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A green farming movement

Agroecology: Sensible idea or costly green initiative?

Agroecology, a back-to-nature farming approach based on ecological science, is growing into a movement proponents hope will transform the way we grow food. “Farming the land as if nature doesn’t matter has been the model for much of the Western world’s food production system,” wrote agroecology advocates Daniel Moss and Mark Bittman in The New York Times recently. “The results haven’t been pretty: depleted soil, chemically fouled waters, … a worsening of public health and more.”

While the definition of “agroecology” varies, it can include using compost as fertilizer, attracting both pollinators and pest-consuming predators, and using nutrients from the farm as fertilizers and pesticides rather than costly chemicals. Other practices include regenerating the soil by growing complementary crops and multicropping or using local seed varieties rather than costly patented types.

But some observers caution that certain practices advocated by the agroecology movement could, if widely adopted, drive up food prices for the world’s poor.

For some in the green movement, “agroecology” means minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, according to James Wanliss, a senior fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. “They may define this not in terms of price, yield, or mouths fed but rather in terms of some nebulous goal of saving the planet from carbon dioxide,” he said in an email.

Wanliss agrees that agricultural innovators have developed beneficial and ecologically friendly changes in recent years. He noted that no-till farming, in which farmers leave the biological layers undisturbed rather than turning the soil for each growing season, “is marvelous for the biota, excellent for erosion control and soil conservation, and is helpful in controlling some diseases.”

But the agroecology approach may only work for people who want to run a hobby farm. On a large scale, it would require greater amounts of land, produce lower yields, and increase the price of food globally. That defeats the ultimate goal of agriculture, said Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute: “Modern agriculture is about feeding the world at the lowest cost.”

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Science

Recent origin of species?

Genetic study’s findings throw curveball at evolution

Researchers are shocked by the unexpected results of a large new genetic study that appears in the journal Human Evolution. The findings indicate that either most animal species and humans originated at approximately the same time, or some major population crash wiped out most of the original species.

In the past, researchers studied DNA in the nucleus of cells, which differs markedly from one species to another. But the new study analyzed a gene sequence found in mitochondrial DNA. (Mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, produce about 90 percent of a cell’s chemical energy.) Although mitochondrial DNA is similar across all humans and animals, it also contains tiny bits that are different enough to distinguish between species. This difference allows researchers to estimate the approximate age of a species.

The researchers analyzed these gene sequences in 100,000 species and concluded that the event—either the simultaneous appearance of humans and most animals, or a population crash—occurred about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. That proposal challenges the bedrock of evolutionary theory.

The same authors found other genetic evidence of a relatively recent population crash for all species, which they called “almost a Noah’s Ark hypothesis,” in a 2014 study in PLOS One. They quickly dismissed that notion, though, and said climate cycles offered a more likely explanation.

According to traditional evolutionary thinking, all living things on Earth share common ancestry, with species evolving through a slow process of random mutation, natural selection, and adaptation over roughly 3.8 billion years. The idea that humans and most animals suddenly appeared at the same time a mere 200,000 years ago or less does not fit with that model.

“This conclusion is very surprising,” study co-author David Thaler told AFP, “and I fought against it as hard as I could.”

Nathaniel Jeanson, a cell and developmental biologist with the young-earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis, understands why Thaler and other evolutionists would want to fight against the findings. “There’s a great danger to the evolutionary model in this study in ways they don’t quite realize yet,” he noted on AIG founder Ken Ham’s blog.

Most creationists do not believe that humans and animals share a common ancestor, and young-earth creationists also believe the Earth is as few as 6,000 years old. Still, the study’s results are exciting because, if accurate, they could not only challenge evolutionary theory but also support the Genesis account of creation.

The study also indicated the living world is made up of species with clear genetic boundaries and few or no intermediates between them. On his blog, Ken Ham of AIG said that was exactly what one would expect to find based on the Biblical account of creation. Evolutionists do not expect species to have clear genetic boundaries since they believe all life descended from common ancestors. But Ham said creationists expect genetically distinct species because the Bible tells us God “created each kind to reproduce according to its kind.”

According to the Genesis account, Ham added, all original species came into being at the same time because God created all the different animal “kinds” during creation week. Further, all species that survived the global flood of Noah’s day got off the ark together after the flood.

Andrew Jones of the Discovery Institute said that whether one interprets the study to indicate a simultaneous appearance of humans and animals or a population crash, both views could point to intelligent design. “Either way, if the paper is right, it would be a shock to established scientific expectations,” he wrote on the organization’s blog, Evolution News & Science Today.

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Science

‘Herd immunity’ hurdle

Mass immunizations against Ebola offer little promise of success

On the heels of the World Health Organization’s announcement of an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new research study cast doubt on the ability of mass vaccination campaigns to prevent such Ebola outbreaks in the future.

Since April, Congo’s Équateur province has reported 49 likely Ebola cases, including 27 deaths and 28 confirmed cases as of May 22. With memories of the West Africa Ebola epidemic that claimed the lives of 11,310 people a few years ago, WHO has shipped several thousand doses of an experimental vaccine into Congo, meant for health workers and anyone else in immediate contact with Ebola patients.

A larger, mass vaccination campaign to prevent widespread transmission would likely be ineffective, according to the study conducted by England’s University of Kent and published May 9 in Frontiers in Immunology.

Each Ebola patient, on average, infects at least four people in the early stages of the disease. According to the researchers’ analysis, the rapid spread of the virus means 80 percent of the population would need immunization to achieve “herd immunity” and prevent widespread transmission, likely an unachievable number.

In a vaccination trial during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, health professionals could vaccinate only 49 percent of the contacts of infected individuals. Thirty-four percent refused vaccination, and health issues such as HIV and cancer prevented many others from receiving immunization.

To date, no FDA-approved Ebola vaccine exists, and none of the experimental vaccines offer protection against all four types of life-threatening Ebola viruses. Furthermore, researchers do not know if the current vaccines can provide the long-term protection needed to defend against a virus with which humans repeatedly come into contact through animals.

Vaccination campaigns in rural areas of countries like Congo are difficult due to transportation problems, lack of equipment and trained medical personnel, and cultural and language barriers.

The researchers concluded that targeted immunization programs—focused exclusively on healthcare workers and other contacts of infected persons—remain the best vaccine strategy against Ebola for now.

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