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Against the collective NS 9 Jun 01
Should we care what happens to people a thousand years from now.?

A RADICAL overhaul of the international safety regime goveming radiation would give the nuclear industry a licence to pollute the seas and air, warn scientists. It might mean a worldwide rise in cancers in the long term. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the world advisory body based in Stockholm, Sweden, wants to make big changes to the way safety levels are decided for people exposed to radiation from nuclear plants, industrial sources and medical X-rays. But its plans, outlined for the first time last week, have already fallen foul of experts who see no reason to change the system agreed in 1990. That system relies on measuring the "collective dose" of radiation received by large populations of people over extremely long time periods. Some regulators believe this is important because it means they can estimate the worldwide cancer risk from releasing radioactive isotopes into the environment with half-lives of thousands of years (New Scientist, 24 March, p 17). But the ICRP says that the notion of collective dose has proved "unsuitable". Often it covers the threat posed by radiation to the entire world population for the rest of time. Instead, the 17-member commission is thinking of introducing a "group" or 'workforce" dose limited to measuring the exposure of smaller numbers of people over shorter timescales, though it hasn't yet specified how many or how long. This amounts to "a green light to continuing pollution", according to Ian Fairlie, a consultant in environmental radioactivity who has worked for regulatory agencies and anti-nuclear groups. Under the new system, it may be possible to quantify the risk to a few specific individuals from radioactive waste pumped into the sea, for example. But it doesn't take into account the risk of more cancers in the population sometime in the future. 'This sits uneasily with growing awareness about the effects of radiation on the environment," Fairlie says.

Britain's advisory Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) has also told ICRP that it would be "very reluctant' to abandon collective dose. COMARE chairman Bryn Bridges says the concept gives governments and the public an estimate of how future health will be affected by radioactivity-but he thinks the collective dose should cover just 500 years.

ICRP points out that the current system is founded on the risk that ionising radiation poses to society as a whole. it wants to shift this to a regime that concentrates on an individual's risk. But for the moment it is not planning to abandon the underlying assumption that any level of exposure to radiation, however small, carries a potential risk.

ICRP chairman, Roger Clarke, denies the new system would be a licence to pollute because it would reduce the radiation doses of the most exposed groups of individuals. It will also make it simpler to enforce safety limits10 different limits, as well as collective doses, are in operation at the moment, he says. 'The proposal is to try and rationalise this complex and widely misunderstood system.'

But radiation scientists defend the existing system. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it," says Geoffrey Webb, president of the International Radiation Protection Association. Rob Edwards More at: Journal of Radiological Protection (vol 21, p 113)

Green menace NS 9 Jun 01

Anti-biotech groups are blamed for holding back Africa's farmers

MISLEADING propaganda about biotechnology from green organisations in Europe is obstructing Africa's attempts to combat hunger, claims a Kenyan academic.

"We don't get data, we get opinions," says Margaret Karembu of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. She delivered a scathing attack on the greens at a conference in London last week.

Greenpeace responded by saying biotech companies are as guilty as any green group of spreading value-laden propaganda. It says it opposes the release of any genetically modified organisms anywhere in the world, whatever the benefits.

But Karembu says green propaganda has so alarmed some farmers that they are reluctant to adopt any new technologies-even if they don't involve genetic engineering. For example, Faith Nguthi of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute and Florence Wambugu of the Nairobibased charity AfriCenter have developed a method of tissue-culturing bananas to ensure seedlings are free of harmful fungi and bacteria.

'The seedlings have improved vigour and grow very fast," says Karembu. "The yield differences are amazing." The bunches of bananas weigh twice as much as normal and are of much higher quality, she says.

That means a farmer can break even with just 80 of the new plants, compared with 200 normal plants. The technique also allows farmers to get the same yield in a fraction of the normal area, Karembu says. That means it could have big environmental benefits, reducing the need to clear virgin land for farming.

Yet persuading farmers to buy the seedlings, which cost just 80 US cents, has been difficult. "We find that when we talk to farmers, they've already been poisoned [with propaganda] about the dangers of biotechnology,' said Karembu. "Because there's so much negative publicity about biotechnology, even tissue culture is confused with genetic engineering.'

She is calling on green organisations to be more responsible. "Greenpeace has a very loud voice, but most of what they say is not factual, and they don't provide alternatives. We can't make policy based on people's opinions."

Greenpeace claims that Karembu's views are shaped by the work that she and Wambugu do at the AgriCenter, which is part-funded by biotech multinationals as well as charitable organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation. But Karembu says she is an independent academic motivated by the desire to combat hunger.

Third-world charity Oxfam says that it supports the use of GM technology developed in Africa for poor farmers, provided that it is proven to be safe for humans and the environment, and provided the farmers give full, informed consent. Andy Coghtan

Sick as a parrot NS 9 Jun 01

Polly's appeal as a pet is bad news for the relatives back home

THE pet trade is driving parrots to extinction. And Europe and Asia are to blame for not implementing laws that could stop the import of illegally poached exotic birds. So say an international team of researchers who have collected the first hard evidence of the extent of the illegal trade. Parrots are among the most endangered birds-nearly one third of species native to the neotropics are considered at risk of global extinction. While habitat loss is behind the dectine of many species, the new findings suggest poaching may be as big a threat.

"We've really had very littie handle on what is going on with the illegal trade," says Steve Beissinger, of the University of California, Berkeley. "This study gives us some feeling for what the levels of poaching are and which species are most affected. For some the rate is low, but for some of the larger and more valuable species it's startlingly high."

Biologists Timothy Wright of the University of Maryland at College Park and Catherine Toft of the University of California in Davis led a team which analysed data from 23 separate studies into parrot nesting conducted over the past 20 years. Together, the studies documented the success or failure of 4200 nesting attempts by New World parrots.

Across all the studies, poachers ruined 30 per cent of nests. Four species, including the Yellow-crowned Amazon, lost more than 70 per cent of their nests.

Usually, says Toft, the cause of nest failure was unambiguous. "Humans leave distinctive evidence of their work," she says. "Trees are climbed with ladders and spikes, and nest cavities are destroyed with a machete. This kind of evidence usually rules out other possible predators." Beissinger has also produced a separate report, due for publication later this year, on the legal export of parrots as regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). He found that 1.2 million parrots were legally exported from 1991 to 1996, with most originating in Central and South America.

In the US, the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act bans the import of CITES-listed birds. But there are no equivalent laws in Europe and Asia, which have now become the biggest markets for wild parrots. This legal trade provides a smokescreen behind which illegal poachers operate. "The legal and illegal trades thrive together," says Toft. "The markets in Europe and Asia remain open."

Mike Reynolds, director of the World Parrot Trust in Britain, says the new data will help to reinvigorate efforts in Europe to impose tighter restrictions on the import of threatened parrot species. But Benny Gallaway, president of the American Federation of Aviculture, says a regulated, sustainable harvest of birds may be a better solution.

Gallaway also questions whether the new study really provides evidence that poaching is as widespread as the researchers claim. "I've seen hyperbole after hyperbole presented by the conservation groups, which only alienates many of the people interested in the conservation of birds." Scott Norris More at: Conservation Biology (vot 15, p 1)

Total meltdown NS 9 Jun 01

MOST of the world's glaciers are shrinking, according to a new satellite survey of over 2000 of them.

Anecdotal evidence already suggests that glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and in Glacier National Park in Montana are shrinking (New Scientist, 13 May 2000, p 28). Now infrared and visible photographs taken by the Japanese instrument ASTER on board NASA!s Terra spacecraft show that glaciers all over the globe are melting.

ASTER takes about two days to map the surface of the Earth with a resolution of about 90 metres. Better still, it can zoom in on interesting sites to resolutions as fine as 15 metres.

Rick Wessels of the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, compared thousands of ASTER images with aerial@ photographs taken up to 20 years ago. He found that almost every mountain glacier in Patagonia, the Himalayas, the Alps and the Pyrenees had shrunk by hundreds of metres, and some by several kilometres. "Some glaciers are more like snowbanks," he told the AGU.

Wessels also looked at images of mountain lakes at the base of melting glaciers. Many have grown over the past 10 years and show up as dark blue instead of light blue, indicating higher levels of sediments. This suggests that they are melting more quickly and that the meltwater is eroding the hills.

ASTER's three telescopes take pictures at three wavelengths, two infrared and one visible, to differentiate snow, ice and debris-covered ice. "The images have better than half a degree accuracy in temperature," says Kurt Thome of the University of Arizona. Eugenie Samuel More at: http.-Ilvisibleearth.naso.govISensorsITerra

Who's the real killer? NS 9 Jun 01

Japan says increased whaling may be necessary to protect fish stocks

A CLAIM by japan that whales eat more of the oceans' fish than people do is set to stir up a row at next month's meeting of the International Whaling Commission in London.

japan hopes to use the results from its controversial "scientific" whaling programme to convince fishing nations to vote for the resumption of whaling to help protect their fish stocks, says Joji Morishita. of the Japanese government's Fisheries Agency and a delegate to the IWC. The unpublished findings, seen by New Scientist, come from last autumn's scientific slaughter of whales in the north-west Pacific. As well as minke whales, the catch included Bryde's and sperm whales for the first time. Japanese anchovy made up more than 70 per cent of the stomach contents of the 43 Bryde's whales killed during the seven-week hunt. Anchovy, walleye pollock and Pacific saury made up 90 per cent of the diet of the 40 minke whales taken. "These are all important fisheries for Japan," says Morishita. 'Anti-whalers say they only eat krill and squid, but we can show otherwise." Cetacean scientists from outside Japan are sceptical of the claims, -however. "It's an open question right now whether whales damage fisheries," says Russell Leaper, a marine biology consultant to the IWC based in Edinburgh. "Even if they are eating fish, it doesn't mean there is direct competition. I think the Japanese are jumping the gun, but it is something the IWC scientific committee will want to look at."

Japanese fish catches have halved since the IWC imposed an international moratorium on commercial whaling 16 years ago, says Morishita. "We don't say whales are the only reason for depressed fish stocks, but whales are major components of the marine ecosystem. So we think there may be some connection."

Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research last year estimated that whales could be eating between 250 and 440 million tonnes of fish a year-between 3 and 5 times the amount caught by the world's fishing fleets. "We consider that, at least, there is probably direct competition between cetaceans and commercial fisheries in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic," says the institute's Tsutomu Tamura. japan has abided by the IWC's moratorium on commercial whaling, while still taking a limited catch for "scientific research". Opponents claim they are simply exploiting a loophole in the IWC rules. Now the country wants to be able to resume commercial whaling of abundant species such as minke.

"Some whale stocks, such as blue whales, are in need of protection, but a blanket moratorium is not scientifically justified," says Morishita. He calls the moratorium "emotionally and politically inspired", and contrary to the treaty establishing the commission, which requires that whale stocks are "scientifically managed". Fred Pearce