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Monsanto modified wheat mystery deepens in Oregon

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6 | NewScientist | 8 June 2013

BY THE brutal standards of the criminals who smuggle drugs through Central America to the US, it was nothing special. But the murder of conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval highlights the risks biologists face when their passion for nature puts them on the front line of the narco-wars.

He was bound, shot through the head and dumped on the Costa Rican beach he regularly patrolled in his bid to protect leatherback turtle nests from poachers.

Drug trafficking is a serious impediment to conservation work in Latin America, with drug addiction and corruption hampering efforts to protect endangered turtles. For the most

part, Costa Rica is a fairly safe country but the area around the Caribbean port of Limón has long struggled with high crime levels.

Friends and colleagues of Mora

Turtle worker killed Sandoval believe his outspoken comments about the links between drug trafficking and poaching on nearby Moín beach may have made him a marked man. In articles published in April in Costa Rica’s leading newspaper, La Nación, Mora Sandoval and others highlighted the trend for paying crack-addicted, turtle egg poachers with drugs.

Local people believe that turtle eggs are an aphrodisiac, and they sell for about $1 each, says Didiher Chacón of WIDECAST, the turtle conservation network for which Mora Sandoval worked. Given that a single nest can contain 80 or more eggs, trading in turtle eggs can be a lucrative sideline for criminals employed by drugs gangs to move their products along the coast. WIDECAST is one of 10 conservation groups offering a $10,000 reward for any information on the killing.

For now, turtle conservationists in Moín have been promised police protection. But Chacón warns that in the past, requests for help have fallen on deaf ears once the media’s spotlight has moved on.

Hello, moonsteroidIN CASE you missed it, an asteroid and its surprise companion just missed you. Last week, asteroid 1998 QE2 sailed past Earth, getting as close as 5.8 million kilometres.

The fly-by offered astronomers a chance to take detailed images of the space rock, and the first radar glimpse revealed that 1998 QE2 has its own small moon. Initial images taken with the 70-metre Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, California, showed a bright blip moving

around the larger craggy body. Radar data also showed that the

asteroid is larger than thought – between 3 and 3.5-kilometres rather than 2.7-kilometres wide, says Marina Brozovic of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Measuring the moon’s orbit can tell us the larger asteroid’s mass. Combine that with its size, and we’ll know 1998 QE2’s density, giving an idea of what it is made from. Such details may be important for astronauts planning to visit similar asteroids.

–Passau: a 500-year high-

Wet, wet, wet futureTHE floods causing havoc across much of central Europe are a portent of things to come as the continent’s climate gets stormier.

In the German town of Passau on Monday the waters rose to their highest level since 1501. As New Scientist went to press, the floods in Czech capital Prague were beginning to recede but Dresden, Germany, was bracing itself for the river Elbe to rise 5 metres higher than normal.

Several factors are responsible, says Stéphane Isoard of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark. “It’s spring so snow is melting from the mountains.” When two months of rain fell in two days, the water had nowhere to go because the ground was saturated.

Climate change also causes

heavier rainfall, and might be partly to blame. But Isoard says bad land management is just as important. “Urban sprawl [means] there is less opportunity for water to infiltrate the soil.” With more floods inevitable, Isoard says Europe needs to adapt.

Some work is already under way. Wetlands are being restored around stretches of the Danube away from the current devastation. Green spaces like this can absorb extra water, making floods less severe.

“Over the last 20 years, events like this have become more common,” says Iain White of the University of Manchester in the UK. Central Europe has improved its flood responses since severe floods struck in 2002, he adds, “but there comes a point where you can’t defend”.

TALK about absent without leave. Unauthorised genetically modified wheat has been discovered growing on a farm in Oregon nine years after a research programme was abandoned. How it got there is a mystery.

GM wheat has not been cleared for commercial use anywhere in the world and the discovery last week triggered an international reaction. South Korea and Japan temporarily suspended imports of US wheat and South Korea began testing existing

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wheat imports from the US for signs of modified material, with no positive results so far.

The wheat was developed by agricultural biotech giant Monsanto, which says that the farm in question was not part of its original testing programme and that all GM material was destroyed in 2004. The company adds that wheat seed seldom survives more than two years in soil, and that 99 per cent of wheat pollen gets deposited within 10 metres.

UPFrOnt

“Trading turtle eggs can be a lucrative sideline for criminals moving drugs along the coast”

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