11 February 2017

Genetic modification—Here to stay?

Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet.

Douglas Adams (Author, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series)

Some months ago, my family was busy making arrangements for a trip to Seattle, USA. An inherited medical condition left us little choice beyond a radical medical trial entailing gene therapy to try correcting the unfortunate condition. I do not recall feeling any misgivings about how the procedure may go or its eventual outcome. It’s only much later that it hit me (I have a dark-ish sense of humor)—I now have a family member I could officially call a genetically modified organism (GMO). Given my educational qualification in environmental engineering and 15 years of experience in environmental management, I started wondering how I “missed” it all somehow. The gene therapy trial involved inserting a specially engineered working copy of a gene into the body of a loved one with the help of a “safety-modified version” of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which would insert the modified gene into the volunteer patient’s body (given the propensity of the virus to make inroads into the human body) but without harming him/her. The trial does not promise a cure (hence, it is called a “trial” and not a “treatment”), and it was/is a complete shot in the dark. Yet, we participated in it willingly and not once did I think at the time that “this is genetic engineering and I should decline (because that is what most environmentalists would do).” My real issue after the fact dawned upon me was that if someone asked me to eat genetically modified (GM) foods, I would decline, because I would have thought I do not know enough about it. To my confused mind, there are so many parallels between this medical trial and the exercise of creating a genetically modified food form (too many unknowns, “tinkering with nature (?),” and the possible use of other life forms to genetically modify another related or unrelated life form), and yet, I did not blink an eye at the first (the gene therapy trial) and I’d still say no to the second (eating a GMO). Does such a choice sound logical? Although the trial and GM foods sound worlds apart, we are talking about the circle of life and human health.

 Every living thing contains genetic information and therein lies the common thread. 

To unmuddle myself, I spoke to some friends and family about this, and I realized that most of them felt the same way; they would refuse GM foods because they are worried about what they’d be putting inside their bodies and they feel that it is not a good idea to “tinker with nature” (I found that these words just kept popping up no matter whom I spoke to). A (very tiny) minority of my sounding boards were less cautious. They were not strictly against GM foods but confessed they did not know enough to provide a technically convincing answer one way or another.  
Funny how once you start thinking of something in earnest, you begin to see things connected with it everywhere. So, when I read about India’s “Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation” (one of the five committees defined as part of the country’s GEAC or Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee clearances), it struck a negative chord with me. Genetic engineering, modification, therapy, and editing sound more refined and learned, and or at least, much less ominous than genetic manipulation. As we well know, a section of society would beg to differ. Any change with the genetic code of crops, which is the area we tend to refer to most commonly when we speak of genetic engineering today, is anathema. And yet these terms differ ever so slightly in meaning, especially with all the advances that are being made this field even as you read this.

What is genetic engineering and who controls it?

Genetic engineering refers to techniques used to change the genetic composition of an organism by adding specific genes. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through conventional plant breeding, the oldest known instance being Gregor Mendel's pea plant experiments conducted between 1856 and 1863, which established many of the rules of heredity, now widely known as the laws of Mendelian inheritance. Today, genetically engineered crops are broadly sub-divided into two categories: herbicide-tolerant crops (HTCs) and plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs). 

HTCs are supposedly designed to tolerate specific broad-spectrum herbicides, which should kill the surrounding weeds but leave the cultivated crop intact. Currently, the only HTC varieties cultivated in the US, known in the market as Roundup Ready crops, are engineered to be tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, also called Roundup, which was introduced in the market in 1974 after DDT was banned. Roundup is produced by the American multinational company, Monsanto, a name synonymous with agri-biotechnology and a “sustainable agriculture company” (as per its website). Roundup Ready crops are resistant to Roundup, so farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to prevent other weeds from growing in their fields. I suppose the original idea was that using Roundup alone would prevent the need for other pesticides, provided farmers planted Roundup Ready crops. Roundup Ready crop seeds (by now, you must have guessed that these too are a monopoly of Monsanto) have notoriously been referred to as “terminator seeds”; the crops produced from Roundup Ready seeds are sterile. Each year, farmers must purchase the most recent strain of seeds from Monsanto if they wish to continue growing their crops. Therefore, farmers cannot reuse their best seeds, as they normally would, for planting future crops. Roundup Ready crops have become the mainstay of American agriculture; 93% of soybeans, 82% of cotton, and 85% of corn planted are engineered to be glyphosate-resistant. Ironically, this increase in glyphosate-resistant crops has led to herbicide resistance, driving the rash increase in herbicide use accompanied by numerous other environmental and human health impacts. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.” So, the world’s most widely used herbicide (and its main constituent, glyphosate) has been getting a lot of bad press recently (see Box 1). 

Box 1. Documented evidence pointing to the threats posed by glyphosate use
A US-based study from 2012, titled “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years,” notes that HTCs worked extremely well in the first few years of use, but over-reliance has led to shifts in weed communities and the spread of resistant weeds, forcing farmers to increase herbicide application rates and to add new herbicides. The study determined that HTC technology has led to a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use in the U.S. between 1996 and 2011. Resistant species like ryegrass and horseweed were found in crop and non-crop areas, and now grow robustly even when sprayed with four times the recommended quantity of Roundup.

A recent study (published in March 2016) shows that 99.6% of Germans are contaminated with glyphosate. Meat eaters displayed higher levels of glyphosate contamination than vegetarians, possibly pointing to the high levels of glyphosate found in the Roundup ready GMO soy and corn used in animal feed. The study’s results were released amidst the news of the EU government putting off a crucial decision on whether to re-authorize the chemical, described by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “probably carcinogenic,” until 2031.

Sources: Beyond Pesticides and The Ecologist.

Ironically, the U.S. government continues to view the herbicide as being safe. 

 On 24 May 2015, tens of thousands of people across close to 400 cities in 40+ countries from the Americas to Africa and Europe marched against Monsanto. The underlying themes of the marches were people’s refusal to accept GMOs in their food supply and their demand that Monsanto’s Roundup be scrapped from markets. Detractors of Monsanto’s GM crops demanded a moratorium on the planting of Monsanto seeds in their countries so that independent research can be conducted into the technology’s effects.

While Monsanto calls itself a “relatively new company,” its reach, as evidenced by its operations in 68 countries, is evident. The massive amounts it invests in R&D have led the company to use seed patenting and royalty payments as its revenue generating model, a practice reviled by most and denounced as “biopiracy.”

PIPs refer to crops wherein foreign DNA is used to encode a desired trait into an unrelated plant species. The technique is also known as transgenesis. For instance, the Bt brinjal is a suite of transgenic brinjals created by inserting a specific gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the genome of the brinjal cultivar. Such transfers are typically accomplished by a plant-infesting microbe, which can insert the gene at a semi-random location into the plant’s DNA. Despite industry claims that PIPs would lessen pesticide dependency, insects have exhibited resistance to the engineered crops. So much so, that in March 2016, a government panel on genetically modified Bt cotton (a technology approved for commercial cultivation in India in 2002), recommended a steep reduction in royalty fees payable to Bt cotton seed technology providers such as Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd., a 50:50 joint venture between Mahyco Seeds Ltd. and Monsanto Holdings Pvt. Ltd. The committee suggested a 70% decrease in royalty (or trait fees) as the Bollgard II technology’s ability to resist pests has weakened over the years. 

The GM food story in India

While Bt cotton is the only GM plant allowed to be cultivated in India, private firms have been looking at introducing different kinds of GM seeds, including rice, tomato, wheat. The newspapers carry reports of the Indian government’s willingness to support the commercial release of GM mustard if the GEAC, India’s biotechnology regulator, approves it. A few years ago, India’s then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, shelved the release of Bt Brinjal. The GM mustard variety goes by the technical name DMH 11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11) and is the brainchild of Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. DMH 11 is an HTC that has been made resistant to glufosinate, a herbicide marketed by Bayer. The fate of GM mustard in India remains to be decided. Aruna Rodrigues, a concerned Indian citizen and who is not afraid to show it, has mounted a legal challenge as the lead petitioner in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), contending that mandatory rigorous biosafety protocols have not been carried out and the data pertaining to DMH 11 is being concealed deliberately. Rodrigues’ PIL posits that DMH 11 must be barred on a number of counts, including proven harm to the environment as glufosinate is expected to adversely affect non-target organisms, high potential for contamination of non-GM mustard crops by DMH 11, and the fact that glufosinate is a probable human carcinogen. Most crucially, India’s PPVFRA or Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Authority states that no national law allows toxins to be introduced into foods/food crops and seeds. The PPVFRA expressly refuses registration of such “injurious” seeds. Thus, the seeds of DMH 11 are ostensibly banned on two counts under the PPVFRA —for being “injurious to life” and for being a technology that includes genetic use restriction technology and terminator technology.

 Why is the government willing to support such a case despite the overwhelming regulatory and scientific evidence against it? May be it is because, as Aruna Rodrigues has stated, this is a case of “monumental fraud and unremitting regulatory delinquency.” [Interested readers may like to view the final report of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) on field trials of genetically modified crops.]

“Decontrolling” and democratizing genetic engineering: Is it possible?

Unlike most of my friends and family, I do feel that genetic engineering is here to stay. Researchers will continue to make huge strides in this area, be it medicine or crop science. Gene-editing tools such as CRISPR, which have been making headlines recently, have huge potential for practical applications in healthcare and agriculture. As far as the argument of tinkering with nature stands, to my mind (and readers are free to disagree), we have been doing the exact same thing ever since man discovered fire. There is no progress without research. However, the onus lies on us to ensure that the needed system of checks and balances is established and implemented. We need to be absolutely convinced that GM foods are safe to consume and this is not possible without rigorously controlled food safety and environmental assessments, which should address labeling and traceability issues. Government policy and regulation have not maintained pace with the rapid lightning speed of new developments in this area. For instance, would creating a strain of barley that would make its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil (thus doing away with the need for chemical fertilizer) be considered as genetic modification? Should the foods created using these techniques be accepted by consumers? Do they offer proven benefits to all stakeholders? What are their “long-term” consequences? Would a one-size-fits-all approach work?

Presently, GM technology for crops has been a “failed economic experiment,” as an acquaintance aptly put it. Why? Because all the discoveries made in this arena have not been put to the good use of many; rather, they have enriched a few. The notion of public good has never been a consideration in this field, which is a gross oversight given that over 58% of rural Indian households depend on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood. Al Jazeera reports that after Bt cotton was introduced in India, the price of cotton seeds jumped by a whopping 8,000%. According to the Indian government, nearly 75% of rural debt is attributed to purchased inputs. The National Seed Association of India estimates that Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd. collected an estimated Rs. 4,479 crore in royalty fees between 2005-2006 and 2014-2015. Do the math…

 How can such technology be put to the good use of many rather than benefitting a few? 

A small minority of researchers suggest that smaller plant breeders and research organizations be allowed to use genetic modification methods for breeding in locally important crops. The focus should rest on less profitable traits, the goals being improved nutritional quality and sustainable agriculture. Doing so would entail democratization of biotechnology, which is currently monopolized by very few multinationals that concentrate on profitable traits in major global crops.

All the images in this post were sourced from Wikimedia. A slightly lengthier version of this write-up appeared as an article in The Energy Resources Institute’s (TERI’s) TerraGreen magazine (July 2016 issue).

14 November 2015

Let there be...light?

As the insistent bees keep buzzing at my closed window pane, I wonder what draws them to it. Is it the light? The warmth given out by the light? On many mornings, I open the window to find that these poor creatures appear to have waited unrelentingly to enter my room and buzz madly around the lights but have died while doing so. Those bees that do get in (somehow mysteriously even when the windows are shut!) dance madly around the lights in the room only to skitter after some time like half drunks on the floor and ultimately die trying to find their way back out during the night as the lights have been switched on. The "slightly" more unfortunate ones are vengefully squished underfoot by my 10-year old son, who has been at the receiving (and very painful) end of three bee stings from the half drunk dancers. I assume that some of the fortunate ones do escape after we turn out the lights and retire to another room (a friend assures me he does the same and it works). So irrespective of what happens (whether I close my windows or open them), most of the poor critters will die.

While I am not a connoisseur of insects, I do know enough to understand that bees are valuable creatures. More than 50% of the world's need for fat and oil is derived from oil seeds such as cotton, sunflower, coconut, groundnut and oil palm, all of which are dependent to some extent on bees for pollination. For the UK alone, which has lost three species of native bumblebee and lists six more as endangered, the economic value of bees has been estimated to stand at about £1 billion. The corresponding figure for the world is £135 billion. So I feel a bit guilty when my living room becomes a bee graveyard (or murder scene, depending on how you look at it).

I have now taken to closing the windows and drawing heavy curtains across them, to see if that stops the insistent buzzing at the window. And voila... it does (and also converts the living room into an oven)! So, the bees are attracted to the light. Why light? A helpful answer on Quora informs me that bees are "phototrophic" insects (attracted to light). This attraction varies from one insect to another and depends on elements such as the wavelength (color) and intensity of the light source. Clearly having the lights on is not helping the bees (at least, not in my home). Which brings me to the question, "do we have too much light?" At a time when developing countries are seriously directing efforts toward improving electricity generation and distribution, to escape the rigors of poverty and improve human lives, it may seem like anathema saying so but the world needs less light in some places and more in others. Light has its benefits but it has its disadvantages too--light pollution. Simply put, pollution is a misplaced resource, too much or too little of something in the wrong place.

While the extent of electricity coverage in a country is generally seen as an indicator of development (the higher, the better), it does create problems for not just insects like the bee but also other creatures.

Above: The world lit up at night. A sign of prosperity and something else?

The National Geographic reports, "The effect is so powerful that scientists speak of songbirds and seabirds being "captured" by searchlights on land or by the light from gas flares on marine oil platforms, circling and circling in the thousands until they drop. Migrating at night, birds are apt to collide with brightly lit tall buildings; immature birds on their first journey suffer disproportionately...Some birds—blackbirds and nightingales, among others—sing at unnatural hours in the presence of artificial light. Scientists have determined that long artificial days—and artificially short nights—induce early breeding in a wide range of birds. And because a longer day allows for longer feeding, it can also affect migration schedules. One population of Bewick's swans wintering in England put on fat more rapidly than usual, priming them to begin their Siberian migration early. The problem, of course, is that migration, like most other aspects of bird behavior, is a precisely timed biological behavior. Leaving early may mean arriving too soon for nesting conditions to be right."

 Above: Migrating birds across the Gulf of Mexico are confused by the brightly lit oil rig platforms. There have been reports of up to 100,000 birds, including woodpeckers, swallows and kingfishers, circling a platform on one night alone, only to fall into the water from exhaustion and become easy dinner for the inhabitant sharks. Apparently, just switching the color of the lights from yellow to green may cut this toll drastically.

Various species of sea turtles seek beaches to lay their eggs. The females tend to return to the same beach they were born for nesting. Research has shown that the artificial light on or away from the beach front (toward the land) discourages the females from returning to the beach. Such light also confuses the natural instincts of the turtle hatchlings, disorienting them and leading them away from their natural home (the sea) and to certain death. [On a side note, read about why we should bother about conserving turtles here.] 

That scientists are getting serious about light pollution is evident from the fact that they have categorized it into four types: urban sky glow, light trespass, glare and clutter. Doing so helps municipalities quantify light pollution and devise and measure compliance with policies aimed at reducing light pollution.

So, should we return to the dark ages? Of course not. But a little discretion would go a long way. Light pollution also translates into wasted energy and high bills (and disturbed circadian rhythms in humans, but that's the stuff of another post).

- Switch of any lights you may not be using.
- Use motion sensors and timers on outdoor lights.
- Design your lighting to be directed only toward what you want to light (i.e., reduce the glare and trespass).
- Ask or help your local corporator to study the municipal lighting in your area (remember the Marine Drive lighting brouhaha?).
- Use thick curtains to prevent light from escaping your home at night (like I do).

A lengthier version of this write-up appeared in TerraGreen's January 2016 issue.

13 October 2014

From Rainforests to Deserts? The Future of Coral Reefs

Three-fourths of the earth comprises of water. Humans have long recognized that we know very little about the life that lives in the vast seas and oceans that make up this planet. This is also true of coral reefs, the enigmatic and beautiful life forms that make up just under 0.1% of the oceans' surface area but continue to be home to some of the world's most productive ecosystems. Some of us may recall seeing these wavy, mesmerizing and brilliantly colorful life forms on the NatGeoTV or Discovery Channels.

What are coral reefs and where are they found?

As the name suggests, coral reefs are made by corals, which are tiny marine creatures capable of living in warm, shallow waters that receive plenty of sunlight. Corals secrete a stone-like substance, which is actually calcium carbonate. Zillions of coral calcium carbonate skeletons cemented together over a period ranging from a few thousand to millions (!) of years have given rise to such reefs. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with plant-like cells called zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae provide corals with food through photosynthesis, and in return, the coral provides the zooxanthellae with shelter and nutrients. It is these zooxanthellae that give most corals (and therefore, the reefs) their rainbow-like colors.

Coral reefs are typically located in tropical oceans near the equator and generally grow at depths shallower than 70 m (see Figure 1). They are extremely sensitive to temperature, the optimal being 23–25°C. The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia is arguably the world’s most well-known coral reef. India too is home to coral reefs. The mainland coast of India has two widely separated areas containing reefs: the Gulf of Kutch in the northwest and Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in the southeast. There are patches of reef in the inter-tidal areas of the central west coast of the country. Coral patches have been recorded in the intertidal regions of Malvan, Ratnagiri and Redi, south of Mumbai and at the Gaveshani Bank, 100 km west of Mangalore. Reef-building corals along the shore have been reported from Quilon in the Kerala coast to Enayem in Tamilnadu. Corals have also been known to occur on the east coast between Parangipettai (Porto Novo), south of Cuddalore, and Pondicherry, but these communities have yet to be surveyed dilgently. Important offshore island groups of India with extensive reef growth include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Lakshadweep group of Islands in the Arabian Sea.

Coral reefs are home to an estimated 25% of all marine life and have been rightly dubbed as the ‘rainforest of oceans’. Over 4,000 species of fish have been recorded as inhabiting coral reefs. Home to sponges, sea slugs, clams, oysters, crabs, jellyfish, sea anemones, sea worms, sea birds and star fish, each reef in the world is a universe of biodiversity by itself. They form an important source of protein and livelihood for the communities living along coastlines; about 500 million people are believed to have some level of dependence upon coral reefs. They also serve as a barrier against natural disasters such as hurricanes and typhoons.

Figure 1: Most corals live within the blue boundaries depicted in the figure.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Independent research supported by the World Wildlife Fund shows that coral reefs provide nearly USD 30 billion (in 2003 USD) annually in net benefits in goods and services to world economies, including, tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection.

Challenges to coral reefs

Yet, the challenges to coral reef survival are many. Coral reefs are fragile ecosystems that have been bearing the onslaught of coral mining, pollution, disease, blast fishing, overfishing, rampant tourism, and most recently, climate change. Corals have been traditionally used as raw material (calcium carbonate) by the cement and lime industry in India. Extensive areas were leased by the Indian government for coral mining. Large-scale quarrying was rampant until 1979, when the leases were finally cut short. However, illegal removal reportedly continues. Black corals (listed in Appendix II of the CITES; see Box 1) have traditionally been made into amulets, worn to ward off the evil eye and illnesses. Mangalsutras are incomplete without the mandatory coral beads. Their unusual shapes and eye-catching colors ensure that parts of coral reefs are destined for the souvenir market. Although trade has mainly focused on species that are in highest demand by the jewelry sector, such as Corallium rubrum from the Mediterranean and North East Atlantic, and C. elatius and Paracorallium japonicum from the Pacific, all coral species have been impacted by these activities.

Figure 2: I always wondered what material the shiny red beads of a recent addition to my jewelry box were made of; now I know.

Box 1: CITES and corals
According to Wikipedia, many hundreds of thousands of Appendix II animals, including corals, are traded annually. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES, although some Parties (i.e., countries that are signatories to CITES) do require import permits as part of their stricter domestic measures. Having said that, coral exploitation and trade are extremely difficult to control. According to a report by Traffic India (WWF for Nature, New Delhi), coral is often collected in offshore areas seldom patrolled by national authorities. When raw coral enters the market, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to identify particular species. Mixed consignments of shells and corals are labeled as ‘shells’ on trade documents and permits. Moreover, actual trade numbers cannot be assessed because the annual reports of CITES record corals as 'pieces' and the Customs record their quantity by weight. Thus, export/import figures cannot be equated with total exploitation.

A preliminary Google search for ‘corals in medicine’ throws up many results for prostaglandins (a mainstay of glaucoma treatment and pulmonary hypertension, among many other things) and their uses in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in India.

Corals are easily damaged by pollution. Sewage discharge into the waters home to corals in the inhabited Lakshadweep Islands has wrought havoc on the reefs. The increased sedimentation, nutrients, toxins and the introduction of pathogens disturbs the ecological balance of the reefs and eventually destroys them.

Tourism-derived damage is caused by trampling of corals by snorkelers and divers. Heavy boat anchors can smash even the most sturdy corals. Anchor chains and lines have been known to scrape coral and wrap around them, breaking off pieces of coral colonies as the boats sway back and forth and pull on the line.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to coral reefs is the aquarium trade. Recent decades have recorded a dramatic rise in the export of both live and dead coral reef fishes. Parrotfishes from the Seychelles and Persian Gulf are now sold by fish retailers in London. The unprecedented demand for live reef fishes, looked on as ornamentals in home aquariums, is alarming. With retail prices of up to USD 250 per kg, exploitation of remote reef systems is financially lucrative. Herbivorous fishes, including three groups—bioeroders, scrapers and grazers—play different and complementary roles in ensuring healthy coral reefs, but they are an increasingly large component of the live fish trade today. Bioeroders, like the parrotfish, remove dead corals, exposing the hard, reef matrix for the settlement of coralline algae and corals. Scraper fishes directly remove algae and sediment by close cropping, facilitating settlement, growth and survival of coralline algae and corals. Grazers remove seaweed, reducing overgrowth by macroalgae. While the functional groups differ from one coral reef to another, any shift in this delicate balance tilts the scales against healthy coral reef habitats. For example, in parts of the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, the widespread declines of herbivorous and predatory turtles are likely to have increased the biomass of seagrasses and sponges, which smother coral reefs. Similarly, in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, intense artisanal fishing focuses heavily on grazer fishes.

Figure 3: Coral reefs support a variety of aquatic life.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Taking stock… but is the data comprehensive?

Since India gained independence, scientists from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, National Institute of Oceanography, National Centre for Earth Science Studies, and other university departments have been conducting various studies on the biological, physical and chemical properties and their fisheries yields of coral reefs, particularly in the Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Many of these organizations as well as non-profit organizations like ReefWatch have been conducting laudable awareness raising and SCUBA diving training sessions for the Islands’ inhabitants as well as students from other parts of the country.

Educated estimates show that approximately 40% of the world's coral reefs are permanently lost. In India’s Lakshadweep Islands, the extent of dead coral is about 13–57%, with nearly pristine reefs recorded in uninhabited areas, and decimated ones, in areas close to human habitation.

Globally, the main factor attributing to the death of coral has been ‘coral bleaching’. During such episodes, the sea surface temperature in the tropics rises by 1–2°C above the seasonal maximum, which is enough to stress the corals. They expel all or some of their color-providing zooxanthellae, which leads to a lighter or completely white appearance; hence the term ‘bleached’ (Figure 4). About 60 major episodes of coral bleaching have occurred between 1979 and 1990, the largest being in 1998 due to an El NiƱo event (a temporary change in the climate of the Pacific Ocean in the region around the equator).

Figure 4: Bleached corals.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

These episodes are associated with coral mortality and affect reefs in every part of the world. Certain coral reefs survive partially and go on to make good recoveries after some time, while others are permanently wiped out. Not enough is known about what factors contribute to good recoveries (i.e., a flip over from ‘dead cover’ to ‘live cover’), but maintaining ‘no take areas’ (where fishing and other human activities are prohibited) appears to allow Mother Nature enough time to get back on her feet; the timescale for natural recovery of reefs from major coral loss, such as the mass bleaching and mortality experienced in the Indian Ocean in 1998, appears to be at least 10 years. However, even the largest no take areas in the world are not self-sustaining, because they are too small relative to the scale of natural and human disturbances, and to the dispersal distances of many larvae and migrating adults. Most no take areas are a few square kilometres or less in size, and they are invariably surrounded by vastly larger areas that are often already badly degraded.

It is particularly alarming, then, that models based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Scenario A (doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by 2100) predict that the temperature tolerances of reef-building corals will be exceeded permanently within the next few decades. What does this mean for the reefs and their human dependents? To help coral reef conservation, it is vital to have an understanding of the ecology of the coral reefs, and by extension, the relationship between local populations and reef resources. But a lack of meaningful data can hamper such efforts. Assessments of live and dead cover are not enough. More data and better management techniques are needed, and fast.

Dealing with the coral conundrum

Many studies have been spurred by the latest global coral bleaching episode and loss of fisheries, leading to significant discoveries that may help coral reef conservation.

Only what is measured can be managed

The CORDIO (Coral Reef Degradation in the Indian Ocean, a collaborative program involving researchers in 11 countries in the central and western Indian Ocean) project has aimed to fill in the missing pieces of the coral reef data puzzle. Instituted in 1999, the CORDIO project believes that understanding ecological change requires greater attention to ecological processes (such as herbivory and bioerosion) and not just static measures such as coral cover and biomass. Connectivity of coral reefs through ocean currents and coral larval dispersal will fundamentally affect the recovery and survival of coral reefs. Therefore, we need to think of broad-scale projects that are replicable on a region-wide basis and not just small-scale research at individual study sites.

CORDIO has also established research projects on alternative livelihoods for subsistence fishermen. Multiple threats have already reduced fisheries productivity and the ecological health of many reefs in the region, with climate change-induced degradation adding to the unpredictability. Against this background, project proposals have been written in a number of areas, such as investigating fishing community household production systems and accessible options for alternatives and development of small-scale mariculture of fish and crabs.

Limiting diving intensities and damage to reefs

Most ironically perhaps is the destruction of coral reefs by the very people who come in droves to appreciate them. Researchers have found that dive sites can support between 4,500–5,000 dives per year before the reefs become seriously degraded. A recent ecological study in Grand Cayman found significantly lower overall hard coral cover at high intensity sites compared with low intensity and undived sites. High intensity dive sites were also found to have greater incidences of total dead coral and coral rubble. Notably, such damage can be limited by improved diver education. While there are no data to study such effects for India’s Lakshadweep Islands, some simple number crunching helps. The year 2006–2007 saw a five-fold increase (25,000) in the number of tourists over the previous year (5,000) to the Islands. As diving is one of the most sought after activities by tourists to these areas, it is highly likely that the number of dives easily crossed 5,000 for that year. Therefore, dive-derived damage to the Islands reefs is likely to be substantial.

Would you be willing to pay more to view a coral reef?

Therefore, logically, coral reef sites would benefit by limiting the number of dives. But then how would the authorities make up for the lost revenue from fewer dives? Enter the concept of ‘willingness to pay’ (WTP; see Box 2). To address the perennial problem of park financing, the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (Philippines) developed a fee collection and permit system in cooperation with the diving community. A WTP survey conducted among divers in 1999 showed that the average diver was willing to pay USD 41 (in 2010 USD) per visit. Using these results, a two-tiered pricing scheme was developed for foreign and local divers. After two years of fee collection, the total fee collected amounted to USD 65,000, which covered 28% of the annual recurring costs and nearly 41% of the core costs to protect the marine park. The experience shows the contribution of WTP surveys in instituting user fees for long-term sustainable financing. 

Box 2: What is WTP or 'willingness to pay'?

WTP is the foundation of the economic theory of value. Economists generally assume that individuals, not the government, are the best judges of what they want. WTP, therefore, is the maximum amount an individual is willing to sacrifice to procure a good or avoid something undesirable. The idea extends to environmental resources like air/water quality, noise abatement, and forest protection. Economic methods are used to attach WTP estimates to changes in the level of environmental quality and natural resource use.

Coral transplantation

Coral transplantation is a fairly new idea in this field. About two decades ago, the well-established scientific field of terrestrial forestation (silviculture) led scientists to propose a new coral reef restoration concept, deriving its rationale from silviculture. This concept involves two steps: rearing coral ‘seedlings’ in specially designed nurseries to plantable size and then, transplanting the seedlings in damaged coral reef areas. Sounds obvious? But there are the proverbial twists in the tale. Data from coral reef transplantation case studies suggest that the cost of reef rehabilitation projects ranges from USD 10,000–100,000/ha. The key lesson is that the cost of active rehabilitation of coastal habitats is substantial and likely to be far more than the costs of implementing effective protection of the habitat that may in time allow natural recovery. So, clearly, prevention is better than cure. However, some intervention is better than none, and some success has been reported in coral transplantation experiments. A small degree of coral transplantation has also been undertaken in the Lakshadweep Islands, but it is not immediately clear how successful these efforts have been. This year, the Gujarat Ecology Commission aims to pilot test the Acropora and Fabia varieties of coral in the Gulf of Kutch.

Also, reef restoration work often necessitates long periods underwater. Thus, it is preferably undertaken using SCUBA gear, even in shallow depths (3–5 m). In certain circumstances, using local manpower is ideal for snorkeling and free diving in shallower depths; indeed, the participation of the local communities becomes central to such projects. Nevertheless, some input from experienced reef biologists remains essential.

Privatizing the commons?

Many marine protected areas (MPAs), particularly in developing countries, fail because of a lack of enforcement and monitoring due to limited public funds for conservation. Private investment and management in MPAs offers a potential solution and has been applied with initial positive results at the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area in Malaysia. Conservation fees charged to visitors to the Lankayan Island Dive Resort within the area have generated a sustainable source of financing to meet the majority of management costs for the conservation area, which is managed by a private organization called Reef Guardian. The availability of adequate funds has enabled Reef Guardian to invest in personnel training and surveillance technology to enforce the rules and regulations of the conservation area. In collaboration with government enforcement agencies, Reef Guardian has reduced threats such as illegal fishing and turtle egg poaching. This has resulted in a comparatively high abundance of commercially important fish and turtle nestings at Lankayan Island. Thus, private management can be effective in conserving biodiversity in MPAs and may well succeed regionally at suitable locations.

Lessons in coral reef conservation

Globally, coral reefs have always been looked upon as a resource to be exploited (note that this word has very negative connotations!). Such exploitation reached unsustainable proportions long ago. Reef decline is not the result of one particular stress. Fossil records and research indicate that reefs can adapt to and survive individual stresses, provided favorable conditions return. To my mind, we have enough understanding of what these favorable conditions are. All it takes is the will to implement them. 

A slightly lengthier version of this write-up appeared as an article titled The Future of Coral Reefs: From Rainforests to Deserts in The Energy Resources Institute’s (TERI’s) TerraGreen magazine (September 2014).

11 July 2014

Odour Pollution: The Stepchild of Environmental Issues

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived”.

-  Helen Keller (Blind and deaf educator, 1880–1968)

My children often smile indulgently on our visits to the local library, not because they accept my love of reading (they are avid readers also), but because they find it amusing when I tell them that the library we frequent in Mumbai reminds me of the University department I studied at miles away in Canada more than a decade ago. How? Not because of the books, but because of the smell of the room. They probably think I am quirky, but as researchers have long recognized, smell can trigger many memories, some good, some bad. Many of us instantly recognize the “foreboding” smell of a hospital or the “warm and fresh” smell of a bakery.

The role of smell in our lives
Humans can reportedly distinguish about 10,000 different smells, each encoded by a different gene and each recognizing a particular smell. Smell is so subjective that no two humans smell anything exactly the same (see Note 1: Decoding Smell); after all, a person's perceptions (including how they perceive smells) are based on experiences that they have had throughout their life. Many a time, foul odours are an indicator of safety issues (e.g. leaking gas or sour milk). Insects and animals communicate their requirements and emotional states to other animals (and sometimes, humans; think “skunk”) through changes in their body odours. Doctors have reported encouraging success in diagnosing lung cancer by benefiting from the ability of dogs to detect very low concentrations of the alkanes and aromatic compounds generated by the tumours. It is said that a baby recognizes and bonds with its mother through her smell. Indeed, our memory of smells is so potent that performing an undesirable or boring task in a scented room decreases the performance of other similar tasks in the presence of the same smell in a different place and at a different time. As the website of a leading ambient air scenting and scent marketing company reports, smells have also be used in a “deliberate and controlled manner”. Technicians at New York City’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre are known to spray vanilla-scented oil in their MRI rooms, to help patients cope with the claustrophobic effects of the testing. I know someone who would leave his unwashed socks lying about in his room just to deter people from entering it (and it worked).

Several factors determine how we smell a smell: genes, skin type, diet, age, gender, pregnancy, the weather, and even the time of day. When we are hungry, our sense of smell becomes keener. 

Note 1: Decoding Smell

If no two persons smell anything exactly the same, how do authorities determine whether a specific odour (the official term for a bad smell) is bad enough for them to take action against it? Measuring odours is difficult because no instrument has been found to successfully identify and measure all the components making up an odour. One primary measurement method uses human noses to detect odours. A panel of people is exposed to air samples with different amounts of fresh air added to a set amount of odorous air. The panel's task is to determine the threshold level, which is the amount of fresh air that needs to be added for panellists to just be able to detect the odour. This technique is called olfactometry. The odour sample is combined with fresh air to dilute the sample. The panel then determines at what dilution they can begin to detect the odour. This dilution level is referred to as the odour threshold.

Other indicators often used in conjunction with the odour threshold include odour intensity (the perceived strength of odour sensation: none, very weak, weak, strong, very strong, etc.) and hedonic tone assessment (assigning odours a scale/number, ranging from extremely unpleasant via neutral up to extremely pleasant).

As any Grade 2 student can tell you, humans are endowed with five senses—the sense of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Of these, the sense of smell is often ignored, except perhaps when we suffer from a bad cold and miss smelling the aromas of the food we eat (scientists say 80 percent of the flavours we taste are dependent on our sense of smell). The sense of smell is a stepchild of sorts in the environmental sense as well. Take for instance, air pollution. The health effects of air pollution are keenly felt. The smog that envelopes cities is rightly blamed as causing many health issues, such as asthma and other respiratory tract infections. Airlines are forced to cancel flights due to heavy smog, thus causing major inconvenience to passengers and throwing travel schedules out of gear. Noise pollution has also made headlines in the past, particularly during festivals. High noise levels can contribute to cardiovascular effects in humans. In animals, noise can interfere with reproduction and navigation. We understand these effects as clearly as night and day.

“Odour Pollution” and What it Means for Us and the Environment
But smell is not something we associate easily with environmental issues. This omission is deleterious to health—not just ours but also that of other creatures. Take, for instance, the bee. Recent studies suggest that commonly used pesticides (such as lindane, organophosphorus insecticides and neonicotinoids) block that part of the brain that bees use for learning, rendering some of them unable to perform the essential task of associating scents with food. In 2013, scientists discovered that reactive pollutants in diesel destroyed key chemicals in the smell of oilseed flowers, thus destroying the bees’ ability to smell and identify the flowers. The team zeroed in on the highly reactive nitrogen oxides (NOx) as the pollutant of concern; NOx chemically alters the bees’ sense of smell by removing key chemicals the bee uses to recognize the flower by its distinctive scent within as little as a minute of exposure. The researchers suggest that these effects could make it harder for bees to forage among flowers for food, thereby threatening their survival and reducing the pollination of crops and wild plants. Typically, crops bear flowers that may only be pollinated during a short period. If such a crop is not pollinated during that time, the flowers will eventually be shed and the next generation of seeds and fruit will not develop. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported an interesting experiment in Russia. Crop areas of the white clover plant (an excellent forage crop for livestock) were covered during blooming, so that no bees could enter. Only one gram (!) of seed could be harvested in the covered area. Conversely, uncovered bee-pollinated areas of the same size reported an average harvest of 331 grams of seeds. A report from India mentions a 100 percent increase in the coconut harvest because of bee pollination.

More than 50 percent of the world’s needs for fat and oil is derived from oilseeds such as cotton, sunflower, coconut, groundnut and oil palm, all of which are dependent to some extent on bees for pollination.

For the United Kingdom alone, which has lost three species of native bumblebee and lists six more as endangered, the economic value of bees (i.e., what they are worth to humans in monetary terms) has been estimated as approximately £1 billion (about Rs. 103 billion). The corresponding figure for the world is £135 billion. In China, pear and apple orchard owners have been forced to employ manual pollinators, who tour the fields and orchards with pots of pollen, paintbrushes and feather dusters with which to individually pollinate every flower. The children climb up to the highest blossoms to do the same. Even if the world had enough human labour to pollinate every plant, tree and crop, what would it cost us? Reading University (UK) estimated that manual pollination of apple orchards in the UK (assuming the “pollinators” were paid a minimum wage) would double the price of an apple. For the less mathematically inclined, the BBC reports that “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Imagine: the costs of fruits, vegetables and oils would increase considerably if the country is forced to import these staples from other countries (assuming they are still producing them). Indeed, it might even force a change in diet, to wheat, barley and corn, and little else. Alarming? For certain! While a combination of factors is blamed for the decline of bees, including loss of habitat and disease, all this comes down to the sense of smell (of bees, in this case) and the cascading detrimental effects on food crops and mankind in general.

Conversely, the scents produced by flowers remain in the air for shorter time periods due to pollution, thus damaging the ability of pollinators to find them. A study conducted by the University of Virginia in Charlottesville found that increasing air pollution from thermal power plants and vehicles have reduced the potency of flower fragrances by up to 90 percent compared to pre-industrial levels in the United States. In particular, flowers’ fragrances were “overwhelmed” by ozone (while ozone is not emitted directly from automobiles, the unstable compound is formed in the atmosphere through a complex set of chemical reactions involving hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen—the mainstay of vehicular exhaust—and sunlight). The study surmises that “in the mid-19th century, when pollution levels were first recorded, scent molecules would have been able to travel some 3,300 to 3,900 feet (1,000 to 1,200 meters). Today, in the polluted air found downwind of large metropolises, scents may only make it some 650 to 980 feet (200 to 300 meters)”. Thus, pollinators like bees are exposed to a double-whammy in terms of smell.

Fish, too, have been discovered to lose their sense of smell in polluted waters (see Note 2: How Do Researchers Measure Whether and How Much Fish Can Smell?). When polluting metals come into contact with the fish’s nostrils, the neurons that enable the fish to smell shut down in order to protect its brain from the effects of the metals. Pesticides, including atrazine and chlorpyrifos, are known to affect fishes’ ability to smell. Metals are known to interfere with specific neurons in the fish’s nostrils. For instance, nickel targets the neurons that help fish smell food, while copper, at low concentrations, targets the neurons that help fish avoid predators. Higher concentrations of copper impair their ability to smell everything. Herbicides confuse zebrafish into believing that areas with increased herbicide concentrations are better sources of food (which they aren’t) because of the excessive nutrients and bacteria typically present in such waters. 

Given that fishes depend on their sense of smell to find food, navigate and breed, the loss of this sense can be devastating to fish populations and the humans that depend on them. However, the good news is that fishes can recover their ability to smell when they are placed in clean water.

Note 2: How Do Researchers Measure Whether and How Much Fish Can Smell?

Researchers use the electroolfactogram (EOG) to measure whether fish (and other vertebrates) can smell and how much. The EOG provides a negative electrical potential recorded at the surface of the olfactory epithelium (the specialized tissue inside the nasal cavity that is involved in smell) of vertebrates. The EOG has been used to measure and study the abilities of humans, fishes, and insects to smell and their pheromonal responses. (Pheromones are secreted or excreted chemical factors that trigger a social response in members of the same species.)

Source: Scott JW, Scott-Johnson PE. 2002. The Electroolfactogram: A Review of its History and Uses. Microscopy Research and Technique. 58(3):152–60.

Coming back to the two-legged species, loss or impairment in the sense of smell affects humans also. The easiest example is that of a freshly painted room. We can smell the paint when it is wet because the ingredients that make paint liquid (usually water, oil, or solvent, depending on the type of paint) become dispersed in air as they evaporate from the painted surface and disperse in the air. These dispersed molecules are what gives paint its characteristic smell. The smell from newly polished furniture or new sofa sets and car seats is also an example of such “off-gassing”. Typically, such smells are indicators of indoor air pollution. While certain smells may not smell obnoxious, the compounds that create them can nevertheless be highly hazardous. For instance, methylene chloride, which is found in adhesive removers and aerosol spray paints, is highly dangerous to human health and has been proven to cause cancer in animals. Although the compound has a moderately sweet aroma (and thus does not signal danger), it high volatility makes it an acute (very fast-acting) inhalation hazard. In the human body, methylene chloride is converted to carbon monoxide and a person will suffer the same symptoms as exposure to carbon monoxide. Therefore, a product containing methylene chloride must be used very carefully so as to minimize damage to human health, in other words, outdoors. If it must be used indoors, proper ventilation is essential to keeping exposure levels down.

Next, picture “garbage dump” or “landfill”. Most people can easily associate with the odour given off by these ubiquitous piles. This odour is typically caused by the bacteria breaking down or decomposing the garbage. Lack of oxygen worsens the odour. Although these smells may not pose a hazard in themselves, the disease vectors (rats and flies) attracted by the garbage do. As we all know, such odours also create a nuisance; mostly, they can be quite unpleasant but are not life threatening. However, odour pollution does decrease the quality of life and cannot be swept away under the rug. That is why the NIMBY effect (see Note 3: What is the NIMBY Effect?) is the bane of so many landfills, composting facilities, and sewage treatment plants (STPs), particularly on account of the odours they produce. Although resourceful environmental engineers have devised some promising solutions (e.g. odour source and dispersion modelling, biofilters, ozonization, wet scrubbing, masking agents or smells that can cancel out another offensive odour, and deodorants, to name a few) effective odour control continues to be a skilled combination of art as well as science.

Note 3: What is the NIMBY Effect?
NIMBY stands for “Not IMBackYard”. It is an invective describing opposition by citizens to a proposal for a new development because it is close to their place of residence, often with the connotation that such residents believe that while the developments are needed in society, they should not be located near their homes. For example, certain residents and businesses of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island have opposed construction of Cape Wind, a proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. Proponents cite the environmental, economic, and energy security benefits of renewable energy, while the opponents feel strongly about any obstruction to the views from oceanfront vacation homes and tourist destinations in the region.

Such opposition can be witnessed in all countries and in all manner of new developments, be they airports, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, dams, power plants, industries, highways and so on. At times, opposition stems from the belief that any project affecting the local people should clearly benefit them, rather than citizens in other cities and/or countries or big corporations.

At times, NIMBY protests have had their desired effect; some developments have been scrapped or halted. Having said that, analyzing each NIMBY protest really comes down to decoding the costs and benefits and ensuring that the affected residents are fairly compensated. After all, landfills and treatment plants are essential public services. 

Conversely, odour pollution from STPs can also pose threats to human health as well as air quality; it contributes to photochemical smog formation and secondary particulate contaminant emissions. Odours detected from biological processes (like STPs) also indicate likely contamination of the air by pathogens. These odours arise from emissions, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur compounds. It has traditionally been a low priority, but its importance has been increasing with more stringent environmental legislation in some countries, such as the European Union’s Water Framework Directive. An EU study from 2011 compared treatments to reduce odour from STPs and suggested that biotrickling filtration and activated sludge diffusion are the two most promising technologies. These appear to perform best on a combination of environmental, economic and social indicators. Besides the population in the immediate vicinity of the STP, STP operators in the EU will certainly be pleased. After being exposed to persistent odour pollution at their daily places of work, 30–50 percent of STP operators are estimated to have become “anosmic” (i.e. unable to smell, and therefore, taste).

Odour in treated drinking water is also cause for concern. Certain algae, mainly blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), produce odorous compounds called 2-Methylisoborneol (MIB) and geosmin. They have very low odour detection thresholds (i.e. are smelt very easily, at 10 parts per billion and 30 parts per billion, respectively; parts per billion refers to one part in one billion) and cause taste and odour issues in drinking water treatment systems.

What does the law say?
Since deciphering whether an odour constitutes a nuisance is so subjective (see Note 1: Decoding Smell), most countries (including India) mention odour nuisances in passing in their resource management and/or health acts. While they provide guidelines or good practices to contain and manage odour from specific facilities to the extent possible, the fact remains that “odour offenses” are not strictly punishable by law and can take a long time to be resolved (e.g. by the time the officer visits the complaint site, the change in wind direction may have dispersed the odour, prompting the officer to return only when another odour complaint is lodged). Certain countries, like the United States and Japan, do mandate limits on certain odour-causing VOCs of concern through generic air pollution control and more specific odour pollution control laws. Accordingly, in 2000, the market for odour pollution control equipment in Japan stood at about ¥22 billion (about Rs. 13 billion).

Yet, by and large, we tend to take our—and other creatures’—sense of smell for granted in many ways. Odour pollution is much more than a community annoyance and its environmental effects are just starting to be understood. 

An annotated version of this write-up appeared as an article titled Odour Pollution: The Stepchild of Environmental Issues in The Energy Resources Institute’s (TERI’s) TerraGreen magazine (April 2014).