Citizen assisted genetic testing

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

Since I started working as a geneticist in the early 1960s, the field has changed considerably. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Researchers then “cracked” the genetic code, which held promise for fields like health and medicine. It was an exciting time to be working in the lab.

More than 40 years later, in 2003, an international group of scientists sequenced the entire human genetic code. Researchers can now find a gene suspected to cause a disease in a matter of days, a process that took years before the Human Genome Project. As of 2013, more than 2,000 genetic tests were available for human conditions. Forty years ago, I never dreamed scientists would have the knowledge and manipulative capabilities that have become standard practice today.

Inner engineering

In a couple of decades, genetics has allowed for systematic inventorying of the world’s biodiversity. Canada’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph has the genomes of more than 265,000 named species identified with barcodes in its database. The cost to analyze a sample against this free public database is about $10.

Young citizen scientists in San Diego were recently able to help compile information about the area’s biodiversity through their local libraries. Kids signed out genetic testing kits… through Catalog of Life @ the Library.

People in Canada can also help identify seafood fraud with the LifeScanner service. Genetic testing helps consumers identify the species and possibly the origin of fish they buy, important for people who care about sustainability and health and nutrition.

Identifying and tracing seafood has long been a challenge, especially because about 40 percent of wild-caught seafood is traded internationally and labelling is often inadequate. Once fish are skinned, cleaned and packaged, it’s not always easy to tell what they are. If you buy something labelled “rockfish” in Canada, it could be one of more than 100 species. Often, labels don’t indicate whether the fish were caught or processed sustainably. Although the European Union and US require more information on seafood labels than Canada, one study found 41 percent of US seafood is mislabelled.

A European study found stronger policies combined with public information led to less mislabelling. People in Canada have demanded better legislation to trace seafood products. More than 12,000 people recently sent letters to government asking for better labelling.

SeaChoice (the David Suzuki Foundation is a member) is working with LifeScanner to register 300 people in Canada to test seafood, in part to determine whether labels are accurate.

With the help of citizen scientists, genetic testing can offer a powerful approach to righting environmental wrongs. Combining crowd-sourced scientific data, public policy reform and consumer activism is already showing positive results. The same approach could work in areas such as testing for antibiotics, pesticide and mercury residues and more.

Excerpted from “Citizen science and genetic testing yield positive results.” David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Facts and evidence matter

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

We recently highlighted the faulty logic of a pseudoscientific argument against addressing climate change: the proposition that because CO2 is necessary for plants, increasing emissions is good for the planet and the life it supports. Those who read, write or talk regularly about climate change and ecology are familiar with other anti-environmental arguments not coated with a scientific sheen.

A common one is that if you drive a car, buy any plastic goods or even type on a computer keyboard your observation that we need to reduce fossil fuel use is not valid, no matter how much evidence you present. Like the “CO2 is plant food” claim, it’s a poor argument, but for different reasons.

The statement that gas-fuelled cars cause pollution is true whether or not the person making it drives a car, just as a claim that automobile emissions are harmless is false, regardless of the claimant’s car ownership or driving habits.

Fossil fuels are useful for many purposes – from life-saving medical equipment to computer keyboards – so why extract, transport and burn them so rapidly and wastefully? Supplies aren’t endless.

Most people don’t have the time or expertise to read through and comprehend the massive volumes of peer-reviewed science on phenomena such as feedback loops, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, species extinction and sea level rise.

Fortunately, some excellent resources provide information for people with varying levels of knowledge and expertise: skepticalscience.com offers a big-picture approach by examining the peer-reviewed literature.

You can also find accessible science on the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration websites. The American Institute of Physics offers a comprehensive history of climate science.

Media outlets with considerable, credible coverage include The Guardian and National Geographic and environmentally focused websites such as Grist, EcoWatch and the National Observer. Desmog Blog’s timely articles and extensive database shed light on what’s behind concerted efforts to downplay or dismiss the seriousness of climate change. Websites for environmental groups like the David Suzuki Foundation, Pembina Institute and others are also good information sources. Just Cool It!, a book coming out April 22 by Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington and me explains climate change and focuses on solutions.

It’s increasingly clear we can’t rely on politicians to get us out of the mess we’ve created. The current US administration is full of people who reject the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change. In Canada, our government has some good climate policies, but continues to approve fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

The silver lining of the irrationality that has descended on the US is that it has sparked a growing movement to promote scientific evidence and science-based solutions. The “March for Science” taking place in cities throughout the US and beyond on Earth Day, April 22, is one example.

We have scientific evidence and rational arguments on our side. Let’s use them to support solutions.

Excerpted from “Facts and evidence matter in confronting climate crisis.” David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Marvellous monarchs move Minister McKenna

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna had her mind blown recently. Remarkably, it had nothing to do with the political gong show south of the border. McKenna was visiting the hilltop monarch butterfly reserves in rural Mexico. There, she saw millions of monarchs clinging to oyamel fir trees in mind-bogglingly dense clusters, surprisingly well camouflaged for such colourful critters. She then wrote a heartfelt article calling on people in Canada to act before monarchs go the way of passenger pigeons and buffalo.

Since the 1990s, the eastern monarch population has declined by about 90 percent. More than a billion monarchs once made the journey to Mexico. In winter 2013, that dropped to 35 million. Modest increases since then have largely been erased. An intense late-winter storm wiped out more than six million monarchs last March and unfavourable weather conditions during critical breeding periods caused a 27 percent reduction over the past year.

Much of the overall decline has been pinned on the eradication of milkweed through widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate (known as Roundup) in the US midwest and southern Canada. Milkweed is a host plant and the only food source for monarch caterpillars. Extreme weather conditions… have exacerbated the decline.

In 2016, scientists estimated the monarch population has up to a 57 percent chance of “quasi-extinction” over the next 20 years. That means the population could hit levels so low recovery is impossible. Others suggest the migration into Canada could end. In November, scientists overseeing at-risk species in Canada said the government should list the monarch butterfly population as endangered.

Pre-eminent monarch advocate Chip Taylor estimates that more than a billion milkweed will need to be planted throughout the range if the population is to recover. That would require unprecedented co-operation and collaboration by agencies, groups and scientists throughout the monarch’s 5,000-kilometre migratory route… especially in the northern end of the range where 44 percent of the population originates, according to University of Guelph scientists.

In the US, plans have taken flight over the past few years. Federal and state agencies collaborated to develop an ambitious 10-year plan to increase the monarch population, providing more than 10 million for research and conservation efforts. Former president Barack Obama helped launch a plan to establish one million bee-and butterfly-friendly gardens across the continent, including butterfly gardens on the White House grounds.

In Mexico, government agencies, international organizations and local groups like Alternare are working diligently to protect the forests where monarchs overwinter.

What’s missing is action from Canada’s government. The good news is that the person with the most power to influence the plight of this imperilled species is Minister McKenna. Whether Canada legally protects monarchs, as recommended in November by federal scientists, is up to her. That’s why her newfound love of monarchs renews my hope.

If Canada is serious about saving the monarchs, the federal government needs to start now.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

We can learn so much from nature

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

If you fly over a forest and look down, you’ll see every green tree and plant reaching to the heavens to absorb the ultimate energy source: sunlight. What a contrast when you look down on a city or town with its naked roofs, asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, all ignoring the sun’s beneficence! Research shows we might benefit by thinking more like a forest.

Solar roads could be a step in that direction. Roads, sidewalks and parking lots cover massive areas. Using them to generate power means less environmental disturbance, as no new land is needed to house solar power operations.

A French company, Colas, is working with the French National Institute for Solar Energy to test its Wattway technology under various conditions, with a goal of covering 1,000 kilometres of existing highway with thin, durable, skid-resistant crystalline silicon solar panel surfacing over the next four years. They estimate that could provide electricity for five million people. Although critics have raised questions about cost and feasibility, it’s not pie-in-the-sky. The technology is being tested and employed throughout the world.

Rooftops are another place to generate power using existing infrastructure. Elon Musk’s company, Tesla, is making shingles that double as solar panels. Although they cost more than conventional asphalt shingles, they’re comparable in price to higher-end roof tiles and can save money when you factor in the power they generate.

These developing technologies show that, as the world continues to warm, we can and must move beyond our outdated ways. In Canada and elsewhere, the political approach to climate change has often been to avoid discussing it – in part, by firing government scientists or vetting their public statements – and maintaining the status quo by lavishly supporting unproven and risky technologies like carbon capture and storage that keep us tied to fossil fuels for years to come. It’s nonsensical to dig up and melt oilsands bitumen, transport and burn it and attempt to capture the emissions and stick them back in the ground where nature had already stored the carbon. Nature took millions of years to do it, but we aren’t a patient animal.

US science writer Janine Benyus coined the term “biomimicry” to describe technologies based on nature’s ability to solve problems or exploit opportunities. It’s an important concept because it requires humility and respect for natural processes rather than the imposition of our crude, but powerful, technological innovations.

Every species shares the same challenges: how to get energy and food, avoid predators and disease (even bacteria get viral infections), what to do with waste and how to reproduce. Over long periods, numerous strategies to solve these challenges have evolved. We are a species magnificently adapted for survival, with a massive brain relative to our body size. Unlike any other species, we have the ability to ask questions and seek answers. We can find a treasure trove of solutions in the ways other species have dealt with challenges.

Biomimicry has inspired applications ranging from producing energy through artificial photosynthesis to building lightweight support structures based on the properties of bamboo.

By learning how nature works and how to work within it, we can overcome many problems we’ve created by trying to jam our technologies on top of natural systems. Fossil fuels were formed when plants absorbed and converted sunlight through photosynthesis hundreds of millions of years ago, then retained that energy when they died, decayed and became compacted and buried deep in the Earth, along with the animals that ate them. Rapidly burning limited supplies of them is absurd, especially when they can be useful for so many other known and possibly yet undiscovered purposes.

Surely, with our knowledge and wisdom we can do better than rely on the primitive idea of burning things to stay warm and comfortable without regard for the consequences – pollution of air, water and land with its related impacts on health, as well as climate change, which is putting humanity’s survival at risk.

Our economic systems don’t often encourage the most efficient and least harmful ways of providing necessities. They aim for the quickest, easiest, cheapest and most economically profitable paths. We can do better than that. Harnessing the sun’s power and learning how nature solves challenges are good places to start.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Hard work trump fear and hate

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

We can’t count on governments to make the changes we so desperately need. It’s up to us. We must be the change.

Now what? Many people in the United States and around the world are dismayed that a bigoted, misogynistic, climate change denier has been elected to the highest office in what is still the world’s most powerful nation. His party controls the House and Senate, meaning pro-fossil-fuel, anti-climate-action representatives who reject overwhelming and alarming scientific evidence will hold the reins. It will be a government firmly in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. But global warming isn’t going to pause for four years. It’s going to accelerate. Do we give up?

No way! Governments move slowly at the best of times. People were filled with hope when Barack Obama became America’s first black president. Sure, there was progress in some areas, but the fossil fuel industry continued to expand as the world got warmer. Here in Canada, after a decade of watching our political representatives backtrack on environmental and climate policies, Canadians elected a party that promised climate leadership. Despite many progressive and positive initiatives, our government is still encouraging, subsidizing and approving fossil fuel projects and infrastructure.

We can’t count on governments to make the changes we so desperately need. It’s up to us. We must be the change. We have our work cut out for us, but work we must. Perhaps this is even an opportunity, albeit one fraught with great challenges. The election exposed nasty currents in US society, but it also revealed a profound and rising dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The answer isn’t to throw more gas on the fire. Many Americans just did that. Now, it’s up to those of us who believe in a brighter future to bring the fire under control without killing the flame. On the day after the election, the David Suzuki Foundation’s Alaya Boisvert posted, “Let the fire that ignites from this madness outshine the darkness that precipitated it.”

We can’t be complacent. We can’t let fear and despair stop us from working to make the world a better place for everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, physical appearance or limitations, country of origin, political leanings, education or social circumstance. And let’s face it, the planet isn’t in trouble, humanity is. Earth’s natural systems always find balance, but the corrections they make to overcome the damage we’ve caused… don’t favour our species and the path we’re on.

We have so many possibilities and so much potential. We have knowledge and amazing technologies. We have ancient wisdom that teaches us how to be a part of this miraculous, complex, interconnected existence. Most of us want the same things: health, happiness and connection with others.

We mustn’t let fear overcome us. It’s time to stand together to work for justice and human rights, for equity, for liberty, for a cleaner environment, for governments that serve the people rather than corporations – for the values the United States of America was supposedly founded on. We must listen to each other and promote dialogue rather than debate.

The US election has brought things to a head, and the boil is erupting. It’s more important now than ever before to come together to heal the wound.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Food security – It’s important for humans and other animals

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

As leaves change colour and drop from trees, and a chill in the air signals the approach of winter, many of us are thinking of the hearty soups and dishes that will warm our bellies.

Not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy such thoughts. About four million Canadians – including more than a million children – lack food security, defined as reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. In Canada, people from low-income households and Indigenous communities are the most likely to suffer from food insecurity.

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The predator we need to control is us!

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

• Humans are the world’s top predator. The way we fulfil this role is often mired in controversy, from factory farming to trophy hunting to predator control. The latter is the process governments use to kill carnivores like wolves, coyotes and cougars to stop them from hunting threatened species like caribou – even though human activity is the root cause of caribous’ decline.

Predation is an important natural function. But as the human population has grown, we’ve taken over management of ecosystems once based on mutually beneficial relationships that maintained natural balances. How are we – a “super predator” as the Raincoast Conservation Foundation dubs us – aligning with or verging from natural predation processes that shaped the world?

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Food production in the city is good for people and the climate

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

 

portrait of David Suzuki•  Humans are fast becoming city dwellers. According to the United Nations, “The urban population of the world has grown rapidly from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014.” Sixty-six percent of us will likely live in urban environments by 2050. The number of mega-cities (more than 10 million inhabitants) is also skyrocketing, from 10 in 1990 to 28 in 2014 –home to more than 453 million people – and is expected to grow to 41 by 2030.

Along with concerns about climate change and the distances much of our food travels from farm to plate, that’s spurred a renewed interest in producing food where people live. Urban agriculture won’t resolve all food production and distribution problems, but it could help take pressure off rural land while providing other advantages.

As writer and former Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner (also a David Suzuki Foundation board member) writes in The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities, “When urban agriculture flourishes, our children are healthier and smarter about what they eat, fewer people are hungry, more local jobs are created, local economies are stronger, our neighbourhoods are greener and safer, and our communities are more inclusive.”

Local and urban agriculture can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and recycle nutrient-rich food scraps, plant debris and other “wastes.”

A 2016 study from the U.S. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that urban agriculture could “increase social capital, community well-being, and civic engagement with the food system,” as well as enhance food security, provide ecosystem services, improve health and build residents’ skills. Gardening is also therapeutic.

Urban agriculture isn’t new. During the First and Second World Wars, Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and Germany encouraged “victory gardens” to aid the war effort by reducing pressure on food systems and farms. Gardens and chicken coops appeared in yards, parks, school fields, golf courses, railway edges and vacant lots. Sheep grazed on sports fields and kept grass in check. Peter Ladner notes that, during the Second World War, the UK had 1.5 million allotment plots producing 10 percent of the country’s food, including half its fruit and vegetables; and by war’s end, more than 20 million home gardens supplied 40 percent of US domestically consumed produce.

Granted, there were fewer people and more open spaces then, but it’s still possible to grow a lot of food in urban areas, especially with composting and enriched soil techniques. Ladner writes that Toronto plans to supply 25 percent of its fruit and vegetable production within city limits by 2025… One patch of Detroit land where 12 vacant houses were removed to grow food has supplied almost 200,000 kilograms of produce for 2,000 local families, provided volunteer experience to 8,000 residents and brought the area new investment and increased safety.

Cities needn’t be wastelands of car-choked roads and pavement. Incorporating food production into ever-expanding urban areas makes cities more liveable and enhances the natural systems that keep us alive and healthy.

Excerpted from the original article, “How much food can cities produce?” David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

South Australia an example for the world

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

portrait of David Suzuki
• I’ve always had a soft spot for Adelaide in South Australia, a city built more on a human scale where downtown can be easily navigated on bike, foot or tram. For me, Adelaide’s greatest attraction is a huge market right in the city’s centre.

When I first visited Adelaide in 1993, I met Mike Rann, a young, charismatic aboriginal affairs minister in South Australia’s Labor government. His party lost the election that year, but Rann later became party leader and then state premier in a minority government in 2002. I met him again in 2003 when he outlined ambitious plans to address climate change by aggressively moving South Australia into renewable energy. Wind and solar were the obvious opportunities, but he was also enthusiastic about “hot rocks,” superheated pockets that could create steam to drive turbines for electricity.

Rann proudly introduced me to the Youth Conservation Corps. Young people in this program are trained to restore land overgrazed by sheep or cattle, plant trees and make wildlife inventories. Rann surprised me by dedicating 45 hectares of reforestation land as Suzuki Forest.

I met young people working on “my” forest who enthusiastically told me about the number and variety of birds they’d seen that day, described plant species and talked about how many trees they had planted. Many were street kids, inspired by the chance to learn about nature and conservation and proud to be re-greening the area.

I kept in touch with Mike Rann over the years. He was re-elected with majority governments in 2006 and 2010, then resigned in 2011. Last March, I returned as a guest of WOMADelaide. Although Rann was in Italy where he is now Australia’s ambassador, his wife Sasha welcomed me back.

In Adelaide, I met Ian Hunter, South Australia’s environment minister, who boasted of his state’s tremendous progress in renewable energy. South Australia gets 40 percent of its electricity from solar and wind and hopes to reach 50 to 60 percent within a few years. The area is blessed with abundant sunlight, but few jurisdictions have committed to solar as aggressively and successfully as South Australia. From my hotel room, I looked down on a factory roof covered in rows of solar panels, which are now mounted on one of every four houses.

I also returned to Suzuki Forest. I was delighted and amazed at the variety and size of plants and trees and the birds that now flourish among them. Perhaps my forest has been protected by neighbouring Schwarzenegger Forest!

Despite the impressive work in South Australia, most of the country is caught between the terrible reality of climate change – droughts, massive fires and dying reefs – and continued pressure to serve the economy by relying on fossil fuels, including recently approving the world’s largest coal mine.

Australia’s centre-right Liberal government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott gutted the previous government’s actions on climate change… Fortunately, the public started funding Flannery’s work and the commission was reborn as the independent Climate Council. Abbott was booted by his own party after a short reign.

Nevertheless, the country – like much of the world – is in the throes of deciding whether to act seriously to reduce the threat of climate change. An example for the world, South Australia shows that many opportunities exist to do so.

Excerpted from the original article. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

 

Virtual reality and the real thing

Portrait of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki

• The digital revolution is breaking new ground every day. Technology has a way of doing that. I remember when Hewlett-Packard introduced its first “laptop” computer, which stored a page and a half of writing. It revolutionized my life as a newspaper columnist. I never imagined the steady advances that would lead to today’s powerful laptops, tablets and handheld computers.

Once, while filming in a remote BC forest, I wanted to pan from the roots of a cedar tree along the trunk to the top in a single shot. After spending hours rigging wires and pulleys and struggling to keep the heavy camera from swaying as it rose, our crew gave up in frustration. Recently, we used a light GoPro camera mounted under a drone to get a spectacular high-definition shot in a few minutes!

The first time I opened YouTube, I was looking for a video of the astounding phenomenon of mucous secretion by a hagfish, a primitive marine animal. To my surprise, I found several postings and as I chose one, a list of several others that might be of interest popped up. Two hours later, I realized I’d been sucked in by an incredible range of films.

When I first heard about virtual reality, I was invited to put on the goggles and experience it. Crude as those first images were compared to what’s available now, I was immersed in the scenes. It was impressive and exciting, but I suggested that people should be wary of unintended consequences because virtual reality could eventually appear better than reality.

During a recent visit to Montreal, I had the opportunity to watch the latest iteration of the digital revolution: images in 3D, HD and 360-degree-wrap-around. It was mindboggling. I swam with whales and zoomed through a forest, listening to actual sounds, along with music and narration. As I watched a spectacular mountain forest, a train suddenly appeared, splashing across a lake and then coming straight at me. As my body responded to the all too realistic locomotive, it reached me and exploded into a thousand birds that took off in a glorious cloud. Computer graphics melded seamlessly with actual footage that generated scenes far exceeding reality.

I have no doubt virtual reality is going to have a huge impact. We’re just beginning to recognize its potential. But as with all new technology, there will be unintended repercussions, the greatest of which will be further estrangement from nature. Studies show that because people evolved out of nature, we need that connection with the natural world for mental and physical well-being.

Author Richard Louv categorizes a suite of childhood problems – including bullying, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity – as “nature deficit disorder,” induced or worsened by too little physical exposure to nature. The average Canadian kid today spends more than six hours a day glued to a screen – mobile phones, computers, televisions – and less than eight minutes a day outside!

Some proponents claim virtual reality will stimulate children to spend more time outside. But why bother when the virtual world seems better than the real one? I’m sure innovation and creativity will continue to drive the technology to new frontiers. I’m just as sure there will be enormous unexpected and damaging consequences if we aren’t careful.

Excerpted from the original article. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org