ENN Weekly: April 10th - 14th

ENN rounds up the most important and compelling environmental news stories of the week. In the news April 10th - 14th: Coral bleaching, global warming-resistant rice, green technology opportunities, polar bears in peril, and much more.

The Week's Top Ten Articles

In the news April 10th - 14th: Coral bleaching, global warming-resistant rice, green technology opportunities, polar bears in peril, and much more.

1. Caribbean Reefs Ailing from Bleaching, Disease
Deadly diseases are attacking coral reefs across the Caribbean Sea after a massive surge of coral bleaching last summer, a two-pronged assault that scientists say is one of the worst threats to the region's fragile undersea gardens.

2. Scientists Breed Rice to Defy Climate Change
Scientists are developing new flood and drought-prone rice varieties to combat the threat of global warming to Asia's food staple but more work is needed, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) said.

3. EPA Says Toxic Pollution Levels Fall Four Percent
The EPA said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004, led by declines among the metal mining, electric utility and hazardous waste industries.

4. Effects of Climate Change on Arctic Observed
It's becoming harder to find the right snow to build an igloo, and melting permafrost is turning land into mud. With climate change the nature of the Arctic is changing, too, in ways that worry the people who live there.

5. Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist Sees Big Opportunity in Green Technology
Venture capitalist John Doerr is placing big bets on an emerging sector he calls "green technology," one he believes could become as lucrative as information technology and biotechnology.

6. In New Orleans, a Big Green Opportunity is Wasted, Environmentalists Say
In the rush to rebuild, this hurricane-smashed city is dumping its debris into the swamps by the truckload -- and throwing away an opportunity to turn America's costliest natural disaster into the nation's greatest recycling effort.

7. Greenpeace Arctic Mission to Spotlight Polar Bears
Two U.S. explorers plan to start a four-month summer expedition to the North Pole next month to gather information on the habitat of an animal they believe could be the first victim of global warming -- the polar bear.

8. Everglades Headwaters to Reclaim Original Path with Restoration Project
State water managers have acquired about 103,000 acres of land as part of a plan to reflood 43 miles of the Kissimmee River bed, allowing the water to reclaim its original meandering path toward Lake Okeechobee and on into the Everglades.

9. Canada Troops Mount Big Arctic Sovereignty Patrol
Canadian forces Sunday wrapped up a two-week exercise designed to assert sovereignty over the Arctic at a time when climate change is fueling international interest in the desolate, mineral-rich region.

10. Oslo's Sewage Heats Its Homes
In an extreme energy project tapping heat from raw sewage, Oslo's citizens are helping to warm their homes and offices simply by flushing the toilet.

Guest Commentary:
By Dr. David Suzuki

As a child, I was an avid collector of insects. Back then, I wasn't aware that they are the most numerous, successful and important animals on earth. I was simply fascinated by their diverse forms and beauty, especially beetles.Still, for most people, insects inspire revulsion rather than awe, and few creatures on this earth are as maligned. We poison them, step on them, swat them and fear them. They invade our dreams as well as our crops - a plague, a scourge to be eradicated, wiped out and cleansed from the earth.

But no matter how hard we try; we can never rid ourselves of our little nemeses. They are built for survival and will continue on in spite of our efforts. It's been said that for every human on the planet, there are at least 200 million insects. In spite of all our technologies, all our knowledge and power, this world really belongs to them - not us.

And yet, although they have a well-earned reputation as crop-killers and disease spreaders, insects do far more good than harm. They keep systems functioning on our little planet by breaking down organic matter, pollinating flowering plants and providing food for fish, birds and mammals.

For those of us living in cities, such services may not seem like such a big deal, but in nature they are irreplaceable. Unfortunately, natural services that cannot be replaced are often taken for granted, as though they provide no real value to our economy or our livelihoods. These free-of-charge services don't fit neatly into our way of calculating the bottom line, so they are usually ignored (economists call them an "externality.")

However, a recent study conducted through Cornell University attempts to assign a dollar figure to the services provided by wild insects. The findings, published in the journal Bioscience, conservatively estimate that these services are worth at least $57 billion USD to the American economy every year.

This figure only includes four services: dung disposal, control of crop pests, pollination and providing food for wildlife, like birds. It does not include many less-obvious or hard-to-calculate services, nor does it include domesticated insect labours such as the honey made by domesticated bees. Had these also been included, researchers say the total would be in the hundreds of billions.

Bees alone are thought to pollinate close to $3 billion worth of fruit and vegetables every year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that over 30 per cent of all the food eaten in the U.S. comes from insect-pollinated plants - including almonds, apples, cucumbers and tomatoes. The value of pollinators made news in 2003 when California's almond crop took a beating because there weren't enough insects to pollinate them, forcing growers to import bees from as far away as Australia.

Bugs also save farmers serious money by eating pests that would otherwise be eating their crops - some $4.5 billion every year. This service not only prevents crop loss, but also reduces the need for expensive and toxic pesticide applications. Dung beetles also help reduce illness in farm animals by removing and processing disease-spreading waste.

According to the report, by far the most economically valuable service provided by insects (at least, the most readily quantifiable) is as a source of food for other wildlife. Many outdoor recreational activities, from hunting to fishing and birdwatching, depend either directly or indirectly on insects as the main source of protein in the food chain. This service alone is estimated to be worth more than $50 billion a year.

Unfortunately, not all is well in the insect world. Diseases, parasites, insecticide use and loss of habitat have resulted in substantial die-off offs in beneficial insect species, such as bees. In fact, five species of bumblebee have disappeared from the U.S. in the past six years.

Whether we like them or not, bugs are with us for good. Rather than killing them indiscriminately, we'd be better off looking for ways to increase the numbers of those insects that provide us with so much, while keeping the real pests at bay.

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

ENN welcomes a wide range of perspectives in its Commentary Series. To find out more or to submit a commentary for consideration please contact ENN's editor, Carrie Schluter: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Photo: It is illegal in Brazil to destroy Brazil nut trees so they are left standing when the forest is cleared. Many of the Brazil nut trees die from the fires that are used to clear the forest. Credit: © Greenpeace/Daniel Beltra.

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