we absolutely had to share! 

At the Great Ocean Ecolodge, established and operated by the Conservation Ecology Centre, they got up close and personal with koalas and kangas. But the most captivating was fabulous Tiger Quoll, the largest remaining marsupial carnivore on the Australian mainland. Even though the pristine forests, woodlands and coastline of the area’s Otway ranges are one of the beautiful Tiger Quoll’s last strongholds, even there it is in decline and fast heading towards the same fate as its cousin, the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger.


…but fierce!


They are cute…

At feeding time at the ecolodge, the resident Tiger Quoll runs out to snatch his chicken and runs back to eat it in private, but friend Pat Fairfax said they could hear him devouring every bone!

Later on, they discovered that drinking beer at the lodge directly supported these unique animals!  Specifically, Otway Brewing’s Spotted Ale (below), a golden ale with hints of tropical fruit, honey and citrus, gives a portion of the sales to support the endangered Tiger Quolls in the Otways.  So of course they did the right thing: drank and saved Tiger Quolls!  Lindsay said she saved the most, but that couldn’t be verified!


Pour a glass, feed a quoll!

Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | November 24, 2014

Slapped by a Silverback…


Feelin’ his oats…!

This story, about my dear friend Jayne Hufschmid’s unique souvenir from her second trip to visit Rwandan gorillas, falls into the “living vicariously”category of my blog posts, although many may be surprised I would envy her experience!

Accompanied by husband Hans, and friends Jane Centofante and Dave Craddock, they had been observing a troupe when the guide directed them to move on to another site. As the group began to move away, Jayne was reportedly engrossed in fiddling with her camera.

For whatever reason, Jayne recounted, a “testosterone-fueled young 12-year-old silverback definitely thought that I was in his way”, so he whupped her on the head! Dave, her traveling companion in closest proximity, promptly dove for cover and did not attempt to, as she said, “save me from a pounding”. Can’t really blame him…!

She is not sure how, but he damaged her middle finger, which remains a bit bent and twisted. “I probably put my hands up to protect my head. It was all a bit surreal and shocking.”

No doubt Jayne would have preferred the treatment her group got on their first trip, when a  silverback put his arm around Hans’ father!


Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | November 24, 2014

Of Mushrooms and Wasp Spit…


Still a few inorganic bits to it, but a mostly biodegradable drone for observing remote areas!

Sounding like something out of a fairy tale, a group of university students working with a NASA synthetic biology expert to solve the problem of crashed drones littering pristine, remote landscapes, have built a drone almost entirely of biodegradable materials.

Yes, you read correctly, mushrooms and wasp spit. (Who knew wasps were spitters?!)

More precisely, the frame of the drone uses the same mushroom mycelium foam from a cool start-up company in New York called Ecovative Design that I wrote about last year.  Although the process doesn’t employ fairies or their dust (at least as far as we know), it is pretty magical.

When fungal mycelium is injected into a mold filled with the woody stuff mushrooms like to consume (yes, mushrooms must eat, too) like straw, cotton hulls, or leaves, it will grow to fill in all of the gaps in the mold, creating a chunk of “mushroom foam” in whatever shape it has been given. The foam is an entirely compostable, fire- and water-resistant material that has been proven stronger than chemical foams in drop tests.

To make their mushroom foam frame even more durable, they covered it in a kind of “veggie leather” grown using bacteria that create cellulose, the tough stuff that forms the walls of plants.  The rubbery sheet is wrapped around the foam and when it dries becomes tough and hard.

Cellulose "leather"!

Cellulose “leather”!

Not satisfied they had done everything possible to keep the elements from disintegrating the green drone, they turned to the wasp.

To waterproof their nests, paper wasps cover them in saliva.  So the researchers cloned the proteins in paper wasp saliva and used it to waterproof their new age drone.

Chatting with Elsabe’ Dixon, the South African artist in residence at Arlington’s Artisphere at her silkworm exhibit, I discovered that the durability and water-resistant qualities of wasp spit are well known in South Africa. She recounted how her brother used the earth from mud dauber (a type of wasp) nests to repair his farm buildings.

A South African mud dauber doin' what it does best!

A South African mud dauber doin’ what it does best!


Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | May 19, 2014

A Bubbly Evolution…

At the end of last year, I helped produce video segments in France for Faun Kime, an independent documentary maker wh0 had need of French-speaking skills for a project commissioned by The Daily Climate in partnership with PRI’s The World on the effects of climate change on high-end consumer goods like champagne and skiing.  

Faun Kime, right, tours vines at Duval-Leroy with vineyard director Eric Fournel

Faun Kime, right, tours vines at Duval-Leroy with vineyard director Eric Fournel

Last Monday and Tuesday, back to back broadcasts of our collaboration were aired on PRI’s The World.  The World first broadcast the piece from France’s iconic region of Champagne, then the segment that examines how climate change was impacting the emerging sparkling wine industry in England. You can check out both broadcasts here.

Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | March 26, 2014

Loving Lucky Boy’s New Look…


Eyeing the bowl of chicken, Lucky Boy shows off his now-buff body.

Eyeing the bowl of chicken, Lucky Boy shows off his now-buff body.

On our recent trip to Belize, we of course stopped in at The Belize Zoo, which has to be the country’s best visitor attraction.

In 2010, I had thrilled to the Zoo’s “Junior Buddy Experience“, in which the visitor gets into a cage inside the jaguar Junior Buddy’s enclosure to get as close as possible to him as safely as possible.  When we got to the ticket window this time, they had a “Lucky Boy Experience” that I immediately signed us up for. Emil was interested, but a little skeptical.

I knew that Lucky Boy was the black jaguar the Zoo had rescued in 2012 from near death at a resort where the person charged with feeding him in the off-season had apparently simply forgotten…for weeks on end.  I was excited to see how far he had come with the TLC delivered him by the zoo and Dr. George Kolias, the lead veterinarian at Cornell Vet School, who had been the first vet to examine him, three months after his rescue.  It was the first time he could be sedated for examination, as he had been too weak to withstand a tranquilizer dart.

Once we were seated in the “people cage” in Lucky Boy’s enclosure with his keeper, he came trotting in, and took my breath away.  The bag of bones was now sleek and bigger than Junior Buddy! He looked more like the Brazilian jaguars I have seen in documentaries about the work of jaguar experts in the Pantanal.  Then his keeper told us that, in fact, he IS a Brazilian jaguar, that the resort had probably gotten him from a Mexican zoo.

Goaded on by the promise of ever more chicken, he stood up for us, and I gave him a high-five on the cage, careful to avoid his spectacular claws.  Bravo, Dr. Kolias and Cornell, Sharon and everyone at the zoo who saved this rare creature from such an ignominious death.

Not often you get to see how tall a jaguar can be!

Not often you get to see how tall a jaguar can be!





Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | February 26, 2014

Who Better to Take AIm at Elephant Killers?


Ivory tusks the US Fish and Wildlife service, at the direction of President Obama, crushed at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in November in an effort to stymie the illegal slaughter of wildlife.

In our era of hyper-partisanship, it is good to attend congressional hearings.  Because, as I did this morning at a House Foreign Relations committee public hearing on the exploding wildlife trafficking crisis, you learn surprising things.

I was stunned to see two of the House’s most conservative Republicans, from Orange County in my home state of California, politely hammer Obama Administration officials for further commitments on policies that might begin to stem the blood-letting. 

Committee Chairman Ed Royce, from Fullerton, asked Robert Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, to provide him the language necessary to make wildlife trafficking an offense covered by the U.S. Treasury’s laws against money-laundering so that criminal assets could be more easily seized.  Dreher said DOJ would be happy to help.

Then Royce, whose passionate commitment to the issue was evoked by every committee member, pressed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe on why the Obama Administration’s just-released National Strategy for Combating WIldlife Trafficking “has no role for the Department of Defense.” He rightly asserted that only by having DoD leverage its relationships with African armies and “bumping up” its assistance to African park rangers will they ever be able to stop the merciless wildlife criminals armed with helicopters and night vision goggles.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, from archly conservative coastal Orange County, asked Dreher if funds that have been seized from wildlife traffickers go back to Treasury or to general law enforcement, which he confirmed. Rohrabacher said, “I suggest that assets seized from people murdering these species be directed back to that fight.”  When US FWS’s Ashe told Rohrabacher that African law enforcement no longer has the technical ability to compete with the killers, he said, “We have a lot of excess military equipment that could be made available to these folks at a low cost.”

Like I said, these days one expects Democrats to agitate for wildlife protection, while the GOP yawns.  Maybe Royce and Rohrabacher are inspired to save their party’s icon from extinction.  But after what I saw today, I think their motivation may go much deeper than that.


Posted by: Marsha W. Johnston | February 25, 2014

How to Stop Pierre, Justin and Mr. He?

450px-Elephant_near_ndutuWhen the Men’s Journal article arrived in my mailbox, the impulse to read it felt prurient, and for a time I resisted, knowing that I would learn of nasty, vicious behaviors that would likely suffuse my day with agony.

Damon Tabor’s herculean reporting on the “ivory highway” indeed made me weep and wonder, again, that I might be capable of violence against another human being if it would stop, even partly, this madness that may exterminate elephants in my lifetime.  The reaction comes unbidden.

Maybe it’s because reason seems so lost on the criminal perpetrators that Tabor interviews in Africa and China–Pierre the contract poacher, Justin the dealer, and Mr. He, the young Chinese ivory collector.

The impulse to throttle or maim was of course strongest against Pierre, the Cameroonian who has killed hundreds of elephants, which seemed natural since he commits the atrocities and seems almost proud of how well he knows how to remove a tusk.

But the bile rose in my throat just as strongly at Justin, another Camerounais.  Justin lives high on the hog on the $25K he clears every year from filling China’s orders by using Baka tribesmen who relentlessly track elephants in their former home forests, and personally driving the bloody goods to the port and bribing customs agents.  When the criminal trafficker compared the majestic creatures he slaughters to his Dutch mistress’s dog, which, though he likes, would rather eat with some pepper sauce, I couldn’t help wondering how long he would last tied to a tree in the African forest he is destroying.

Clearly the only way to stop Pierre and Justin is to put an end to Mr. He’s criminal pursuit of blood ivory, which he treats with the pleasant nonchalance one might assign to eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting. “I feel very sad and guilty, but sometimes, especially after seeing those fancy products, I can’t help myself,” Mr. He told Tabor, further noting that Chinese collectors value baby elephant ivory more than adult.  At least they call that most heinous type “blood ivory”.

Yes, the Chinese government has begun to act, seizing several huge shipments of ivory and even setting its first one aflame. But its officials, including, incredibly, those of its wildlife conservation department, still spout incomprehensible nonsense like, “Has China’s legal ivory trade caused the poaching of wild elephants? I don’t think there’s necessarily a connection.”

The former Chinese US basketball star Yao Ming was selected last year as the face of WildAid’s campaign to save elephants.  He had a quick, measurable impact on Chinese consumers when he came out publicly against eating shark fin soup, so here’s hoping he can work magic on his compatriots twice.
In the meantime, remember: Only Elephants Should Wear Ivory.

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