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  • Raw Veggies Offer Superior Health Benefits

    *AUTHOR BIO Health organizations around the world continuously urge people to eat more vegetables, but studies have shown that not knowing how to cook these essential foods is why many people don’t get enough servings. Happily, many delicious and nutritiously potent vegetables can be eaten raw—and a new study, published by Frontiers in Nutrition in February 2022, says that the health benefits of eating veggies raw may be even greater than eating them cooked. The research was led by University of Oxford epidemiologist Dr. Qi Feng using 399,586 UK Biobank participants with twelve years of follow-up. The study states that higher intakes of raw, but not cooked, vegetables were associated with lower cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, including major CVD events and death. If you’re also concerned about the health of the environment, eating raw foods can help lower your carbon footprint. Simply put, cooking requires energy and creates greenhouse gas emissions, but preparing raw veggies requires no energy for heating and therefore is more environmentally friendly. The nutritional and environmental benefits are increased by purchasing sustainably and locally grown vegetables. Cooking consumes energy (left). Buying local saves energy (right). ©Rosino/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons. ©Ji-elle/Wikimedia Commons The environmental and health benefits of raw vegetables are not easily dismissed. Fortunately, it’s simple to incorporate them into your diet. What is Raw? Beyond simply being uncooked, raw veggies can be served in a variety of forms. In an article for Healthline, registered dietitian Taylor Jones wrote, “A food is considered raw if it has never been heated over 104–118°F (40–48°C).” Temperatures below this range help to retain nutrients and allow enzymes to survive. Raw foods can also include alternative preparation methods such as dehydrating, fermenting, juicing, and sprouting. Comparing the healthfulness of raw and cooked vegetables is complex because it is not entirely understood how all the molecules in plants interact with the body. To further complicate the issue, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols, enzymes, and fiber in vegetables can be altered differently, both in quantity and quality, via cooking methods. For example, one study showed that boiling carrots increases antioxidant levels (specifically beta-carotene), while another study found that it dramatically reduces vitamin C and leads to a total loss of antioxidant polyphenols that reduce the risk of CVD and cancer. Clearly, food chemistry is laden with intricacies even before the issue of biologic absorption can be digested. Raw carrot juice (left). Cooked carrot soup (right). ©Ajale/Pixabay. ©Jules/stone soup/Wikimedia Commons Potential Drawbacks and Solutions Harmful bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites can be introduced to vegetables in the field or in the process of picking, handling, and transport. Therefore, in lieu of cooking, it is essential to properly wash and store raw vegetables. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following steps for safety: Wash your hands, kitchen utensils, and food preparation surfaces, including chopping boards and countertops, before and after prep. Clean produce under cool running water (no solutions or soaps required) before eating or cutting. (Even if you do not plan to eat the peel, germs on the peel can contaminate the food when cutting.) Cutaway bruised or damaged portions. Keep produce separate from raw meats. Refrigerate within two hours and chill at 40°F or colder in a clean container. Another possible concern is that the high fiber content in raw veggies, which helps maintain a healthy digestive system and may protect against colon cancer, can cause painful gas. This can be remedied in several ways—by slowly adding raw vegetables to your diet so that the digestive system can adjust, eating veggies in small amounts throughout the day, chewing thoroughly to break down food into small particles, eating slowly to prevent swallowing excess air, and drinking extra water. Finally, some people are simply unable to digest raw cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale because these vegetables contain complex sugars called raffinose. In this case, the best solution is cooking these veggies and getting raw benefits from others. Certain Veggies Require Cooking Some plants contain natural toxins or harmful enzymes, and therefore must be cooked before being consumed. When uncertain of the safety of eating a particular vegetable raw, it’s a good idea to consult reliable sources of information. Here is a partial list. Cassava, also known as manioc or tapioca, is a root vegetable and a staple of South American cuisine. Raw cassava contains cyanogenic glycosides, which become lethal cyanide when chewed. If washed, rinsed, peeled, and cooked, this veggie contains loads of vitamins and minerals. Lima beans or butter beans also contain cyanogenic glycosides, which protect plants from being munched by animals by releasing cyanide if chewed. When fully cooked, lima beans are nutritious and safe. While castor oil has long been used for health benefits, the beans themselves can release ricin, an extremely toxic poison. Eating just one or two castor beans can cause the demise of the eater. Raw red kidney beans may not be lethal, but the toxin phytohemagglutinin can cause severe gastrointestinal discomfort akin to food poisoning. When properly cooked, red kidney beans contain ample protein, fiber, and antioxidants. Eggplant contains solanine, an alkaloid that can be toxic in large quantities. While you would need to eat a significant amount to die from consuming raw eggplant, any amount could lead to diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Cook them up. Beyond Salad You could have salads as a side dish or a main dish every day, or you might snack on raw veggies (perhaps with hummus or another dip). But because there are so many delightful raw veggie recipes, it would be a shame to limit yourself to salad. Shredded cabbage in a sweetened creamy mayonnaise sauce is a common slaw recipe, but you may not be aware that the slaw repertoire is so much more expansive. Slaws can contain a variety of shredded veggies, including broccoli, jicama, radishes, scallions, Brussels sprouts, onions, carrots, summer squash, or beets,and be adorned with cheeses, nuts, sprouts, seeds, and all flavors of sauces. Smoothies are delicious, nutritious, and convenient, and can include veggies, fruits, nuts, and more. A high-powered blender purees veggies such that even finicky eaters can’t detect them. The flavor of spinach disappears behind fruit, carrots hide within citrus, and beets blend perfectly with berries. Try some smoothie recipes and then start experimenting. Green smoothies (left) and espresso smoothie (right). ©NatureFriend/Pixabay. ©Annafood/Pixabay Refrigerator pickling is another simple process that takes vegetables (beyond cucumbers) to another level. Excellent dill, spicy, or sweet pickles can be made with green beans, carrots, radishes, onions, mushrooms, cauliflower, okra, green tomatoes, and more. Dill pickles (left). Japanese pickled celery (right). ©WDnet/Wikimedia Commons. ©Ayustety/Wikimedia Fermented vegetables are a time-tested method developed in many cultures around the world as a practical way to preserve food without cooking. Fermentation also creates probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that is fantastic for the gut microbiome. Anyone can give fermentation a try with ordinary kitchen tools—a knife, cutting board, mixing bowl, and a jar. One of the easiest fermentations is German sauerkraut, which only requires cabbage and salt! Or give Kimchi a try. South Korea’s national dish is typically spicy and sour and made from salted, fermented cabbage, radishes, or cucumbers. It is full of probiotics, vitamins, and antioxidants, and Koreans believe it can help cure flu viruses and prevent heart disease and diabetes. Cucumber kimchi (left). German sauerkraut (right). ©Chloe Lim/Wikimedia Commons. ©Dirk Ingo Franke/Wikimedia Commons There are so many raw veggie dishes from all over the world and so little space to list them all. Gazpacho, a traditional appetizer in Spain, can be a cold soup or vegetable juice. Pico de gallo (salsa fresca from Mexico) bursts with fresh tomato, onion, peppers, cilantro, lime and, frankly, joy. Italian bruschetta, Middle Eastern tahini, Japanese miso, dried herbs for seasoning and teas, nut and seed butters, nut and grain “milks,” and myriad sea vegetables … are you hungry yet? Raw isn’t a new idea. The Aztecs invented guacamole in the 16th century and fermentation was (accidentally) discovered more than 10,000 years ago in Africa on a hot day (yogurt!). Take a raw trip back in time or take a raw culinary trip around the world or just go eat a salad. No matter how you do raw veggies, your body will thank you. *Julie Peterson writes on health and environmental issues from the Midwestern United States.

  • Breathe Deeply for A Better World

    *AUTHOR BIO Can deep breathing be beneficial for people with respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)? Several studies suggest that it can. But what is deep breathing and what does it entail? And how might deep breathing techniques fit in with conventional treatments for respiratory disorders? COPD is an often-preventable chronic inflammatory lung disease often referred to as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Smoking tobacco is a major risk factor for COPD, but non-smokers may develop it too. A progressive and incurable disease, COPD slowly inflames and thickens lung airways and destroys the tissues where oxygen is exchanged. As one’s air flow becomes constricted, the body has to work harder to function, so COPD is known for causing shortness of breath and severe fatigue. COPD causes serious long-term disability and is the third leading cause of death globally. In addition to COPD, other causes of poor breathing include asthma; heart problems; anxiety; stress; and infection in the airways from conditions such as croup, bronchitis, pneumonia and colds. Exploring “Free Diving” Techniques for Problematic Lung Conditions The conventional treatment for problematic lung conditions is pulmonary rehabilitation, which consists mainly of a physical exercise program along with instruction and a regimen designed to care for the body and lungs. While length of pulmonary rehabilitation courses can vary widely, the uncomfortable symptoms of COPD can make participation in physical activity unpleasant. So, these rehab programs, while helpful, are prone to significant dropout rates, and it can be difficult to keep patients motivated enough to continue exercising after completion of the program. A common exercise in pulmonary rehabilitation is pursed lip breathing (PLB). This involves exhalation through tightly pressed lips, followed by inhalation with the mouth closed, which reduces air trapping and reduces the amount of work in breathing. In diaphragmatic breathing (DB), patients inhale deeply and slowly through the nose for ten seconds, followed by deep and slow exhalation. See the role of the diaphragm in breathing (left). What about the breath-holding techniques used by “free divers” who go deep into water for many minutes without scuba gear? A six-week pilot study (Borg, M et al (2021) conducted by Danish researchers investigated this idea. Nine female patients with moderate to severe COPD were shown breathing techniques tailored for COPD patients by free divers from the Danish national free diving team. The techniques included learning how to inhale to full lung capacity, use PLB to release while performing side bends, and breathe in a rhythm adapted to gait and activity. The aim was to enable COPD patients to experience shortness of breath in a safe environment while performing moderate exercises and walking. The study found that participants were able to increase the distance walked in six minutes by 48.5 metres (52 yards) and significantly reduce their respiratory rate from 22 to 19 breaths per minute during the recovery period. (The normal adult respiration rate is 12 to 16 breaths per minute). This small, explorative study suggested that COPD patients could both benefit from—and adhere to—these new breathing techniques in daily life. “We believe the results are promising” and worthy of a large, randomized trial to compare their efficacy to conventional pulmonary rehabilitation, wrote lead researcher Dr. Morten Borg, Department of Respiratory Diseases at Aalborg University Hospital in Aalborg, Denmark. Stress and Breathing—Helpful Techniques Under normal circumstances, people do not pay much attention to their breathing—it’s easy and automatic. However, no one is immune to stress, and under certain circumstances, high levels of stress can greatly impact breathing. Patrick McKeown is an internationally acclaimed breathing coach, speaker, and author of The Breathing Cure: Develop New Habits for a Healthier, Happier and Longer Life. He notes that stress often prompts the body to take in more oxygen than it actually needs (over-breathing or chronic hyperventilation), thanks to a pattern of fast and shallow breathing. Put another way, taking short breaths of air when stressed is not helpful because the air goes no further than the upper chest, and that can perpetuate more stress while causing less oxygen to reach vital human organs. McKeown advocates learning to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth. Nose-breathing, he says, improves the quality of the inhaled air before it enters the lungs and provides a line of defense against viruses and bacteria. He claims that nose-breathing results in 10% to 20% better oxygenation of internal organs and cells, and also introduces nitric oxide (NO) into the body—the latter is produced in sinuses around the nose and sterilizes air during breathing. NO is known to act as an antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial agent, as well as a bronchodilator in the lungs. McKeown suggests the use of breathing exercises to resolve stress, reduce anxiety, avoid headaches, and lessen back pain. Here is one such technique: Sit in a straight-backed chair Calm your breathing by taking in a small breath for two seconds through your nose, and then another small breath, this time for three seconds, through your mouth. Pinch your nose to hold your breath, keeping the mouth closed. Gently nod your head up and down or sway from side to side until you can’t hold your breath any longer. Let go of your nose and breathe gently through it. This will make your breathing calmer and more relaxed, and it will remove any blockage in the nose. Other Deep Breathing Techniques Studies of Hatha Yoga, which emphasizes deep breathing and the importance of posture, have found various benefits including reduced stress, easing depression and anxiety, and increasing muscle flexibility. Meanwhile, Dutch “extreme athlete” Wim Hof says certain “conscious” deep-breathing techniques can help people succeed in difficult situations like mountain-climbing, and heighten focus, reduce stress, and build a stronger immune system to fight disease. His method includes two more pillars: intentional exposure to cold weather (which can lead to a build-up of desirable brown adipose tissue and reduction of inflammation), and development of personal will power and commitment. Among conventional medical practitioners and the American Lung Association, PLB and DM are still the top deep-breathing techniques. Deep breathing is also often recommended as a means of recovery from COVID-19. However, some precautions are recommended, including avoidance of forced or prolonged expiration. The use of home air purifiers can also aid healthy breathing, but it’s important to choose the right air purifier for particular respiratory conditions. While many people are able to take breathing for granted, those who develop respiratory conditions may find deep-breathing techniques to be quite beneficial for the relief of constrained airways and stress. Numerous studies support this approach, particularly for patients of COPD. However, it’s important to consult professional practitioners first, so that the techniques involved can be performed properly and efficiently. *Robin Whitlock is an England-based freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues, climate change, and renewable energy, with a variety of other professional interests including green transportation.

  • Can Healthy Soil Mitigate Natural Disasters?

    *AUTHOR BIO The solution to some of the world’s most prevalent and catastrophic problems, such as natural disasters, may be closer than we think. In fact, it may be right beneath our feet. Healthy soil benefits every aspect of life, either directly or indirectly. One of the most instrumental—and perhaps surprising—ways soil impacts life for both people and the planet is by helping to mitigate natural disasters. Often, well-intentioned government policies react to natural disasters with initiatives to improve weather forecasting, and crop insurance and disaster relief programs. However, their focus primarily addresses the symptoms of disasters, rather than their causes. Soil conditions play a major role in many natural disasters, such as droughts, flooding, landslides, erosion, and dust storms. Creating optimum soil health not only increases the chances of good harvests, but it protects against natural disasters—healthy soil, for example, can more easily handle flooding than soil that has been neglected and is dry and compacted. What is Healthy Soil? Soil environments that are surrounded by various relevant and luscious plants and organic matter and filled with worms, insects and microbes are considered to be flourishing and healthy. In contrast, when soil has low biological activity, it sets off a cascade of negative effects. For example, low soil biology leads to the collapse of soil aggregation, resulting in compaction. Compacted soil has poor rates of water infiltration and water retention. Soil that water cannot infiltrate, either by precipitation or irrigation, is highly susceptible to disasters like flooding, runoff, erosion, drought, and dust storms. An infamous example is the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster in the United States. That decade-long calamity occurred after inexperienced farmers moved into the semi-arid Southern Plains territories and removed acres of deep-rooted prairie grass to plant cash crops like wheat and corn. As the Great Depression deepened and seed prices rose, thousands of farmers left their acres bare. As severe droughts struck, these flat, treeless lands became parched, and high winds created huge dust storms that caused unprecedented topsoil loss—and deepened the poverty and displacement of the settlers. Droughts, erosion, dust storms and other natural disasters “are exacerbated by poor soil health management,” said Dr. Allen Williams, a sixth-generation family farmer and founding partner of Understanding Ag, LLC, and non-profit Soil Health Academy, both headquartered in Fort Payne, Alabama. “It is impossible to separate the disaster issues from poor soil health,” he said, adding that—as happened during the Dust Bowl days—“soils exposed to nature’s elements are far more likely to experience natural disasters.” “Regenerative Agriculture” Both Understanding Ag and Soil Health Academy are at the forefront of “regenerative agriculture,” a promising approach to farming and food systems. “Regenerative agriculture” is an umbrella term for a variety of practices—such as the use of cover crops and livestock and reducing or eliminating tillage—to intentionally enhancing soil health and rehabilitating and conserving land. Building soil health is a structural improvement that conserves and retains water during drought conditions or absorbs and constrains it during floods. Moreover, regenerative agricultural practices work to keep the soil and its health intact during all weather conditions to ensure it is not blown or washed away or otherwise adversely affected. Education in regenerative agriculture principles and practices is a core sustainable tool available to farmers and owners of the land, large or small. “We do not need special technology, tools and software to implement regenerative principles successfully,” said Dr. Williams, who has consulted with some 4,000 farmers and ranchers in 34 countries on implementing the new practices. The 6-3-4 Approach to Soil Health The agricultural industry consultancy, Understanding Ag, is made of farmers and ranchers who believe the practice of regenerative agriculture will lead to productive, profitable, and resilient farms worldwide. Its key training mechanism is called the “6-3-4” approach, which comprises six principles of soil health, three rules of adaptive stewardship, and four ecosystem processes. These core principles are: 6 Principles of Soil Health. Know one’s context; minimize soil disturbance; cover soil and build surface armor; mix it up; keep living roots in the soil; and grow healthy animals and soil together. 3 Rules of Adaptive Stewardship. Respect nature—namely considerations and activities relating to its diversity, compounding or interdependence, and disruption. 4 Ecosystem Processes. Energy flow, water cycle, mineral and nutrient cycle, and plant and animal diversity should be understood and prioritized. “Through many years of very practical, hands-on experience, the Six Principles, Three Rules and Four Ecosystem processes are the key to successful regenerative agriculture,” said Dr. Williams. “Knowing your context, minimizing disturbance, keeping soil covered or armored, [keeping] living roots in the ground year-round, increasing diversity (of plants, soil microbes, insects, birds), and the proper livestock integration are all equally important,” said Dr. Williams. Farmers may want to “cherry-pick” their principles, but that system can result in less-than-desirable results, he added. Criticism and education Sceptics of regenerative agriculture fault it for its lofty claims. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Andrew McGuire, an agronomist with Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, wrote in 2018. Research, for instance, hasn’t answered enough questions about whether mixtures of cover crops are superior to monoculture cover crops, he wrote. Other critics worry that some no-till farmers will use chemicals to remove crops at the end of a season or that the regenerative methods are overhyped, and/or not feasible for all farmers. Understanding Ag said farmers in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Canada have successfully applied and implemented the 6-3-4 approach across all soil types and climates, and with all agricultural products, such as row crops, produce crops, fruit crops, nut crops and livestock. The company further said it knows of case studies in which regenerative farms exhibited great resilience in flooding and drought conditions, and that there is evidence deserts can be “greened” using regenerative principles “We have personally witnessed significant improvement in soil health, ecosystem health, water quality, and food nutrient density” using the method, Dr. Williams said, adding that in the US, about 32 million acres are under regenerative transition. Food companies have shown interest in the 6-3-4 approach, according to Understanding Ag, which said it is working with General Mills to educate their wheat, oat, and dairy farmers in regenerative agriculture principles. Educating consumers Understanding Ag and the Soil Health Academy are offering educational resources through their schools, online curriculum, monthly articles and webinars, podcasts, workshops, conferences, and farm tours. Consumer-oriented workshops and farm tours introduce regenerative agriculture. These activities aim to show, first-hand, what healthy soil looks like and smells like, and show how much better water infiltrates the land. When people see it, “they are immediately sold on the concept,” Dr. Williams said. Citizens can play a pivotal role in promoting positive soil health by learning how regenerative agriculture can mitigate natural disasters, improve ecosystem health, and produce nutrient-dense foods that promote health and well-being. Consumers can also vote with their food-purchase dollars and ask for foods produced through regenerative agriculture principles. “Just like the farmers must educate themselves, consumers must also have an awareness and understanding of the importance and potential of regenerative agriculture,” said Dr. Williams. “Farmers represent a very small percentage of the population,” he added, “so consumers hold the real power of meaningful change.” *Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and editor. Over the past 10 years, Natasha has reported for a host of publications, exploring the wider world and industries from environmental, scientific, business, legal, and sociological perspectives. Natasha has also been interviewed as an insight provider for research institutes and conferences. Editorial notes Sources: Interview with Dr Allen Williams, sixth generation family farmer and Founding Partner of Understanding Ag and Soil Health Academy Case Studies - Understanding Ag Las Damas Ranch Case Study - Understanding Ag

  • Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) at a Political Crossroads

    *AUTHOR BIO Connecticut may be located in southern New England in the US, but it’s also part of the New York City tri-state area, where urban redevelopment and suburban growth are significant concerns. The population demands, especially in the last couple of years with many New Yorkers relocating to the state because of COVID-19, has led local and state officials to consider several transit-oriented development proposals (TOD). By building new and redeveloping existing residential and commercial projects near public transportation hubs, TOD projects can help mitigate overdevelopment and traffic congestion. But officials and residents who favor TOD face various barriers to having TOD proposals come to fruition partly because of Connecticut’s local political power (or home rule) structure and the lack of regional efforts to address overdevelopment. Smart growth strategies, like transit-oriented development, foster planned communities and address sustainable approaches to redeveloping older cities and new development in many suburbs and outer suburbs, or exurbs. These living, working, and commuting options allow mobility for residents across various communities. Most importantly, they do not need to rely on constant use of personal automobiles as residents can often bicycle, walk, or take public transportation. Ultimately, TOD proposals allow officials and developers to build or revitalize around train stations, bus stations, and ferry terminals. Connecticut will receive significant federal transportation funds ($5.4 billion) from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021. Part of the appropriations will help finance new development around existing and new commuter train stations, especially along the new Hartford Line from Massachusetts to New Haven, which connects Metro-North commuter trains to New York City and Amtrak’s northeast regional lines. With additional state bonds, Connecticut is planning to add a new Enfield station and Windsor Locks station to the Hartford Line, which is near Bradley International Airport. Eventually, a direct bus route will serve between the train station and airport. Affluent West Hartford was also considered, and may be in future plans for a new train station in its Parkville commercial area and Elmwood neighborhood. Developers are especially interested in building new apartments near a proposed station in this upscale Hartford suburb. Community leaders and organizations as well as state and local officials are aiming to make new train stations in TOD hubs with federal funds and state bonds. These investments can help address suburban sprawl and car congestion in the future. If state and local stakeholders are successful, their initiatives could also serve as a case study in urban renewal and as an example of shared governmental financing, public transit, and green development policymaking. But many of these development concepts are new approaches for many residents, compared to what other states and localities have already accomplished with smart growth planning. New Jersey and Maryland as TOD Models Nearby states like New Jersey and Maryland have strategized around their existing transit hubs. Their state governments emphasized future growth proposals that would revitalize specific areas near public transportation. Officials also identified where new growth would develop near current or future transit communities. Both New Jersey and Maryland experienced significant sprawl or overdevelopment concerns, especially in their suburban and exurban municipalities. Traffic, sprawl, and mobility became chief concerns for many residents and officials. In the 1990s, these states proposed smart growth and sustainable strategies to address future growth. In addition to TOD projects, they also targeted where new and revitalized growth could be centered across a number of urban and suburban counties. Officials also advanced various moratoriums to prevent overdevelopment in protected areas. Most importantly, Maryland and New Jersey officials at all levels of government incentivized policies and funding towards specific projects that were sustainable. Grants, loans, and zoning variances attracted various developers and investors to develop and revitalize in many communities. In Newark, New Jersey, officials rebuilt parts of their downtown with workforce housing for local educators through a newly developed “Teachers’ Village” community near the city’s major bus exchange and nearby main Newark Pennsylvania Train Station. Then-Mayor (and current US Senator) Cory Booker emphasized these kinds of themed urban village concepts, which I researched and wrote about when I lived in New Jersey’s largest city. Future Newark plans include new TOD development around the northern edge of downtown, adjacent to New Jersey Transit’s Broad Street Station. These Newark examples point to TOD projects and revitalizing an urban downtown. Smaller New Jersey cities, like Rahway, already had a bustling New Jersey Transit train station centered in its downtown. But some fifteen projects have been constructed or renovated because it was designated early-on as a New Jersey Transit Village. More and new development has taken place around the station, especially in the last decade as a result of local, county and state grants, loans, and zoning changes. Maryland’s largest cities, like Baltimore, classified areas as TOD projects especially near area light rail train stations. Suburban and exurban communities between Baltimore and Washington, DC were also identified for Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) for directing aid to specific areas. Plus, the state’s University of Maryland houses a sustainable think tank, the National Center for Smart Growth, that drafts proposals and various studies on economic development approaches. Connecticut’s Limitations Unlike Maryland and New Jersey, Connecticut remains at a development crossroads. For a state that does not offer an accredited graduate planning program, urban and suburban development approaches are often lacking. Connecticut is also void of county power and regionalization, whereas New Jersey and Maryland were able to institute sustainable development approaches decades ago through shared governance. When Connecticut did away with county government in the 1960s, local governments’ home rule or local authority became more powerful. This included municipal decision-making on planning and zoning of local projects, even though county power was already limited. Connecticut’s municipalities vary on development proposals, but many towns maintain rigid, single-use zoning for specific single-family housing residential development. Often, lot sizes may be acres per house, unlike urban or more traditional suburban house tracts that allow for multiple-family housing units or commercial zoning use. Recently, Connecticut officials have been debating housing proposals, zoning approaches, and TOD models. Many opponents or NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) advocates and progressive housing supporters have politicized various state policy proposals addressing housing and TOD proposals. HB 5429 in the Connecticut General Assembly, for example, would allow the state to have development as-of-right housing near public transportation hubs. There would also be a specific percentage (at least 10%) of affordable housing in new TOD developments. There has been supportive lobbying for the bill by organizations and leaders like Partnership for Strong Communities’ Kiley Gosselin and DesegregateCT’s founder and Cornell University Professor Sara Bronin. Ultimately, Connecticut officials must address home rule authority and shared governance approaches—along with sustainable development proposals. But the bipartisan HB 5429 proposal has some state lawmakers against the bill because it would allow developers not to go before a public hearing or a town zoning board for building approvals. Republican State Representative Kimberly Fiorello has argued that TOD housing is not a right because it is subject to market demands. Some Democratic lawmakers, including State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, have voiced their concerns against the proposal because it limits home rule decision-making about developments near Metro-North train stations. Some counter that opponents of the bill are against affordable housing options and public transit modalities, particularly in wealthier Fairfield County shoreline towns. No surprise then, committee hearings and editorials for the bill have been dramatic—both for and against the legislative proposal. Unfortunately, what has gotten lost among the debates about HB 5429 and other TOD proposals is that Connecticut retains a strongly local-centered government process. Home rule by local officials is powerful and state government is limited, even when it comes to TOD strategies. Besides, Connecticut has largely developed itself based on local zoning laws that limit various development approaches. Even the state’s transportation financing has come under fire by public transit and urbanist advocates. Ultimately, Connecticut officials must address home rule authority and shared governance approaches—along with sustainable development proposals. Federal funds can be a start to smart growth and TOD proposals, but Connecticut’s state and local officials will also have to consider how other states have been successful with such projects and evaluate home rule best practices for future sustainable development. *Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies Associate Dean and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. He served on New Haven’s City Plan Commission, and his state and local government research centers on economic development in the New York City tri-state area.

  • “Power for the People”—How Solar Mini-Grids Help the Disadvantaged

    *AUTHOR BIO Electricity is a fundamental lifeblood of our 21st century lives—and few of us could imagine living without it. With electricity fulfilling such a huge part of our daily needs, we often expect it to be provided by large, powerful energy companies operating on state sponsored infrastructure. But the need for such companies to compete economically and provide huge amounts of power often means they resort to the cheapest—and dirtiest—methods of doing so. However, changes are afoot. The reduced cost and increased efficiency of renewable technologies means people can now uncouple their power supply from the energy giants. Across the globe, communities are banding together to create their own energy networks, or mini-grids. What is a Mini-Grid? A mini-grid is a miniaturized version of the national grids which power our countries. Often, they are separate from the main grid and are designed to serve specific homes or communities. Since they are not required to power entire cities or states, they have much lower energy generation requirements and come in a series of shapes and sizes. Some may power dozens of homes, while others could potentially power thousands. In theory, a mini-grid could be powered by any power source, but the lower energy demands of mini-grids also makes them ideal for renewable energy, such as solar and wind. By taking advantage of such technologies, communities across the world, including underserved ones, can benefit. In particular, mini-grids can help to provide electricity to isolated rural communities or make life more affordable for neighborhoods in bustling metropolises. Solar Solutions One of the most common forms of mini-grid is the “community solar project.” This involves groups of households coming together to purchase solar arrays on a larger scale. Participants within the mini-grid can either pay for part of the array and receive their contribution back in energy credits (reducing their energy bills) or join a subscription-based system. The subscription model is much more common and is like a traditional energy contract. Homes within a certain radius of a community solar project can subscribe to the mini-grid and receive clean electricity from it. With this approach, the subscriber does not own any part of the mini-grid themselves but helps maintain it with their payments. This is great for renters or for people whose homes are impractical for their own solar panels. This differs from a normal “green power program” which has also become increasingly popular. With green power programs, homeowners can elect to receive a larger share of their power from renewable energies. There is a common misconception that green power programs provide power directly from renewable sources. Instead, they merely include a larger proportion of green energy within their mix. Of course, these companies still function on a for-profit basis, and their green energy is often priced as a premium product. Within a renewably sourced mini-grid, the electricity is usually provided at a hefty discount. As well as being potentially cleaner and cheaper, mini-grids provide other benefits. By being positioned geographically closer to their end users, mini-grids can generate and transfer power at a lower voltage, without needing to “step down” the electricity to a distribution voltage. Often power is lost in this process, and it also requires extensive infrastructure such as power cables and substations. All this needs additional land, expenses, and equipment insulated with sulfur hexafluoride—a potent greenhouse gas. Power for the Disadvantaged However, mini-grids are not simply a money-saving project for middle class, environmentally conscious suburban communities. Localized, clean power has the potential to benefit hugely different people across the globe. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by 2016, around 133 million people were served by off-grid renewables, with about 2.1 million people connected to solar mini-grid networks. Growth was especially large in the Global South. Between 2008 and 2016, mini-grid users tripled to nearly 9 million across Asia and grew six-fold to 1.3 million across Africa. Central to mini-grids' potential is their ability to electrify previously off-grid communities, such as rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these communities rely on fossil fuel generators or other dirty sources for electricity, which are expensive, unhealthy, and require logistical efforts. Even if communities are connected to national grids, there is often not enough power to go around, resulting in blackouts. Mini-grids can help bolster these communities with cheap, clean energy. For example, projects such as SolShare in Bangladesh have used “Internet of Things” devices to connect separate solar arrays into one complete network. This allows the surplus generated to be sent to other households, even if they do not own a panel themselves. Other digital technologies are also being used to better develop mini-grids. Organizations such as Village Data Analytics have been using satellite imagery and machine learning algorithms to identify rural African villages which could most benefit from mini-grid electrification. Their platform can spot buildings, identify markets and hospitals, and generally direct renewable energy companies to the best spots for mini-grid installation. Information about such communities is often lacking even within their own national governments. But some of the world’s most developed cities can also benefit. For example, in New York City community solar projects have been established in traditionally deprived neighborhoods to offset living costs. The Solar One project aims to add solar panels to residential buildings in underserved districts of the city. The money saved from the mini-grid will then be used to subsidize free high-speed Wi-Fi for the residents, around 16 percent of which lack an internet connection. The recent coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the impact this “digital divide” can have on education and opportunities. But there are challenges to mini-grids. Starting and expanding local projects often requires expensive equipment, such as batteries and smart power management software, which can lead to high initial costs. Despite their grassroots nature, mini-grids often require capital from investment groups to get off the ground. Although platforms, such as the UK’s Community Energy England, exist to make things simpler, access to finance is still one of the major hurdles. Another hurdle is regulatory. Developing a mini-grid comes with a plethora of bureaucratic and technical specifications to ensure the safety of the mini-grid. Although such specifications are often streamlined for developing nations, existing regulations can put off potential users and increase the cost, or risk to mini-grid investors. But what is clear is that the world is on the cusp of an energy revolution. Instead of being passive consumers of anonymous power coming through wall sockets, many consumers are now mobilizing to ensure they benefit from cleaner and more ethical electricity. If nothing else, the spread of mini-grid shows that the stranglehold of major power companies can be broken to the benefit of all, especially disadvantaged communities. In a way, they can literally provide “power to the people.” *Mark Newton is a Berlin-based freelance journalist and researcher originally from the UK. After specializing in conflict and security studies, he has recently shifted his focus towards sustainability and environmental concerns.

  • Food Prices Continue to Rise Sharply

    To no one’s surprise, global food prices are rising “sharply” (UN). We won’t have annual numbers for 2022 for a while, but, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2021 prices were already setting the trend. Let’s look at food price hikes for the year that was. Food Price Hikes 2021 2021’s international food prices vaulted over 2020: The FAO’s global Food Price Index (FPI) average for 2021 was 125.7 points, 28.1% higher than in 2020. Even though the FPI saw a 0.09% decline from November 2021 to year’s end, that period was still up by 23.1% from the same period in 2020. The Cereal Price Index in 2021 reached its highest annual level since 2012, an increase of 27.2%. The biggest gainer among the cereals for 2021 was maize, up a whopping 44.1%. Wheat came in second, at a gain of 31.3%. Rice prices fared much better, declining by 4%. The Vegetable Oil Price Index struck a record high, up 65.8% compared with 2020. The Meat Price Index rose 12.7% for the year. The Dairy Price Index averaged 16.9% higher than 2020. And what about 2022? FAO Senior Economist Abdolreza Abbassian said there is “little room for optimism about a return to more stable market conditions” in 2022. Source: UN News Global perspective Human stories

  • Squirrel Wars: May the Martens Be with You

    *AUTHOR BIO The Highlands of Scotland are the last bastion of the beloved native red squirrel in Great Britain. Now even this most remote of outposts is under siege. North American grey squirrels are using the improved transport links of tree-lined highway A9 as a corridor to advance steadily northwards. These squirrels can carry a disease that threatens the very existence of their beautiful, russet-colored cousins. Help is at hand, however, from a very unlikely source. The pine marten, a grey squirrel predator, is being encouraged to breed in strategic areas to act as unofficial border guards. The Scottish government agency, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), has begun the process of installing thirty-five artificial pine marten dens along grey squirrel migration routes in a bid to protect the native reds. The need is urgent. For the first time, grey squirrels have been sighted north of the village of Dunkeld on the edge of the Highlands and are advancing on the eastern front up the coast from Angus into Aberdeenshire. A charitable organization is working with the government to preserve the red squirrels’ remaining habitat from encroaching grey squirrels. “Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrel Project is working in key areas, defending the highland line to make sure the grey squirrel doesn’t spread beyond that,” said Dr. Emma Sheehy, conservation officer with Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels. “There is disease in the grey squirrel population, and we want to make sure they are not able to pass beyond that barrier,” she said. Grey squirrels already have a decades-old colony in the northern city of Aberdeen, which sits above the highland line. The colony was established accidentally when a group of squirrels escaped from a children’s petting zoo in the 1970s. The Aberdeen colony currently has a population of a few thousand, disease-free squirrels. “But, the risk is that, if unmanaged, the grey squirrels in Aberdeen will continue spreading, and if they connect with the [grey squirrel] population in the south that do have the disease, then the infectious disease would go into the Grampian and Highlands red squirrel population,” Dr. Sheehy said. That would be “really devastating.” “Removing the grey squirrels in the northeast is a really key piece of red squirrel conservation in the UK,” she added. The disease in question—squirrel pox—is what makes the “squirrel war” urgent. Seven out of ten of Great Britain’s grey squirrels carry squirrel pox, a highly contagious, viral disease so deadly it can kill a red within five days, but to which the greys are immune. Gareth Ventress, an environment forester for FLS, who has been installing pine marten boxes, is confident that this culling-by-predator is necessary to protect an indigenous species from extinction. “If grey squirrels were a native species and were outcompeting another native species, that’s just nature and we would just be looking at habitat management rather than culling,” he said. “But if you have an invasive species outcompeting the native species, and then you add the squirrel pox, it’s really about stopping them getting into the Highlands and trying to hold the highland line.” He adds that no matter how successful the pine marten patrols are, they can’t eradicate grey squirrels from Scotland; the country’s southern cities have extremely large populations. In contrast, in England, red squirrels are almost extinct, with only a few pockets surviving in parts of Wales. With a team of three or four co-workers, Mr. Ventress selects woodlands that already contain pine martens and are “grey squirrel-friendly”—an attractive habitat with abundant food sources. Mr. Ventress finds trees that are about 1.2 miles (2km) apart and ropes his boxes to the trees, so they are high off the ground. Many trees on grey squirrel migration routes are not yet old enough to have the cavities pine martens need for their nests, so the man-made boxes are intended to replicate what a pine marten would look for in a mature woodland. “We put the boxes up in the air because the pine marten needs to feel safe and warm. If we didn’t have these boxes, the pine marten would end up in a buzzard nest, which is open to the elements and not that great if you have young kits for sleeping,” Dr. Sheehy said. Nests on the ground are vulnerable to attack by badgers and foxes, she said, “so what you want are arboreal cavities, which these boxes are replicating.” When pine martens are established in greater numbers, they will reduce the grey squirrel population by killing them or scaring them off, Mr. Ventress said. This is because if there are high numbers of predators around, it creates a “landscape of fear” that will impact the surviving squirrels’ “fitness and breeding success,” he explained. Dr. Sheehy stressed that this is a long-term project—any impact on grey squirrel numbers is not expected to be seen for at least a decade. “Pine martens, as a species, don’t move quickly. Things take a really long time, and they are really slow breeders,” she said. “For example, it would be 2025 at the earliest before a female [pine marten] born this spring would have her own offspring,” Dr. Sheehy said. “It would be even longer before the next generation comes along. Things don’t happen very quickly.” “Pine martens, as a species, don’t move quickly. Things take a really long time, and they are really slow breeders.” However, evidence from Ireland, which like the UK is one of the few countries in the world that has both types of squirrels, indicates that by encouraging pine martens, the grey squirrel population can be reduced to a great extent. “It’s taken about ten to fifteen years in Ireland, and we don’t know how far behind Scotland is,” Dr. Sheehy said. To the lay person, one of the most puzzling elements of this story is why pine martens are a threat to one type of squirrel but not both. Dr. Sheehy believes that while greys are “naïve” to the threat of pine martens as a predator, reds evolved together with the pine martens over millennia and are aware of the danger they pose. “One experiment carried out showed red squirrels became much more vigilant when pine marten skat was sprayed on their feeders, but grey squirrels acted like nothing had happened. This indicates they aren’t picking up the cue a dangerous predator is around, which makes them far more susceptible,” Dr. Sheehy said. Another advantage red squirrels have are their much smaller heads, allowing them to squeeze into tighter spaces and out of the reach of a ravenous pine marten. There are several charities in each nation across the United Kingdom set up to stop the red squirrel from going extinct. The townsfolk of Pitlochry and Dunkeld are generally in favor of the introduction of the pine marten dens, but not everyone is on board. There are some people who disagree with the plan, “as we are killing animals and people don’t like that,” said Mr. Ventress. Also, “some people were a bit anti having pine martens because of their effect on the songbirds in spring and the potential effect on red squirrels as well. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, that’s for sure.” But others support this novel effort to save the red squirrels, and many have already volunteered to take part in the trapping and culling of the greys, Mr. Ventress said. *Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.

  • Alice in a Wondrous Land—Malawi Women Farmers’ Quest for Sustainability

    *AUTHOR BIO The Earth & I asked Ms. Alice Kachere, a Malawi smallholder farmer and global women’s advocate, to inform our readers of the challenges and successes of smallholder women farmers in Malawi, who are striving to farm successfully without the security of property rights, adequate training, or advanced farming technology. Alice’s Story I am a smallholder farmer from Kalumbu, Lilongwe, Malawi, with three children and three grandchildren. I grew up in a farming family. When my husband died in 2003, I began to farm on my own. But because only the husband can own land, I lost the right to farm our land when he died and I had to appeal for permission to stay on farming there. I worked tirelessly in the fields, sweating year after year to grow and harvest the cash crops of tobacco and maize. But because I was incurring great losses in the process, I received little to no profits. This changed in 2006 when I joined the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM). Through my association with NASFAM, I joined the bandwagon of legume and livestock farmers—dairy and legumes offer improved nutrition and market prices—which has improved my livelihood tremendously. In 2007, I was selected as a board member of NASFAM and became a chairperson of NASFAM in 2009. In 2012, I was selected as a member of the World Farmers’ Organization’s Women’s committee, and today I am a chairperson of the Rural Women’s Assembly, Malawi chapter. Prior to joining NASFAM, I was farming, but not as a business. It was subsistence farming, like that of many of our rural dwellers. As a single woman, I had to depend on steady family labor as well as seasonal, casual laborers to help with land preparation, weeding and harvesting. Our basic tool is a hand hoe. And I couldn’t farm just for the sake of it; I had to earn a living from it to pay school fees for my children and care for my elderly mother when she was alive. I saw I needed a different approach to farming to offer a more meaningful benefit to my life, and NASFAM has shown me how to move into agribusiness, largely focusing on producing and marketing. When I look back now, sometimes I don’t believe it is me who has accomplished all that I have done since striking out on my own. The growth of my business gives me the drive to keep on going. Most importantly, I have acquired skills and developed a reasonable network to push my business forward. The Challenges of Farming in Malawi Farming in Malawi is not easy. I still rely on the hand hoe to farm. I don’t have appropriate farming equipment, such as tractors. Even when I do all that I can to follow good agricultural practices, farming as a business suffers from the effects of climate change and pests like armyworms. There is also a lack of a conducive business environment, limited access to financial services (interest rates are high), lack of ownership and control of land, no crop insurance, and farm gate prices (crop prices if purchased at the farm) that don’t consider the cost of production. Malawi’s farming tools (left). Armyworm on a soybean plant (right). ©Swathi Sridharan, Wikipedia Commons. ©JCesar/Pixabay As a rural farmer, my dream is to go into “value addition” or changing products to a more valuable state. I want to be able to both produce and process crops. I just need access to machinery and investment capital—loans that are not punitive, but serve as a catalyst to move me higher up the value chain. Farming as a Woman in Malawi Farming is a source of livelihood for many families in Malawi, especially in rural areas of the country. Today, women in Malawi contribute a great deal to the agricultural sector, primarily through crop and livestock farming. In fact, the contribution of women farmers exceeds 70% of Malawi’s farming sector. However, due to high illiteracy levels, rural farming initiatives are hampered by lack of knowledge on modern farming techniques and marketing skills as well as poor infrastructure and inadequate resources. In Malawi’s culture, land resources are generally owned by males, thus depriving women of adequate land and farming opportunities. Many men earn money doing “piece work” outside the agriculture sector, so they do not spend too much time on farms. This can create frustrating problems when the men are asked to make crucial decisions about their family’s farming activities. Women farmers in Malawi further lack exposure to modern farming technologies and such things as processing and packaging. Training opportunities, such as in manure making and storage and marketing for farm produce, are minimal. Due to women farmers’ high poverty levels, they focus on short-term farming for quick realization of income and food security. But this strategy offers very little opportunity compared to pursuing agricultural investments for the long term. Advancements for Women Farmers in Malawi Despite the challenges, Malawi women farmers can now form cooperatives and village level groups that offer a helping hand to meet the labor requirements of different farming processes and seasonal demands. This development has afforded them soft loan opportunities through Village Savings and Loan initiatives. Malawi has also established favorable policies with the aim of promoting agricultural activities. The existence of controls in agricultural markets has eliminated middlemen who brought unfavorable price fluctuations for farm produce. Malawi has generally favorable climatic conditions that enable farmers to cultivate and harvest crops through rain-fed and irrigation-based farming. Most parts of Malawi have a good topography, soil suitable for small-scale farming, and adequate and suitable water reservoirs. Because of these natural advantages and financing and policy advancements, women in Malawi can now harvest food crops, ranging from cereals to vegetables, as well as cash crops like tobacco and cotton. Like farming anywhere, high quality inputs—such as seed, fertilizer, energy, pest controls, equipment and livestock feed—into farming activities are crucial for Malawi’s women farmers to achieve better yields. In addition, proper livestock management is crucial for them to ensure livestock health and increased earnings. Biodiversity and Farm Yield Women farmers have put biodiversity conservation at the heart of their operations through converting land to forests and adding composite manures to enrich and conserve the soil. They have planted cereals, legumes, tubers and herbs as soil nutrients. Moreover, new “tree plantations” have helped to reduce soil degradation and improve water conservation, which assists in irrigation farming. Through all of these things, Malawi has seen a tremendous boost in yield resulting in higher produce proceeds in the markets. Impact of COVID-19 Agriculture is the main contributor to Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product and the pandemic battered the nation’s GDP by shrinking global markets and lowering levels of agricultural exports. Women farmers in Malawi were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways. Curfews and lockdowns closed markets for their farm produce. Restrictions on Village Savings and Loan meetings negatively affected the progress of farm-financing and knowledge-sharing at the village level. Also, most Malawian agribusinesses closed their operations, leading to scarce availability of farm inputs and exorbitant market prices. COVID further led to high levels of unemployment in the major cities. This forced many people to relocate to rural areas, causing a scramble for farmlands. Now, Malawi is making efforts to recover from the pandemic. COVID-19 preventive measures are being followed in the agriculture sector. Recently, women farmer cooperatives have formed with emerging agricultural governance structures to link our women farmers to the rest of the world. The social cash transfer program has boosted farming-financing, leading to more sustainable farming, more affordable farm inputs, labor costs and harvest management. Women Farmer Cooperatives As I mentioned, women farmers in Malawi have formed cooperatives that permit them to sell their produce in bulk quantities and obtain soft loans from Malawi’s state-owned institution, the National Economic Empowerment Fund (NEEF). The joining together of rural women farmers to sell in bulk has strengthened their bargaining power. The introduction of modern communication media has further seen Malawi women farmers accessing international markets for produce like soya beans, pigeon peas, and sunflower. These crops are now being exported to India, China, and Zimbabwe. The government’s 2016 introduction of the Buy Malawian Strategy campaign has bolstered the market for local farmers’ produce. When local industries are encouraged to procure raw materials locally, women farmers have greater opportunities to sell their produce more easily. Next Steps Malawi’s hard-working women farmers can spur improvements in agricultural production and marketing sustainability. In the meantime, these women farmers need to: Explore improved seed varieties and new farming technologies that require less human labor Adopt modern agricultural produce storage systems and other business activities to get their products to market Learn about capacity-building with local women farmer associations Learn more about crop biodiversity, nutrition values, and medicinal crops, such as Moringa, that can be used to improve health and combat disease Finally, Malawi’s women farmers could benefit from value addition, such as having access to owning machinery that can help them in processing their produce. Retail products such as cooking oil, butter, soap, flour, tomato sauce and many more food items could be manufactured locally. The residues from the factories could create a source of livestock feeds—and directly help in local job creation and sustainable local farming. *Alice Kachere is a smallholder farmer and mother of three in Malawi. She holds a Junior Certificate of Education, was trained as a women’s advocate by The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), studied Crop Life at Egerton University, organized by The Eastern and Southern Africa small-scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF) and received leadership training organized by the Southern African Organization of Agricultural Unions (SACAU). Selected as a board Chair of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) for 2 years, she was also selected as an Ambassador for women’s food climate justice, became a member of the World Farmers Organization’s Women’s Committee and is now a chairperson of Rural Women’s Assembly, Malawi chapter. Alice is a global advocate in the fight for women to own land and commercialize agriculture.

  • The “Doomsday Glacier”

    Warming Sea Water May Be Threatening the Collapse of the Antarctic Thwaites Glacier *AUTHOR BIO One of the challenges of global warming is that its consequences are happening faster than expected. A few years ago, scientists claimed that big changes would happen within centuries, but now they are warning that the climate crisis already has observable effects on the environment. Ted Scambos, the U.S. lead coordinator for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), is one of those experts who’s been testifying to how a warmer planet is already changing the landscape in Antarctica, and he is worried: “In a few parts of Antarctica, there are huge changes due to climate warming; large (city-sized) areas of ice are simply gone; and many glaciers have shrunk in thickness and length.” For years, Scambos has been studying Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, a massive glacier considered the widest in the world, part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The area of WAIS is approximately 3,435,000 km. Now, he and a group of scientists are warning that its ice shelves—braces that help prevent the glacier's total collapse—may only last a few more years. When this happens, sea levels could start to rise by several feet, putting millions of people living in coastal cities in danger zones for extreme flooding. Because they are so distant and in remote areas, people usually don’t pay attention to glaciers, but they play an important role in maintaining the stability of our planet. Glaciers are keystones of life on Earth. As giant freshwater reservoirs, they support the planet’s life systems and influence our day-to-day lives, even for communities who live far from them. “Glaciers are important for many reasons. They are natural reservoirs of fresh water, which is important for agriculture in many arid but mountainous countries. But perhaps more importantly, glaciers and ice sheets represent large amounts of water stored on land, and as such they can be a component of sea level rise,” explains Scambos. Those massive areas of ice are formed from falling snow. In cold regions, this snow persists, gets thicker, and is compressed by the new snow that falls on top of it, slowly crushing it into ice. When they are about 40 to 60 meters (43-65 yards) thick, they begin to move and generally reach either a warmer climate at lower elevation—where the front of the ice flow melts—or the sea. The formation of a glacier takes millennia, and its size varies depending on the amount of ice it retains throughout its lifespan. They can range from ice that is several hundred to several thousand years old and provide a scientific record of how climate has changed over time. Since the early 1900s, many glaciers around the world have been rapidly melting, and human activities are at the root of this phenomenon. “Because of global warming, glaciers are shrinking—not just mountain glaciers but the large ice sheets in Antarctica, Greenland, and Patagonia as well. The reason, in general, is warmer air temperatures, warmer ocean temperatures, and in a few areas the reason is less snowfall,” says Scambos. In a recent study, a team of scientists from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration project discovered that the Thwaites Glacier, one of the largest of its kind in Antarctica—covering an area of 192,000 square kilometers (119,303 square miles), almost the size of Florida or Britain—could collapse soon. One third of this massive area consists of large floating ice platforms, or ice shelves. Increasingly, however, these platforms have been fracturing as a warming ocean slowly erases the ice from below. The Thwaites Eastern Ice Shelf, the area of most concern, acts like a dam for the rest of the glacier. According to the team of scientists, within the next three to five years, this 45-kilometer-long (27.9 miles) ice shelf segment could shatter and break like a car window and spell the beginning of the end of the Thwaites glacier. “This will start a long process of rapid flow, thinning, and retreat into the interior of West Antarctica (the main part of Antarctica in the Western Hemisphere); and, since the ice is thicker in the interior, the ice will flow even faster, and thin faster, in a kind of run-away process,” explains Scambos. Global warming, or the warming of the sea to be specific, is to blame for that. Warm water flowing beneath the ice shelves has caused large sections to thaw, forming glacier caves. This melting process has accelerated tremendously over the past thirty years. If it leads to a collapse, it will have a significant impact on the ocean. Today, the ice shelf contributes up to 4% of global sea level rise, but when it collapses, its contribution to sea level rise could increase by as much as 25%. If the whole glacier collapsed, it could raise sea levels by “2 feet” or more within the next decades or centuries. “This process is thought to be similar to something that occurred around 110,000 years ago during the warmest period between the ice ages. We are already about as warm as that period; and so, this may be the beginning of a long process that will eventually take away most of the ice sheet we call ‘West Antarctica’,” says Scambos. The good news is that the worst impacts of this process can still be mitigated depending on how humans respond in coming decades. “It’s unlikely that humans can actually prevent the eventual loss of a large area of Antarctica’s ice sheet, but models of how the ice will evolve consistently show that if we address greenhouse gases and climate warming in the next few decades, by the end of the century we will be slowing the process of Thwaites’ retreat,” explains the scientist. “In the fastest version of the runaway, the rate of sea level rise becomes hard to manage, hard to adapt to with sea defenses or rebuilding port areas or simply moving people away from the most vulnerable areas. If the rate is too fast, then it is also too expensive. And there would be more disasters and damage as a result.” However, Scambos says that we can make the process so slow that it will be relatively easy to adapt to, pushing much of the disaster a thousand years or more in the future. *Jacqueline Sordi is a Brazilian journalist and biologist, specializing in science and environmental journalism. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism at UCLA and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. Source: Thwaites Glacier Facts

  • Sweet Wormwood—Repurposing an Herb for COVID-19?

    *AUTHOR BIO The battle against COVID-19 has given rise to a new era of global scientific cooperation, with vaccines and antiviral treatments being created at unprecedented speeds. But amidst all the radical new developments, work has been underway to repurpose a natural treatment known for centuries—Artemisia annua, also known as sweet wormwood. In 2020, controversy arose when Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina announced that the African island nation was promoting a drink containing artemisia plant extracts to combat coronavirus. The World Health Organization quickly rejected that idea, saying there was no proof of artemisia’s effectiveness. But a team of scientists set about trying to understand if one of the plant’s ingredients could indeed have an impact. They were astounded by the results. Early promise In May 2021, researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Columbia University, and the University of Washington found that extracts from the leaves of the Artemisia annua (A. annua) plant, a medicinal herb also known as sweet wormwood, inhibited the replication of the COVID-19 virus and two of its variants. Artemisia annua has been studied extensively and used safely for more than 2,000 years in traditional medicine—particularly in China—to treat a variety of fever-related ailments, as well as relieve pain. The active ingredient found in the dried leaves of Artemisia annua is called artemisinin and works against malaria. But strangely, the team found that extracts of the plant were more effective when artemisinin levels were low, indicating that it may be another of the plant’s so-far-unidentified compounds that was fighting the virus. One of the team members, WPI Biology and Biotechnology Prof. Pamela Weathers, has long studied different strains of artemisia, which are grown around the world. She told The Earth & I that it was a research paper from 2005 about Artemisia annua’s effectiveness against SARS—another coronavirus which spread throughout the Far East in 2002—that originally piqued her interest. “I knew that Artemisia annua had a lot of antiviral activity from prior reports that focused on artemisinin,” she said. “I searched the literature to see if there were any reports of anti SARS-CoV activity. There was one indicating efficacy.” Due to the COVID-19 lockdowns at the time, getting back in the lab to start testing their theories was easier said than done for the team. “We got permission to reopen our lab to prepare extracts for testing,” she said. “All labs had been closed as a pandemic precaution. Two alumni from WPI connected us with the Columbia University Aaron Diamond Research Center where virus testing could be done. That lab works on nasty viruses like HIV and SARS-CoV-2.” Once back in the lab, the researchers gathered dried leaves of A. annua from four continents, soaked them in hot water, and tested the solutions against the original SARS-CoV-2 and two variants originating from the United Kingdom and South Africa. Some leaf samples were twelve years old, but they were still effective against the virus. Researchers also tested artemisinin alone against the viruses, but they found that the plant extracts were more potent. Artemisinin is a compound naturally produced by the plant, but is usually extracted, chemically modified, and developed in combination with other drugs to treat malaria. Results showed that the extracts of A. annua did not block the virus from entering cells, but they could interfere with the virus’ ability to replicate, thus killing it. Prof. Weathers said the team members were “elated” when they first saw the results, especially since early results were underwhelming. “Our first results were less than enthusiastic,” she said. “We made methylene chloride extracts of the plant, and when we tested it against the virus, there were toxic effects on the cells as well as the virus.” The team speculated that this effect was probably from the solvent needed to dissolve the extracts. After a few more tests, the team decided to switch to a hot water extract. That is the way the plant was, and still is, used as a traditional medicine, and they thought that method could eliminate toxicity to the cells. The hot water method worked. “There was essentially no cell toxicity but powerful antiviral activity. We were elated!” Prof. Weathers said. Although they do not yet know exactly how or what in A. annua makes it so effective, they know that not only does it stop the virus replicating but it is also effective against COVID-19 variants, including delta and omicron. The hot water (extraction) method worked. “There was essentially no cell toxicity but powerful antiviral activity. We were elated!” Prof. Weathers said. The extracts further help subdue inflammation and alleviate the often-deadly “cytokine storm” that can happen with COVID-19. Yet another finding is that the extracts can blunt fibrosis, also known as fibrotic scarring, which damages organs and tissue. Fibrosis can occur during a long viral infection and is implicated in “long COVID,” the name given to a range of new, returning or ongoing health problems that can follow an acute COVID-19 infection. Impact of the Study Despite the team’s exciting findings, the general response was mixed, said Prof. Weathers. “We thought [our results] would be quickly explored further, tested in human clinical trials, and could provide a very cost-effective means to halt the virus,” she said. “We have been sadly disappointed in the response to our studies.” Generally, when the public hears of our work, it is “very enthusiastic,” she said. “The medical community that is in tune with alternative medicine is also very interested, but they have little to no power.” There has been some interest from academia, she said, and “I have no clue if anyone in the political sphere even knows about it.” But the responses from public health agencies, health care leaders and drug manufacturers were virtual silence. “There is little to no interest by modern medicine, which is more connected to the pharmaceutical industry,” said Prof. Weathers. One possible reason to shun “sweet wormwood” as a treatment for COVID-19 was the flood of “colorful” stories about cures for COVID-19, she said. “There were many crank cures touted early in the pandemic. That really hurt us in terms of anyone giving our work with a medicinal plant a more serious look.” But she suspects the lack of apparent profitability is a bigger reason to ignore Artemisia annua as a treatment for COVID-19. “This is a simple approach for treating a horrible disease; it is unlikely that any pharmaceutical company would look at it and develop it further,” she said. “There is no profit in it for them, and our health care systems are intimately tied to the pharmaceutical companies and profits, not inexpensive cures.” Future Plans Currently, the team is awaiting word from the National Institutes of Health about a small grant to help identify what in the plant makes it so potent. If funded, they hope that data they obtain will better inform and convince others to fund a larger clinical trial in humans. Elsewhere, the World Health Organization has announced a trial of Artesunate—a derivative of artemisinin—and two other drugs on hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Meanwhile, Prof. Weathers cautioned that, despite Artemisia annua’s apparent impact on COVID-19 during the tests, “it is not a vaccine.” Instead, its role is “to be used in conjunction with vaccination or to buy time to get populations vaccinated.” *Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

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