Intense Arctic phytoplankton bloom makes news

A two-year research project funded by NASA called ICESCAPE is in the news. Findings of a team lead by Kevin Arrigo (the study’s chief scientist and a biological oceanographer at Stanford University) were published the  journal Science on June 7th.

NASA's ICESCAPE mission onboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Photo: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

As described by  this article in the National Post:

The team was on a U.S. icebreaker smashing its way across the Chukchi Sea between Siberia and Alaska last July when equipment used to measure phytoplankton went “haywire.”

“We thought there was something wrong with the instruments,” Arrigo told Postmedia News.

Then the scientists made their first scheduled stop to take ice samples and got a good look at the ocean below.

“The water was completely green,” Arrigo said. “It was like pea soup.”

The farther they ventured into the ice-covered sea for their NASA-funded project to study ice, the more intense the under-ice algae bloom, says Arrigo, a veteran of many trips to the Arctic and Antarctic.

“It was shocking,” he says.

Shocking as in totally unexpected? Shocking as in terrible news? Basically, it’s new information that demands more study and understanding. (Hence this post.) Pea soup waters in the Arctic could be a big deal.

A news blog post on Nature.com put it this way:

As Arctic ice melts earlier in the summer thanks to climate change, these blooms could grow in extent or happen earlier in the year. The implications of that are unknown, but it could be bad news for fish that feed on open-water phytoplankton, or animals that time their summer trips to the Arctic to match what has traditionally been the peak of phytoplankton blooms. “There’s going to be winners and losers,” says Arrigo.

The Christian Science Monitor has a good write-up on the topic (Don Perovich, is the study’s co-chief scientist):

Despite the concerns, the thrill of discovery remains an undercurrent as the researchers talk about their results.

“This is what you live for as a scientist,” uncovering something “beyond unexpected,” Perovich says. “This is a new Arctic Ocean, full of surprises.”

Stay tuned, eh?

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49 Responses to “Intense Arctic phytoplankton bloom makes news”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    The trouble with much of the current research is the time frames are too small to reach any conclusions.
    What were the conditions in the Arctic 500, 1,000, 10,000 and 20,000 years ago?
    What is a big deal now might not be so big if we knew what conditions were in the distant past.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    We know some things about the distant past. We know some big stuff came out of space and crashed into the planet which caused mass extinctions. We don’t have too much control over big stuff crashing into us from out in space — yet. But we also know that the actions of humans have had profound effect on our environment and we have been responsible for many extinctions already. Seems like the prudent thing to do at this point in time would be to try to decrease the impact humans have on the world around us.

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  3. Paul says:

    I would guess “shocking”, as in totally unexpected at this point since it sounds like noone has ever seen anything like this (I assume there is no record of this in the past?). But of course someone (the Nature blog) is already implicating climate change as the culprit despite anything to base it on.

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  4. Paul says:

    We actually can look well back in the past, even more than thousands of years, the evidence is there in the ground and in the ice.

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  5. tootightmike says:

    We don’t know and that’s what’s scary. Predictability is what we rely on. Predictability is what farmers rely on. Heck, predictability is what insurance companies rely on, but screw them…sometimes the movements of nature are bigger than the buck.
    In the mean time, plant a garden.

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  6. PNElba says:

    Here, we document a massive phytoplankton bloom beneath fully consolidated pack ice far from the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea, where light transmission has increased in recent decades because of thinning ice cover and proliferation of melt ponds.

    From the abstract of the Science article – not a huge leap to tie this to higher temperatures in the arctic.

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  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Of course it is possible that those phytoplankton are taking CO2 from the air and H2O from the sea and synthesizing gasoline which would help solve the problems of global warming and the high price of gas in one fell swoop.

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  8. JDM says:

    The debate is over. The scientists have no idea what their talking about.

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  9. tootightmike says:

    JDM has no idea what they’re talking about….

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  10. Pete Klein says:

    The scientists, being the true capitalist that they are, have figured out a way to make money while going on vacation to places the average person can’t afford to visit – and all paid for with taxpayer dollars.

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  11. Lucy Martin says:

    Golly, Pete! Did you drink a cup of cynicism in place of coffee this morning?

    Don’t most dedicated/ambitious (choose your own term) professionals look for stuff that’s challenging? Topical tends to be good too. And what’s so odd about going where funding permits?

    If the Arctic happens to now offer that sort of action, well, so be it.

    Sure, a trip like that probably holds a hefty sense of adventure/vacation. How nice to be motivated and rewarded in that regard! What do you want to bet they worked pretty damned hard on the trip and after they came back?

    Now, I’ll admit that most of us can point to studies that seem unnecessary or obvious. Stupid, even. (Maybe that’s where you are coming from?)

    However, oceans tend to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind. What happens there most definitely affects life on land too.

    In my view, this is basic stuff – in a crucial realm. We need to know more there, not less.

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  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think we should explore Pete’s statement a little because it points to something that is often alluded to between the lines and has become something of a problem in our society – we are becoming a nation that no longer respects the work of scientists and teachers.

    Presumably the scientist in question in this story are very bright people. They probably have MS degrees and some are PhD’s. They could probably have chosen to be finance majors and worked jobs that are dedicated to one thing, making lots of money. Instead they chose to work in a field in which they will almost surely never get rich, never become famous, never become beloved by millions. They are working jobs probably at universities or for the government. Good jobs. Jobs that probably provide a comfortable living and maybe even good health benefits. Possibly even a decent pension.

    There are scientists devoting careers to studying the most mundane flora, fauna, and mineral. Ants, elephants, whales, prairie dogs, rats, grass, potatoes, air, dirt, and phytoplankton. Maybe they get to ride on an icebreaker, or swim in the ocean, or fly in a plane, visit rainforests or deserts, but those trips aren’t vacations. They are doing research. Maybe it does or doesn’t seem valuable or interesting but the objective of science is to study all of it and to put all the puzzle pieces of knowledge together. Some pieces are high value. Some pieces are boring and mundane.

    Meanwhile the finance majors are going out and getting jobs where they concentrate on making money. Typically they aren’t using their own money to make more money. Some of the money they are using is from the pension fund of the scientist in the arctic or the teacher at Paul Smith’s. And that finance major is keeping a little bit of that money for himself.

    So why do we value the finance major more than the scientist?

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  13. PNElba says:

    Pete –

    I suggest you visit the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution webpage and do a little research before you start generalizing about scientists and funding.

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  14. Pete Klein says:

    Yes I am in a cynical mood and cynicism is sometimes a good mood to be in because it causes you to look at things that are often overlooked when the cheering begins.
    To what extent are we wrecking the environment by investigating it? To what extent does breaking ice in the Arctic contribute to a more rapid melt of the ice? We tamper with everything with the idea we can fix it and often end up making things worse.
    I am not in the least opposed to protecting the environment but I sometimes wonder if we even know what we mean when we say we need to protect the environment.
    One thing should be obvious about all of creation. It changes. Species come and species go. The climate is always changing. We are in a card game we can never win.
    So should we give up? Of course not. But we should have the guts to admit that every solution we come up with for whatever will just cause the next problem needing to be solved. Even when we win (or think we win) we lose.
    Remember the Green Revolution which found a way to feed more of the starving and resulted in more people which in turn has resulted in a heavier burden upon the resources of this planet?
    More people equals a greater and greater demand to cut more forests and force wild animals into extinction. More and more people creates a greater and greater demand for more energy which is the number one cause of global warming. Every victory creates more and more problems.
    What’s a person to do? I don’t know but maybe we and the Earth need a break.

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  15. Walker says:

    Well, Pete, not every victory leads directly to another defeat– generally doing less: burning less coal and oil, using fewer natural resources, using less energy generally is an unmitigated good. (Granted, it can be hard on the economy, but we have to stop looking at spending money as being the prime measure of progress.)

    You’re certainly right that population growth is bad for the planet– we need to stop opposing contraception.

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  16. Larry says:

    Walker said:

    “we have to stop looking at spending money as being the prime measure of progress”

    Congratulations, you’ve finally seen the light!

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  17. Walker says:

    Larry, I think you’re probably misunderstanding me. I don’t mean taxpayer money– I mean all money. We have to stop measuring “The Economy”– the spending of all money in any given period of time– as necessarily good if it goes up and bad if it goes down.

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  18. tootightmike says:

    Sometimes it seems that “The Economy” is this thing we’re all supposed to pay attention to…but it’s totally in the control of, and in the service of those with all the money. “The Economy” comes and goes. rising and falling and my life seems little perturbed by it all. When we hear of some terrible loss are we supposed to feel sorry for those at the top?? They set this shit up and they arrange the risks and rewards, and then they send the losses down to the pensioners.
    Back to phytoplankton… What will the likely effects be? Will the species that eat this pea soup have a big boost in population numbers? Will this green boom collapse and release enormous amounts of unexpected new carbon dioxide? Will we be able to plant peach trees?? We love peaches…

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  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I have said it before and I will say it again and again like a broken record; most of the news about business, and the economy is propaganda. The financial sector has figured out our weakness: fear and insecurity about the future. They have hooked us with the idea that we need an IRA for our financial security in our old age. Then they set the hook by making us believe that we are now part of the Shareholder Class. Now all they have to do is reel us in by telling us that whatever Wall Street wants is there to “increase shareholder value.”

    To paraphrase George Orwell; all shareholders are equal, but some shareholders are more equal than others.

    Let me pose some questions? Who is sponsoring the studies in the Arctic and why? Why do we have Coast Guard icebreakers in the far north? Does it all have anything to do with the scramble to lay claim to Arctic resources that may become available for extraction due to global warming?

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  20. tootightmike says:

    The further you can get from the bankers and bookies, the safer you are. So much of the financial news is just manipulation and propaganda. It think the whole mess going on in Europe right now is a smoke screen, crafted to hide the real agenda, which is to dismantle all workers benefits, and end all social programs worldwide. The 1% is a very small club and they run the economy with an eye toward becoming an even smaller club. You and I are out, and we might as well take our ball and go home. If “the man” won’t share his toys (the wealth) then we don’t have to play with him.
    But back to the arctic sea…If this was a movie, the ship would be full of scientists that would mysteriously disappear, except for Dr Earnest who had just taken a copter back to the mainland for an important meeting with his boss, who is the director of a huge, secret cabal of energy companies….

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  21. tootightmike says:

    Seriously though. Who’s writing the next story on this? This is by far the most interesting climate/news story we’ve heard in a while…..Oh wait! Did you read about the rain in the Florida panhandle!?

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  22. PNElba says:

    Here is what is really amusing. Prior to 2008, a typical republican would have looked at this story and concluded that it was very likely that climate change was a major factor in the algae bloom. The authors tell us that thinning ice overlaid with pools of melt water are focusing sunlight into the ocean where typically the light could not easily reach. A pre-2008 republican would have used the words common sense in reaching their conclusion. Unfortunately, the “common sense” of post-2008 republicans is the opposite of whatever the scientific evidence might support.

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  23. Pete Klein says:

    How about we save some diesel fuel and keep all ice breakers out of the Arctic Ocean? How about we ban all drilling in the Arctic?
    Why do we have to mess up every place on Earth for fuel?
    The answer why we don’t is simple. We want more of everything. We want more things to consume and throw away so we can consume more things to throw away. We want more and more people to consume more and more things so we can make more and more money.
    We are addicted to progress and as a result we are never satisfied. We say we want to be happy but it is impossible to be happy if we are never satisfied.
    The fact of the matter is that we are a very comical creature which is always chasing its tail.

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  24. Paul says:

    Walker has a new nemesis in this Larry person!

    Knuck, I agree that it “seems” like scientists are not getting their due these days, but that may not be anything new. The whole concept of the ‘mad scientist’ has been around for a long time. Scientists have been getting a bum wrap for years. I think in some respects the perception of science may actually be improving. As for the race to the arctic ‘conspiracy’ theory I don’t know?

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  25. Paul says:

    Pete, I don’t really agree. We used to look at progress as the only option. You built your town hall miles from the town since that was soon (hopefully) to be the new center of town. Now we look with great scrutiny on many things that we do before we do them. This is pretty new and it is growing. Look at the Adirondacks where you live more land there is under permanent protection from development than ever before. Just look at all the land that has come under protection from development in just that last few decades. We are too busy looking at what the neighbors are doing and we forget about the larger picture.

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  26. Walker says:

    I think that the lack of respect for scientists and their output has everything to do with the materialism and cynicism of our worldview.

    If you measure the value of everything in dollars, and you assume that everyone does everything just for the money, then of course you assume that scientists aren’t really working their butts off doing incredibly complicated stuff that you don’t understand using mathematics you couldn’t follow if your life depended on it just because they’re fascinated by what they’re uncovering. No, obviously they’re just in it for the money, just like you, so they’re obviously going to bend their results in favor of whoever is going to pay them the most money.

    [That plus the fact that they keep coming up with stories that are bad for business, and anything that is bad for business has to be discredited and suppressed.]

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  27. Walker says:

    “Scientists have been getting a bum wrap (er, “rap”) for years.”

    Ah, well Einstein didn’t, nor Marie Curie, nor Edison. I think one could come up with quite a list of well-regarded scientists. And off hand, I can’t think of one who was really vilified, mad-scientist stylee.

    Even B.F. Skinner was widely lauded– though he wins my personal nomination for bad/mad scientist of the millenium.

    Closer to home, Louis Agassiz was the real rock star of the Philosopher’s Camp on Follensby in 1858– folks had hardly heard of Emerson or Lowell.

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  28. Paul says:

    I have seen many people here that claim to support science here do just what you are describing Walker.

    What science is discovering is mostly good for business. One problem is that science and technology in general is moving forward so quickly that even the folks doing the work have trouble keeping up forget about the general public. That is why things like outreach and education are becoming stronger components of grant funds and what corporate research labs are trying to do. Even then they get accused of trying to somehow mislead and oversell their technology. We need to keep the public in the loop or they will quickly get left behind and then become fearful and cynical.

    Even here on these blogs I have seen what I think are probably well educated commentators give negative comments on things like GMOs in foods. That is also because of this lack of understanding and fear based on what they might not understand. The same goes for the irrational fear on vaccines. Despite the mountains of evidence showing the low risk (in the case of GMOs no risk so far) and huge benefits of these things people are still afraid.

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  29. PNElba says:

    Paul -

    I agree partly with your 1:36 PM post. Democrats have their “looney left” consisting of vaccine deniers, HIV deniers, truthers etc. Fortunately, most liberals are not afraid to call out these conspiracy theorists (unlike the current republican party and their evolution/climate change deniers).

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  30. Paul says:

    Walker you should check out the public radio show “Engines of our ingenuity” from KUHF in Houston. There you will hear (or you can read some of his books) John Lienhard describe what I am talking about when it comes to the history of peoples views on science and scientists.

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  31. Paul says:

    PNElba, I agree that the whole climate change denial is ridiculous. But I also think on many subjects the “loonies” seem to be in the mainstream, and what really scares me is that some of them are well educated.

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  32. PNElba says:

    Paul -

    How about an example of the “loonies” being in the mainstream?

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  33. PNElba says:

    I suggest reading the book Fool me twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto. He makes a pretty good case for the assault beginning during the Kennedy era race to the Moon and continuing from there to present day.

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  34. Walker says:

    “Despite the mountains of evidence showing the low risk (in the case of GMOs no risk so far) and huge benefits of these things…”

    Paul, I have my doubts about the Roundup-ready GMOs, not so much that the organism is dangerous, but that it is meant to foster massive use of chemical herbicides that, while safer than many herbicides, seem to have been billed as safer than they may turn out to be… time will tell. And of course, there is some (slight) danger that a truly dangerous critter will be created by the gene splicers, or that the technology will be intentionally misused by terrorists.

    I worry a whole lot less about this stuff, though, than I do about the excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Monsanto (speaking of GMOs) practice suing farmers for claims of seed patent violations when they’re simply downwind of Roundup Ready crops. “The Center for Food Safety’s analyst stated that many innocent farmers settle with Monsanto because they cannot afford a time consuming lawsuit.” They also engaged in a campaign to prohibit dairies which do not inject their cows with artificial bovine growth hormone from advertising this fact on their milk cartons. And as a bonus, Monsanto is responsible for more than 50 United States Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, attempts to clean up Monsanto Chemical’s formerly uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. (Wikipedia of course)

    Applied science can get ugly.

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  35. Paul says:

    PNElba, I guess I gives some “loonies” too much credit sometimes. But I know many folks that are what I consider to be well educated (and I guess I consider them mainstream) that seem to be very skeptical of some science. Especially with things like GMOs it seems like they just know better than the scientific data that is out there in front of them.

    Walker, I am not talking about Roundup and Monsanto. But using GMO traits in general. Many people just dismiss the whole idea despite the benefit. Lokk at Europe.

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  36. Paul says:

    Here is a good story from MIT about how some scientists think we could deflect an asteroid. That would help their image:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/view/428165/solar-powered-laser-spacecraft-could-prevent/

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  37. Walker says:

    That would certainly earn them a shot at Dancing with the Stars!

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  38. mervel says:

    Well I thought it was an interesting article. Why do we all have to jump on these other issues all of the time. We always have icebreakers up there doing a little research, doing a little navigation updating and delivering supplies.

    I don’t know if there is an attack on science going on or not, I don’t think there really is, actually science and technology are what is driving our whole world, including the international economy.

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  39. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think that GMO’s are a different issue though I agree that many people are afraid of “Frankenfood”.

    To me the issue of GMO’s is more nuanced. I believe that the pursuit of GMO’s to solve problems is the kind of thinking that has gotten us into many of the problems that we have. For one thing, why do we need to create more genetic diversity in a lab when we are losing genetic diversity by the desire to plant monoculture crops (and of course changes in climate)?

    Another problem I have with GMO’s is that I am uncomfortable with the direction that companies like Monsanto have taken our agriculture. Nor do I like the way they have treated farmers.

    But my main objection is that people should have choice. It may or may not be a rational idea to not want to eat GMO food but it should be a person’s choice. The only way most people have to affect the Market is in choosing the products they buy and consume. If people don’t want to eat meat pumped full of antibiotics they should have that right. If they want to drink milk from cows that haven’t had BGH they should be able to, and they should be told if it is BGH free or not. And if people don’t like the idea of Round-up ready corn and they don’t want to eat it they should have that choice.

    The corporations have done a very effective job of re-directing the debate. It isn’t about silly people not understanding science. It is about people with a sophisticated understanding of how our food chain works trying to return farming to a more natural mode and one that is more sustainable for the planet.

    And don’t start in with the argument that it is all to feed the starving masses because that doesn’t fly. People aren’t starving due to a lack of food. People starve because of poverty and conflict. GMO foods aren’t going to help the refugees from Chad who are fleeing a government subsidized by Exxon Mobil. And don’t tell me about the rice with vitamin A that will save kids from being blinded. We can easily ship a case of vitamin A to every village on the planet if we really wanted to; more easily than we can ship them GMO rice.

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  40. Michael Greer says:

    Unfortunately, we can also ship a boatload of guns…

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  41. Pete Klein says:

    There may be health risks with GMO’s but the greatest problem is the idea that someone or some company is allowed to have a patent on a life form.
    It is one thing to have a patent on an inanimate object but a whole different thing to have it on something that is alive.
    I know, I know it would end most research because there wouldn’t be the chance to make millions but I really don’t give a damn.

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  42. Paul says:

    Knuck, I was just using that as one example of where it seems like well educated folks have misrepresented and misinterpreted what science has taught us.

    As I am sure you know genetically modified crops have NEVER ever had any negative impacts on the environment or on the people that have consumed them. These are not Monsanto studies, but independent research studies. These technologies are the most highly regulated products that we have. It is much more difficult to get approval for a GMO crop than a new human drug.

    As for Walkers comment that round-up ready crops are – “meant to foster massive use of chemical herbicides”. I am sure he knows that this is a ridiculous comment that also flies in the face of science. If he looks at the science he will see that these crops have greatly reduced the use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer. They make it possible to grow more food on much less land and greatly reduce tilling that leads to agricultural runoff and other pollution.

    So Knuck like you say forget the “feed the starving masses argument”. In this case you can make the argument (that I am sure you can appreciate) that these technologies help us preserve the environment. Sure we all have a choice. If we want to ignore the science and grow the food the old fashioned way that uses more land, more chemicals, and also creates more pollution that adds to the climate change problem then we are free to make that choice.

    “I believe that the pursuit of GMO’s to solve problems is the kind of thinking that has gotten us into many of the problems that we have.”

    What do you base this “belief” on? Obviously not science. That was the point I was trying to make above. Please describe the “problems” that this has gotten us into? GMOs are not why we have monoculture. Any organic farm out there has a monoculture, so I don’t know what you are talking about.

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  43. Walker says:

    “…genetically modified crops have NEVER ever had any negative impacts on the environment…”

    Well, maybe. The gmo genes do spread to fields where it was not planted, and it has been suggested that it may well hasten the evolution of insecticide-resistant weeds.

    I don’t know a lot about this, but it sounds like a reasonable concern.

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  44. Paul says:

    Increased USE of insecticide can hasten the evolution of insecticide-resistant plants. Let’s look at the science… The data shows that GMOs have lead to a decrease in the use of many pesticides and herbicides. How does that lead you to the conclusion that GMOs have a negative impact? It sounds like the opposite.

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  45. Paul says:

    One of the main uses of GMOs is to find naturally occurring varieties of plants that have things like higher natural resistance to pests. Plants that don’t require any pesticides in some cases. Why any area like Europe would want to abandon GMO technology is beyond comprehension. But they have been fooled by critics that have mislead the general public based on claims that have nothing to do with science. So now Europe can spray, fertilize, and till away. Welcome to the good old days. That is okay with some companies that sell the chemicals. Wow, many of those companies are based in and around Germany what an amazing coincidence!

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  46. Walker says:

    Paul, I’m sorry, you’re right, it makes no sense– the spreading of the genes can’t cause the use of additional herbicide anyway. It was something I read somewhere, and I can’t find it now.

    Anyway, what really promotes the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds is insufficient application. If herbicides are applied heavily, no weeds survive, but a light application will allow the most resistant weeds to grow and reproduce. So I imagine it is at the edges of fields where such conditions exist, and they’ll exist wherever any herbicide is used.

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  47. Paul says:

    Plants are going to continue to evolve to avoid any stress they are placed under. So heavy and light applications are a potential problem. It is hard to try and make sure you kill every plant so it cannot evolve. But yes you may be right about the edge effect. This is where we see insect resistance to BT corn occur. Increase the stress and you will likely see an increased mutation rate and changes will begin occur more quickly and frequently and that “evolutionary” process will be sped up. Or as some of our regular commenters would say, god would have a more heavy hand in promoting change in that plant!

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  48. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul: “If we want to ignore the science and grow the food the old fashioned way that uses more land, more chemicals, and also creates more pollution that adds to the climate change problem then we are free to make that choice.”

    The use of chemicals is not “old fashioned” agriculture in any real sense although for some reason the way crops have been raised for 10,000 years before the middle of the 20th century isn’t what people call old fashioned anymore.

    I understand the benefits of no-til agriculture and the increase in crop yields that are generated by what they now call “traditional” agriculture, ie spreading lots of chemicals on the soil. But there are other paradigms. There are ways to achieve high crop yields on smaller plots of land using more labor intensive techniques and far fewer herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers – or none at all. We can reduce the acreage devoted to livestock feed by eating less meat. We can find ways to reduce the food that goes to waste – something like half (40% http://www.wastedfood.com/about/ ) of all food is thrown away. 34 million tons of food waste is generated in this country every year amounting to 14% of the solid waste stream. http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-basic.htm

    I would like to see more research money being spent on those sorts of sustainability issues. We need to be thinking more holistically about how we live.

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  49. mervel says:

    I basically agree.

    But really today, I think a high percentage of our food is already genetically modified. I think all corn essentially is genetically modified, or maybe I am not understanding the term correctly? But to do no till you have to plant seeds that are genetically modified to not die when a lot of chemicals are dumped on them.

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