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E N V I R O N M E N T   &   R E S O U R C E S

Fathoming the Deep

For years, scientists working at sea have explored the ocean depths, making remarkable discoveries. But despite the success of these voyages, the sheer vastness of the ocean means that many secrets remain; a planet hidden within a planet.

What is needed now — and what ship expeditions cannot provide — is simultaneous, around-the-clock surveillance of the ocean at multiple locations. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is proposing to do just that with a network of unmanned seafloor observatories. Before seeking support from Congress for such an endeavor, however, NSF asked the Research Council to investigate the scientific merit and technical feasibility of assembling such a system.

Given the promise this information holds for advancing our knowledge in the ocean and earth sciences, a new National Research Council report urges NSF to move forward with the seafloor observatory program. It warns, however, that the system should be planned and tested carefully before it is implemented, since the cost of building the observatory infrastructure could approach several hundred million dollars, with annual costs thereafter in the tens of millions.

The observatories could provide new information to researchers in nearly every major area of marine science, the report says. For example, continuous measurements taken over long periods of time will help scientists trying to better understand, or even predict, climate change.

The real-time data that would be generated by an observatory network should be made available to the public and be used in the classroom, involving students at all grade levels in an attempt to unravel the secrets of our planet’s mysterious underwater world. — Bill Kearney

Illuminating the Hidden Planet: The Future of Seafloor Observatory Science.Committee on Seafloor Observatories, Ocean Studies Board, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (2000, 160 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07076-7; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $34.75 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by William B.F. Ryan, senior scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, N.Y; and adjunct professor, Columbia University, New York City. The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Basket of rice; ©PhotoDisc
Biotech & World Hunger

A short 30 years from now, the world’s population is expected to grow to about 8 billion, up 2 billion from today. Providing enough food will be a key challenge in supporting a population of this size. Already, about 800 million people worldwide do not have access to sufficient food to meet their daily nutritional needs. Dramatic advances will be required in food production and distribution to meet an ever-growing demand. But how can agricultural productivity be increased without devouring more land for this purpose and further damaging the environment?

Agricultural biotechnology is one tool that holds great promise for alleviating world hunger and poverty, according to a recent white paper from seven national academies of science, including five from developing countries. But recent public concerns about the effects of genetically modified crops on the environment and human health threaten to prevent their widespread use.

The white paper urges governments to base their decisions regarding biotechnology on sound science. In addition, it calls on private corporations and research institutions to share their technology with scientists and farmers in developing countries who desperately need it.

Prepared by a working group of members from the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, and U.S. academies of science, Royal Society of London, and Third World Academy of Sciences, the white paper clearly lays out the potential for genetic technology to assist developing countries. For example, a devastating plant virus in Africa has seriously threatened rice production by destroying crops and making any surviving plants more susceptible to fungal infections. Conventional approaches to controlling the virus have failed, but researchers have been able to create transgenic rice plants that are resistant to the virus. Scientists also have bred transgenic rice with high levels of vitamin A and iron, nutrients that are lacking in many developing countries.

But the concerns about genetically modified crops must be addressed before the technology gains widespread acceptance, the white paper says. Organized, concerted efforts on a global scale will be needed to quickly identify any potential health and environmental risks. Each country should establish public health regulatory systems to identify and monitor any potential human health effects of transgenic plants. And environmental concerns must be examined systematically and assessed against the agricultural technologies currently in use that cause environmental problems.

Intellectual property rights also must be examined to allow developing countries to reap the benefits of such technology, the white paper says. Private companies can obtain plant varieties free from farmers and from noncommercial organizations, add a new gene, and then sell these seeds back to farmers with legal protections against copying or reuse. The working group urged companies to allow poor farmers in developing countries to save seed for future use. — Molly Galvin

Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture.Working Group on Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture. Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Indian National Science Academy, Mexican Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of London, Third World Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2000, 46 pp.; available only on the Internet).

A Future for Pesticides

While genetically modified crops designed to produce their own pesticides may be the focus of agricultural news these days, many farmers still rely on chemical pesticides and are likely to remain dependent on them for at least the next decade, according to a new report from the Research Council.

This is in part because scientific advances and tougher regulations have forced chemical pesticides to become more “environmentally friendly” and less risky to human health. For example, new technology allows manufacturers to screen thousands of chemical compounds to determine whether they meet today’s criteria for environmental safety. In turn, this has led to the development of a growing number of pesticides that are now classified as “reduced-risk” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act’s stricter health standards have driven the riskiest pesticides from the marketplace.

Chemical pesticides also will have to remain part of pest-management strategies for the foreseeable future because alternatives or safer chemical pesticides may not be available or affordable for all farmers, especially those who plant so-called minor crops. These include most fruits and vegetables and account for nearly 17 percent of all chemical pesticide use in this country, but because they grow on only 2 percent of America’s farmland, there is less of a profit incentive for manufacturers to develop safer pesticides for them. To counter this, the government should invest in ecologically sound pest-management research that is usually not undertaken by the private sector, the report says.

Government research also is needed to support farmers hoping to compete in the organic food market. Although this market is growing at a rate of 20 percent each year in this country, only 0.1 percent of agricultural research is being devoted to organic farming.

As far as genetically modified crops are concerned, they may be safer for the environment than traditional synthetic pesticides, but questions remain about how quickly pests evolve resistance to them, how they affect nontarget species, and how their pest-destroying genes may be transferred to weedy relatives. Until answers emerge, and as long as some countries refuse to accept genetically modified foods, the United States must continue to rely on chemical pesticides as part of a larger toolbox of diverse pest-management tactics, the report says.

The committee that wrote the report noted that the safety of farm workers exposed to pesticides remains a serious concern and said studies should be conducted to determine whether current protection standards are adequate. — B.K.

The Future Role of Pesticides in U.S. Agriculture.Committee on the Future Role of Pesticides in U.S. Agriculture, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Commission on Life Sciences (2000, approx. 296 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06526-7; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $47.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

May Berenbaum, professor of entomology, University of Illinois, Urbana, chaired the committee. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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