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Trying a New-Old Approach to Pest Removal in Vineyards

Sometimes, letting nature do its job tends to be the better path when it comes to solving agricultural problems. While the farming world for decades has relied on pesticides to keep bugs at bay, it has had a harder time with rodents. The mammal pests are far more destructive, wiping out entire swaths or crops with their munching, particularly when a colony gets established near a farm. Add in that element to everything else a winemaker has to worry about for the right harvest balance, and the rodents become enemy number one. However, chemicals create a slew of new problems ranging from soil poisoning to impacts on the plants themselves. So, a natural alternative that is effective is definitely welcome. Cue the researchers.

Graduate science students from Humboldt State University have been busy working on using nature to fight nature. In their approach, rather than using chemicals for pest prevention, the team has been studying the efficacy of owls, well-known flying predators that love to gobble up rodents any chance they get.

Professor Matt Johnson is the leader of the university’s team, a regular in Humboldt’s Department of Wildlife. Based on extensive preparation and study, 300 owl nest boxes are being utilized throughout the Napa wineries to attract and bring a concentration of owls to the area. After the boxes were installed and began to be inhabited, the team began measuring the birds’ impact on the local rodent population, particularly in the areas where the rodenticide chemicals were no longer being used. So far, the research spans the territory of at least 75 different operations in Napa. Based on the local word of mouth and reaction, up to 80 percent of the wineries have jumped on board and confirmed positive results. The extent varies depending on a number of conditions, but given the fact that one nest of owls can easily gobble up more than 1,000 critters in a typical season, as well as more than 3,400 rodents annually, the owls seem to be doing their job.

Interestingly, however, it’s the gophers that are on the endangered list among local rodents. While everyone expected all rodents would be affected, mice are not suffering as much bad luck at the eating end of owls as their larger gopher relatives are doing.

Measurements are also focusing on whether the owls have become so effective that they are reducing reliance on chemicals. However, the jury is out on the matter. Early numbers are showing a large adoption of owls, but 1 out of 5 wineries still use rodenticides. In the meantime, the state government is making it harder to access the products, pumping out new regulations to limit use in mid 2021. Much of that move was to stop chemicals passing on to birds that eat poisoned rodents and then themselves then suffering and dying because of cross-species poisoning.

The final results of the study will be debatable, with pro and con groups on both sides, but for the wineries, the owls are a practical solution that seems to work. And if the next harvest is better as a result, then the owls have earned their keep tenfold.

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Arctic Mining Blocked, Saving Narwhals

Shannon Jackson

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The Arctic has been targeted for a long time as a rich zone for mineral harvesting and mining if one has the right equipment for the hostile environment. However, what has prevented even the sturdiest of companies from ripping into the region has been predominantly government restrictions. In the latest blow to the mining interests targeting the North Pole area, an iron ore mine expansion has been fully blocked, primarily to protect the presence of local narwhal that would have otherwise been driven from the area.

Baffinland Iron Mines Corp had been pushing for an expansion of its existing Arctic iron ore mine, which would have created an increased traffic flow of shipping as well. That was long feared to be a risk that would have effectively driven the remaining narwhal from the area. After a multi-year review and debate on the matter, the Nunavut Impact Review Board finalized its decision on the matter and blocked the proposal entirely. The review concluded that, while the location on the northern side of Baffin Island would easily maximize one of the richest ore sites available, it would have also directly and negatively damaged the biggest narwhal population existing to date as well.

For many, the proposal was expected to eventually get through. The work would have meant additional jobs, increased economic flow and more mining expansion in the area, all factors that typically end up winning over the survival of affected animals. So when the decision came down in the favor of the narwhals and not the mining company, many conservationists and community narwhal proponents were pleasantly shocked.

It was clear to the Board the community and conservation efforts were adamantly against the expansion of a company that only harvested from the area and was not part of that community per se. The Board said as much in its decision, pointing specifically to the expected negative damage the expansion would have resulted in with regards to the local marine life as well as land biology as well. And, as an added measure, the local community’s survival and food sources were thrown in for good measure as well.

The above said, the matter is not completely ended. Canada’s northern affairs minister, Dan Vandal, now gets to hear the appeal and either side with the Board or veer to Baffinland’s proposal. That will come out in 90 days’ time. No surprise, significant lobbying effort and advocacy will be put into motion to obtain a reversal in favor of Baffinland’s interests.

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Cat Litter Saves the Climate (Sort of)!

Shannon Jackson

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Most people can’t think of a use for cat poop aside from getting rid of it. And the one thing that has been used as a standard for covering it up until that occurs has been cat litter. Essentially broken up clay, cat litter provides felines their effective bathroom while helping a household not stink at the same time as well. However, once fairly used, the litter is essentially filtered, packaged and promptly put in the garbage can for disposal. However, now it turns out cat litter might also help contribute to fending off the effects of global warming as well.

Researchers are always combining things to see results, and in the case of cat litter, the substance was combined with a mixture of copper to grab and contain methane. As it turned out, the research project conclusively proved that cat litter can be very effective at capturing methane and taking it out of the atmosphere. The reaction matters; methane contributes to global warming, and modern life and farms are producing far more of the gas in the last 50 years than was the case centuries before.

With a $2 million government grant, researchers focused on grabbing farm emissions and running them through a filter process before the bulk of the exhaust is released back into the air. The researchers were able to utilize cat litter and clay much the same way as a catalytic converter works on a car exhaust system, screening out the methane from the emissions and releasing cleaner air.

The farm filtering invention is not the first time a form of cat litter has been issued to clean things up. The same material, better known as zeolite, was used to clean up nuclear power plant contamination as well as driveway oil spill cleaning as well. The material is also useful for smell reduction, saving fruit from going bad faster, dealing with cow indigestion, and making cement bond in a stronger fashion as well.

The methane problem and its contribution to global warming isn’t an anecdotal exaggeration. Modern production and industry has now boosted methane release into the atmosphere at well over 162 percent more than it was prior to the 20th century and at pre-industrial output levels. By cutting back on the current methane output, at least by half, the global temperature could go down by a half-degree in Celsius. While that seems minimal, it has a tremendous impact on the planet.

To the extent that a “cat-litter” filtration system or similar can be matched to farm emissions, particularly dairy farmhouses, the impact would go a long way towards capturing and redirecting methane from being released into the atmosphere. And, over time, that can directly help in right-sizing the planet from the heat-up it’s been moving into otherwise.

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First Human Patient for Trials on Metformin-Clemastine

Kelly Taylor

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Medical research is constantly working away on solving those conditions that haven’t been cured yet. Multiple Sclerosis is one of them. Currently, one of the studies in play is research on whether a combination of medicine, a diabetes treatment and an antihistamine, combined can produce a recovery for MS patients by restoring their cellular myelin sheath.

The myelin sheath is a membrane that protects and covers part of a brain cell. When damaged, the brain cells can’t work properly at sending electrical messages back and forth, which is one of the symptoms of MS. For decades the medical consensus has been that dead and dying brain cells can be restored. Instead, the brain just rewires itself to recover from damage. MS, however, is a continuing degradation of brain cells which, eventually, kills the patient.

With the research mentioned above, a new critical stage has been reached involving the first human test patients. The very first participant volunteered to help, hoping that her involvement may also help cure her recurring MS condition. Going by the first name of Annabelle, the first patient went from being told by doctors her situation was hopeless to now being actively involved in helping find a cure. No surprise, simply trying has changed her perspective and outlook tremendously.

In any kind of medical research, reaching the ability to perform human trials is a huge phase forward. The process is highly regulated, and only when sufficient progress has been made with alternative testing (usually animals) is a research team given the green light to move to human volunteers. For this particular MS project, having human volunteers will help conclusively determine if the combination developed has any effect on the deteriorating myelin sheath condition that patients like Annabelle suffer from with MS.

Currently, patients who have recurring MS, like Annabelle, face using one or some of a dozen drug options that focus on slowing the effect of MS and its progressive deterioration of the patient’s brain cells. If the current research combination project is successful, it would be one of the first that goes a step further and helps the body actually recover, going in a full healing mode versus just slowing down the inevitable. In short, repair of the myelin sheath is the ultimate goal of any MS cure research.

Ideally, the project to be run by Cambridge University needs a total of 50 volunteers. One group will get a placebo and the other the treatment drug to be tested as a standard control versus test comparison set up. Ideally, if the test goes well, the combination of Metformin and Clemastine could be a breakthrough in proactive MS treatment versus just traditional damage control.

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The Swiss Join the Gas Cutoff

Shannon Jackson

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When the environmental movement started in Europe and the 1970s, much of the attention was directed at getting away from combustion-type fuels and dirty pollution. That led the city of Zurich, like many others, to look for alternative solutions. Natural gas became one of those answers. However, now, some 40 years later, the Swiss capitol is making a reverse step and moving away from natural gas for city power. Instead of being environmentally friendly, the resource is now seen as a problem with climate change.

10 years ago, Zurich’s management started pushing for alternatives to natural gas supply. Homes that installed heating that used other means were encouraged and, where the grid was significantly changed, Zurich started shutting off those sections permanently for any new natural gas plumbing and flow.

Renewable energy sources have become the priority, such as solar power, as the Swiss continue their march away from anything having to do with fossil fuels. That includes capturing heat from processes that otherwise would not have been thought of before. For example, waste incinerators generate significant heat that can be captured, piped and delivered to homes in the nearby area without harm or heat loss. Instead of just venting that heat into the open air, it’s sent to neighborhoods to heat homes instead, with plenty of filtering, of course.

The expected cessation of natural gas flow for Zurich, in all practical form, is expected to occur in 2024, which is now just around the corner. Interestingly, the events in Eastern Europe and Ukraine have only added impetus to the move, to further cut back on any support of Russia’s commodities as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. What might have had resistance before has gained full bore support now socially and politically as the Swiss in general want to divest themselves of anything Russia in response. Multiple protests have already occurred demanding the same. However, it’s a tall challenge; at least 47 percent of Switzerland’s natural gas is imported, and the source is Russia. Zurich’s main natural gas provider, Energie 360, has been swamped with questions about how to switch off natural gas and try alternatives. When asked why, customers have repeatedly pointed to the events in Ukraine as the primary cause of action.

For Zurich’s management, the current political sentiment works in their favor of completing the strategy laid out a decade ago. The added social support has helped with the rollout to apply different alternatives to heating, as well as doing away with natural gas altogether. And that makes the 2024 target very reasonable and doable as a result.

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Former Homeless Victim of Modern Slavery Nabs Excellent Job

Renee Yates

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Will was a victim of contemporary slavery for many years until he was able to get a job. However, he now has a job and a place to live thanks to a partnership with a charity in Birmingham.

The now 38-year-old Polish immigrant first arrived in Birmingham from the city’s suburbs 17 years ago. Using his fluency in English, he hoped to find work in a country with more chances than his current one. After landing a job at a construction company, he was able to find a place to reside.

His sister died in an accident and his housemate refused to pay his portion of the rent, which led to him being despondent and being kicked out of the house.

As a result, he ended up on the streets, staying nights at the Digbeth Coach Station as well as days at the libraries. Finally, he learned about Sifa Fireside, a non-profit organization that assists those who are homeless or in need of rebuilding their lives. After starting to sell Big Issue, he was able to stay off the roads for seven years with the help of charity and other employment.

He then found work inside a warehouse, where he rose through the ranks to become a team captain. When two of his so-called friends started looting from the workplace, Will lost his job. He wasn’t able to disprove his involvement.

How the Downturn Happened

With some time to heal from his “moderate” despair, he obtained factory work in Walsall as well as made friends with a young married couple.

Due to social housing problems or something, they kept asking if I could loan them some funds. I had no problem with that. “As a token of appreciation, they provided a sumptuous supper for my enjoyment. That’s all there is to say about the good news.

My money and identification were stolen and I was forced to work for roughly two years after they poisoned me.”

Will claimed that he was forced to run errands or perform translations after his documents were confiscated and his meals rationed.

A few times, Will claims, he tried to run away, only to be caught and injured, leaving him feeling helpless. His library card was the only item he was permitted to keep. He stayed in bed all day reading books since he didn’t want to bother his parents.

An allowance of 2 loaves of bread, 2 soft kinds of cheese, and one lunch meat pack was given to him for a week. He was able to get goodies only with the help of occasional stray coins.

Will explained that even if they didn’t go shopping with him, they had several friends in the town center that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to leave if they didn’t want to.

The Escape

He said the couple drank heavily, which helped him get out of the house one night while they were drunk. He trudged from Walsall’s side.

Aside from serving as a drop-in center with hot food, showers, and other support services, Sifa’s employees strive to place their customers in jobs.

Sifa is putting out a program to entice business partners to join the effort. The Building Employability initiative consists of the following:

  • Finding employment and educational possibilities
  • Assisting employees in spotting and reporting indications of homelessness
  • Contributing to the funding of initiatives and organizations

Making a New Start

When Will returned, he started to sell the Big Issue as well as volunteer at Sifa again. He claimed he had not requested any action from Sifa other than bringing up numerous benefits concerns with Sifa or Job Centre officials.

The privilege of working at Birmingham’s Urban Emporiums came to him through Sifa, who was living in a tent in Aston. The charity lent him a suit for the interview.

He was hired as a pot washer for 15 hours a week. Now, after five years with the company, he is in full control of the kitchen at its Jewellery Quarter location.

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