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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

February 19, 1993

Air Date: February 19, 1993


Food Safety Law Under Fire / Brenda Wilson

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports from Washington on the renewed debate over the Delaney Clause, the 35 year-old law which bans carcinogenic additives from processed foods. New EPA administrator Carol Browner says that the ability to detect almost infinitesimal traces of chemicals in food has rendered the law obsolete, and in a move that's surprised some environmentalists, Browner has suggested that Congress should consider revising the law. (05:06)

Environmental Damage and Chronic Conflict / Steve Curwood

Living on Earth's Steve Curwood talks with Thomas Homer-Dixon, coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto about the growing link between environmental degradation and political and ethnic violence. (07:04)

Green Investing / Cy Musiker

Cy Musiker reports from San Francisco on the proliferation — and the prospects — of a range of green investment funds. (05:01)

Shaving Endangered Species: Act Locally / Tom Harris

Commentary from environmental journalist Tom Harris. (02:56)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Peter Thomson
REPORTERS: Betsy Bayha, Ben Frye, Brenda Wilson, Cy Musiker
GUESTS/ COMMENTATORS: Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, Tom Harris

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NUNLEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley.

The Delaney Clause stands between much of our food and additives that can cause cancer. Thirty-five years ago, it was cutting-edge law, but today -- some in the Clinton Administration, and many scientists, think time and technology have passed Delaney by.

REISBOROUGH: The sensitivity has increased, so that now we can detect levels of potential carcinogens at much, much, much lower levels.

NUNLEY: And the costs of environmental damage to water, forests and land may be paid in human lives lost in war.

HOMER-DIXON: When resources are degraded or become irreversibly scarce in some way, then you're going to have a higher probability of violence.

NUNLEY: This week on Living on Earth, first this roundup of the week's news.

Environmental News

THOMSON: I'm Peter Thomson with this week's environmental news.

As President Clinton lobbies for his economic plan, he's touting the proposed energy tax as a way to help the environment along with the economy. The president says the tax will cut pollution by dampening demand for energy. But even some supporters say that as an environmental tool, the modest energy tax comes up short. Arthur Rosenfeld is an energy expert at the University of California at Berkeley.

ROSENFELD: I don't think you can honestly claim that a 50 percent increase in the cost of gasoline is going to greatly affect the market for more fuel-efficient cars, or that a 4 percent increase in the price of electricity is greatly going to affect industries' efficiency investment.

THOMSON: But the consumption tax would chart a new energy course. Solar and wind power, meanwhile, would get a boost by being exempt from the tax. And the president also wants to cut funds for nuclear power. There are also pro-environment initiatives on the spending side of the budget plan, including new money for rail transit, forest preservation, environmental cleanup and sewage treatment.

Meanwhile, California drivers may have to pay even more at the pump -- not for another fuel tax, but for their car insurance. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED explains.

BAYHA: The so-called "pay at the pump" proposal could add as much as 40 cents to the price of a gallon of gas. That money, along with increased vehicle registration fees, would fund a statewide no-fault automobile insurance program covering all drivers in the state. Environmental groups support the plan, since raising the price of gasoline is seen as one of the best ways to get people out of their cars. But Democratic State Senator Art Torres, who plans to introduce the bill, is skeptical.

TORRES: It may not result in less driving, it may result in more driving but with more fuel-efficient cars.

BAYHA: Torres figures the average cost of insurance will go down by almost $250 dollars a year. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

THOMSON: A ban on dioxin burning at an Arkansas Superfund site may threaten plans for hazardous waste incinerators elsewhere. From KUAR in Little Rock, Ben Frye reports.

FRYE: US District Judge Steven Reasoner banned the burning of all hazardous wastes containing dioxin at an abandoned chemical plant in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Government attorneys argued that the incinerator had met EPA standards for destroying dioxin-like material, but Judge Reasoner agreed with environmental groups which said the incinerator could not prove a 99.9999 percent efficiency for destroying dioxin itself. The government plans to appeal the ruling while the EPA is looking into other ways to dispose of the waste. Companies which operate incinerators in other parts of the country are worried about how the ruling may affect them. A recent test by a company planning to build a hazardous waste incinerator at the Times Beach site in Missouri could show only a 99. 97 percent efficiency on dioxin destruction. For Living on Earth, I'm Ben Frye in Little Rock.

THOMSON: This is Living on Earth.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says the Federal Government should protect entire eco-systems rather than protecting wildlife species one by one. Babbitt says the new approach would help avoid political battles such as the one over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. Many environmentalists, and some business leaders, have endorsed the ecosystem plan as cheaper and more predictable than the current approach. Babbitt made his comments to a House committee, as Congress prepares to take up the renewal of the Endangered Species Act.

The new Interior Secretary has also staked out an aggressive agenda in other areas since taking office. These include the reform of Western grazing and mining laws, which environmentalists say endanger the land and cost the government millions of dollars. Pye Chamberlayne reports from Washington.

CHAMBERLAYNE: Secretary Babbitt plans to fight over bitter issues of grazing and mining fees, to raise money for environmental promises. The Clinton Administration is up against many Western development interests, as it seeks to impose royalties for mineral extraction and new fees for grazing on Federal lands. These battles have been lost by increasingly narrow margins by environmentalists over the last few years. A key test, for example, was lost by two votes in the Senate last year. But supporters and opponents of the proposals say the presence of a Democrat in the White House provides the best chance in decades for passage of legislation that could yield hundreds of millions of dollars for projects ranging from mine cleanups to parkland acquisition. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlayne in Washington.

THOMSON: The leader of Italy's anti-Mafia party says mobsters are trading heroin for weapons-grade uranium from the former Soviet republics. According to USA Today, Leoluca Orlando says a new global crime syndicate is selling the nuclear material to Saddam Hussein and others. Police in Western Europe have arrested a number of people for smuggling radioactive material from the former communist countries, but so far no weapons grade uranium has been seized.

That's this week's environmental news . . . I'm Peter Thomson.

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Food Safety Law Under Fire

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley.

How much is too much, when it comes to processed food containing chemicals that may cause cancer? Since 1958, when Congress passed the Delaney Clause, the answer has been: even a trace is unacceptable. Environmentalists and consumer groups say the Delaney Clause is one of their strongest legal allies. But 35 years after it was written, the Delaney clause is under fire. Food processors say science has made the law obsolete. . . and to the surprise of some environmentalists, so does the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. NPR's Brenda Wilson has this report from Washington.

WILSON: The Delaney Clause has been the environmentalists' one sure card for thirty-five years. So understandably, they might be reluctant to give it up, even for a friend -- in this case, the Clinton Administration. Under Delaney, no cancer-causing ingredient, pesticide, or food additive is allowed at any level in processed foods. But science has advanced considerably since it became law. Researchers have a better understanding of how cancer develops, and what causes injury to cells. They are also now able to identify tiny traces of chemical compounds -- forty years ago they were lucky if they could detect DDT at ten or a hundred parts per million.

REISBOROUGH: Way back in 1958, it made a lot of sense to say if you can find any DDT in your milk, that milk should not be drunk.

WILSON: Bob Reisborough of the University of California-Berkeley is a leading expert on pesticides, who has studied their effects on wildlife in the field and in the laboratories.

REISBOROUGH: The sensitivity has increased and increased and increased, so that now we can detect levels of potential carcinogens at much, much, much lower levels. There has to be a point when we say okay, above this then we do worry about the risk; below that, the risk becomes trivial in comparison with all the other risks we face.

WILSON: The Delaney Clause applies only to carcinogens found in processed foods, like apple juice, raisins or flour. It does not apply to raw commodities such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Here, the relative risks of what are considered insignificant traces of pesticides are allowed, and weighed against the benefits of crop protection. Using this same standard, in 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to introduce some flexibility into Delaney. But environmental and consumer groups sued to hold EPA to the letter of the law. Last year, San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Delaney, it concluded, was an absolute prohibition against any pesticides in processed foods. In the wake of that ruling, earlier this month, EPA released a list of 35 chemicals which have to be banned if the law is not changed. John Vroom is the president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, which opposed the environmentalists.

VROOM: The difference between their position and our position is really a matter of continued availability of some of these older products based on a very strict interpretation of a legal question, but having nothing to do with the matter of public safety. We don't want to put products into the marketplace that don't meet an absolutely strict test of assurance that science can tell us represents no human health concern.

WILSON: EPA Administrator Carol Browner essentially concurs that there is no unreasonable risk, and is expected to ask Congress to re-examine Delaney. In the meantime, she says she will comply with the law. Environmentalists were caught off-guard by her suggestion that the law should be relaxed. After all, she had come with strong environmental credentials. Their first reading was that she had unwittingly stumbled onto a minefield. Al Meyerhoff is an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the suit against the EPA. He says NRDC is willing to work with Browner, but won't back away from Delaney's zero-risk philosophy. Meyerhoff argues that carcinogenicity is only one of the reasons we need to reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment.

MEYERHOFF: We seem to have a fixation with cancer and perhaps we should, given its horrible consequences. But pesticides also cause nerve damage, they cause reproductive harm, they adversely affect the immune system. These are poisons, and they're polluting our lakes and rivers. Is this necessary? I think that the challenge to the Clinton Administration and to the new EPA Administrator, Carol Browner, is to give leadership to find a way that we can continue to produce our food but do so with fewer chemicals.

WILSON: EPA's Carol Browner clearly sides with those who think that time and technology have outstripped the Delaney Clause. Her first test will be convincing environmentalists that they can be a bit more flexible now that they're sitting across the table from a friend. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Wilson in Washington.

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Environmental Damage and Chronic Conflict

NUNLEY: Here in the U.S., environmental problems are often the subject of fierce political and ideological battles, battles whose outcome can change our economy, our health and our natural heritage. But in many parts of the world, the conflicts caused by environmental change can have even more serious consequences. Increasingly, degraded and diminishing resources are leading to ethnic strife, unstable governments, even war. The relationship between environmental change and violent conflict is the subject of an article in the current issue of Scientific American magazine. Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, and one of the article's co-authors. He spoke recently with Living On Earth's Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you first what you see as being different from now than in the past, I mean -- wars have always been fought over scarce resources, haven't they?

HOMER-DIXON: That's true, but we're starting to see conflicts arising from the scarcities of renewable resources, as opposed to non-renewable resources. Many of the conflicts in the past were fought over petroleum or minerals. Today we're seeing conflicts arising from scarcities of water, forests and good agricultural land. And also these scarcities are becoming worse very fast, and we think that's going to be driving a higher rate of conflict in the future.

CURWOOD: From your work, can you tell us if there's a certain flash-point at which the environmental problem sparks a violent conflict?

HOMER-DIXON: I think that we have to look at problems of irreversibility. When resources are degraded or become irreversibly scarce in some way, then you're going to have a higher probability of violence, because that in a sense becomes a permanent burden on the social and political system. Even if you have enlightened political and social change that reduces the degradation of the environment, because the resources are permanently damaged or permanently scarce, that becomes a burden that may continue to contribute to conflict in the area.

CURWOOD: We've been talking very theoretically here, and I'd like to get specific. What comes to mind is Haiti, and I'm wondering if much of the conflict and strife that we've seen in Haiti is related to its degradation of its sustainable resources?

HOMER-DIXON: We think the conflict is related to the degradation of Haiti's resources. The loss of good agricultural land in upland areas and the deforestation in the interior of Haiti has driven a lot of people from those areas into the cities and has contributed to a really serious economic crisis, and all of that has helped spur the migration of boat people out of the country that we've seen recently.

CURWOOD: Now what other areas in the world have environmental problems spark conflict or are likely to spark conflict?

HOMER-DIXON: We believe that land degradation in interior areas of the Philippines is contributing to the Communist-led insurgency in that area. People are moving from the rich coastal lands, because of population growth rates and because of the unequal distribution of land in those coastal areas, and they're moving into interior areas that are steep and have shallow soils and the land is very easily damaged there, when it has a high population density. As they become increasingly poorer, because they can't grow enough food, they are more receptive to joining the Communist-led insurgency in those interior areas, or they move to coastal urban areas such as Manila, and that puts a tremendous strain on the central government of the Philippines.

CURWOOD: In what other parts of the world where this likely to crop up or is going on right now?

HOMER-DIXON: We're particularly concerned about China, where we think that environmental damage of various kinds is probably costing the country about 15 percent of its GNP, which will put a tremendous strain over time on the central Chinese government. Also, there is going to be a large-scale movement of millions of people from interior areas where the land is very badly damaged to coastal areas which provide more jobs. We have identified large-scale movements of people from Bangladesh, where good agricultural land is very scarce, into the Indian states of Assam and Tripura, and this has contributed to some really brutal ethnic conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in both of those Indian states. In the Middle East, it seems that water scarcity on the West Bank of the Jordan River has significantly contributed to the decline of Palestinian agriculture on the West Bank, and has in turn contributed to the current uprising that we see on the West Bank. Also, in South Africa, the white regime concentrated large numbers of black people in homeland areas, and those homelands often had the worst land, the most easily degradable land. Those areas have become very poor, because the land has been so badly damaged, and we're seeing a huge influx of people out of the homelands into urban areas, in squatter settlements and illegal townships that are ripe for violence at the moment.

CURWOOD: Do you have much hope for these regional conflicts, or do you think that things have really gone too far in many of these places, and that this irreversible loss of renewable resources means that these regions are just doomed to conflict?

HOMER-DIXON: It's possible the countries can compensate by finding other things to employ their peoples, to generate wealth. But we feel that many of these countries that we're looking at are in some sense too far gone. What we're trying to do with our research, though, is present a warning for other regions of the world, that they shouldn't let the process go so far.

CURWOOD: Are there any strategies that can be pursued?

HOMER-DIXON: We think there are. It's critical that rich and poor countries collaborate to work on family planning and population control, because in many cases population growth is driving resource scarcity. Also it' s very important that rich and poor countries cooperate to reduce the debt burden on poor countries, because many poor countries are encouraged to use their very best agricultural lands to grow cash crops for export, so they can pay their foreign debts. And that drives people into, out of those rich agricultural areas into ecologically-degradable areas. There are many other things -- it's critical that poor countries work on redistributing their land so that people can find employment in rural areas, and rich countries can help poor countries in the development of technical expertise, so that they can more effectively manage their ecological resources, and so that they can develop their own methods for managing their environmental resources.

NUNLEY: Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the co-director of the project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict, sponsored by the University of Toronto and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spoke with Living On Earth's Steve Curwood.

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Green Investing

NUNLEY : If you want to see your money grow -- plant it in green companies. That's the advice many financial advisors are giving these days, predicting that tougher environmental policies, advocated by members of the Clinton Administration, will generate growth in waste disposal, recycling, pollution control, and alternative energy stocks. But finding a place in the market to put your green is another matter, and so is making sure it turns a healthy profit. Cy Musiker reports.

MUSIKER: So you want to invest in the environmental industry? It sounds like a booming business, what with a new administration in Washington and just about everybody recycling these days. Somebody must be making bundles of money. But it's not so easy.

Out of the 37 hundred mutual funds available in the US, only 9 are environmental sector funds, even stretching the definition. And they fall into two broad categories -- pollution control, and pollution avoidance. Most of the funds, like Kemper, Fidelity, or Oppenheimer, are less than three years old, and buy stock from just a few hundred major companies involved in some form of recycling, pollution control, or waste handling. Common holdings would be Waste Management Incorporated, a waste handler with a controversial environmental history of its own, or the cogeneration company O'Brien Environmental. But the best-performing environmental industry fund of last year was one which takes a broader view of the industry, and avoids companies with questionable environmental records. That's the New Alternatives Fund, which Dave Schoenwald founded in 1982 to invest in the alternative energy business.

SCHOENWALD: The definition of alternative energy is not just a solar-cell company, in our point of view. If a company made insulation which reduced the amount of energy one used in their house, that saved energy, and so we defined or considered alternative energy saving energy.

MUSIKER: It may be stretching the definition of an environmental fund when New Alternatives buys 50 thousand shares of Huffy, the bicycle manufacturer. But then that's non-polluting transportation. A more traditional green industry investment would be Schoenwald's purchase of Zurn Industries, which makes cogeneration equipment. That wide range of investments, though, is one reason Schoenwald's New Alternatives turned in the best performance of any environmental sector fund last year, growing by 4.9 percent.

Mike Silverstein is president of Environmental Economics, a company that tracks environmental stocks and five eco-industry mutual funds. Silverstein says that enviro-stocks took off in anticipation of Earth Day 1990, but then as the recession gripped American business, they plummeted, especially as the amount of hazardous and other waste produced dropped off as well. The average net assets of the five funds fell 7 percent last year.

SILVERSTEIN: There's a shakeout going on right now, a very serious shakeout, because the old notion that this industry had to keep growing infinitely because regulations were getting more and more intense has proven to be somewhat over-optimistic. In fact the industry is susceptible to the same kinds of recessionary pressures as other industries.

MUSIKER: But let's face it, even the best-performing green industry mutual fund didn't do at all well last year, when compared to funds which choose investments from the whole gamut of American business. David Pogran is director of research at the Parnassus Fund in San Francisco.

POGRAN: There is a risk to investing in environmental funds, in that it's really not diversified.

MUSIKER: Parnassus was up 32 percent, easily qualifying it as the most successful socially screened fund in the country and one of the top mutual funds of any kind. Parnassus follows the usual social activist criteria -- avoiding companies with ties to South Africa, the defense industry, tobacco, gambling, and liquor, and the environment. Pogran says that's the issue people ask most about these days. But is that a good way to judge a company?

POGRAN: It makes a lot of business sense. It's very, very, very expensive to pollute the environment.

MUSIKER: Now Parnassus takes its social mission seriously, but just as with most mutual funds, the management fees go to the fund's owners. At nine-month-old Green Century Funds in Boston, the management fees go toward environmental advocacy, because Green Century is owned by Ralph Nader's US-PIRG, the public interest research group. Mindy Lubber is president of the fund.

LUBBER: Sometimes I think about it as the carrot versus the stick approach. We have tried as advocates for the environment to sue companies when they weren't being environmentally responsible. Now we can go to them in a much more collegial fashion and say to them, we need to work together, we are shareholders, we are an owner, so to speak, of your corporation -- and we want to see more corporate environmental programs and we want to make sure they're very real.

MUSIKER: So that's the range of environmental investments, from funds which buy pollution control stocks which may be polluters themselves, to alternative energy funds, to funds which buy a wide range of stocks but insist on what they consider environmentally responsible policies. A number of analysts think 1993 will prove an excellent good year for environmental stocks. They're a good buy, said one analyst, if you're not afraid of financial roller coaster rides. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

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Shaving Endangered Species: Act Locally

HARRIS: Batten down the hatches, Greenies! rough seas ahead.

NUNLEY: Commentator Tom Harris.

HARRIS: A long-delayed, bruising fight over reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act is coming, and it's going to be a major gut-check for environmentalists. Yes, the White House has been painted a more tolerable shade of green, but Congress is still Congress. The lobbying might of those who would gut the Act is still there, ready to be dropped on weak-kneed Representatives or Senators at the drop of a job. Even if that storm is ridden out, there's another just behind it -- the budget deficit crunch. All this talk about shared sacrifice is not just for the other guy, you know. The era of limited resources and lowered expectations is here again, and it will affect all endeavors, including environmental ones. Even if the Endangered Species Act is not bruised and bloodied, the critters are likely to be up the creek a while yet, until there is money enough for more listing studies and habitat conservation plans and biologists to do both. Until that money comes, the Greenies are going to have to take their own counsel about thinking globally, but acting locally. California is a good place to start. It has 17 percent of the country's species considered at risk of extinction, and 37 percent of the candidates for listing. The depression has temporarily deflated it, but California's recent growth spiral, some 800 thousand people a year, displaces critters and eliminates their habitat at a numbing rate. So if we won't quit having babies, or limit immigration, and if we can't spend our way out of this mess, what's a body to do? It all comes back to that dang slogan again: it's time for enviros to act -- locally. Look, species don't get exterminated in Washington DC, unless they're alien nannies. They get crowded out of a lot of little tiny places you never heard of, and along the entire expanding wall of suburbia. It's time to fight land use battles before city councils and planning commissions, or state forestry and agricultural boards, to confront developers and resource exploiters in the subdivisions, and on the marshes and the forests, and on the farms, where the critters live -- or used to. It's time to lobby voters and taxpayers, not just Congress; to fight the mayor, not just the President. It's time to tighten density limits and spur infill development -- make cities grow up instead of out. It's time to require more set-aside lands and mitigation banks. After all, projects take their toll locally, so the price should be paid locally too. And if someone wants to talk jobs, there are just as many in building rails as superhighways, and it takes a lot less space and causes a lot less pollution, too. I know that it's tedious and dirty work, but somebody has to do it. Let's hope the Greenies have the taste for it and the rest of us the will to support them. It may be our last good chance in quite a while.

NUNLEY: Tom Harris recently retired from the environmental beat at the Sacramento Bee. He's the author of "Death in The Marsh."

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NUNLEY: Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living On Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Colleen Singer Cox, Chris Page, Reyna Lounsbury and engineers Laurie Azaria, Mark Navin and Bob Walker. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. The executive producer is Steve Curwood.

Living On Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Jan Nunley.

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