Week of 3/19/2006

Dear EarthTalk: I’m looking for projects for my son’s elementary school to do for Earth Day this year. Do you know of any that can teach children about taking care of our environment?

—Meryl Greenfield, Williston Park, NY

Earth Day is April 22 this year and there’s no time like the present to start preparing activities that will teach young people about the importance of protecting the planet. The Seattle-based Earth Day Network, founded by the organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970, offers a wide range of resources to help parents and teachers plan events and direct appropriate discussions on current topics. This year, the organization is focusing efforts on raising awareness about environmental problems associated with global warming.

Parents and teachers can register with Earth Day Network and receive free materials including lesson plans, information on how to get students engaged in local environmental activities, suggestions for hands-on and outdoor activities—even an environmentally-themed "Jeopardy" game.

Some other free resources offered by Earth Day Network include: an "Ecological Footprint Quiz," whereby kids can find out how much impact they personally have on the environment as determined by how they eat, live and travel; a series of informative fact sheets on climate change and alternative energy sources; and links on their website to other reputable information sources online. And if you’re looking for Earth Day events to attend in your area, Earth Day Network’s website allows you to simply type in your locale and get a continuously updated calendar of events local to you.

Meanwhile, Kaboose.com, an educational website for kids and families, features Earth Day pages with green-themed online games, suggestions for recycling everyday items into Earth-friendly crafts, and kid-oriented eco-discussion topics. And Education World offers lesson plans and activities covering a wide range of topics including here-and-now issues like in-school recycling and minimizing lunchroom wastes.

Another interesting way to educate kids and the public alike is the Earth Day Groceries Project: Parents or teachers borrow grocery bags from local supermarkets to be decorated with environmental messages and artwork by students. The bags are then returned to the store and used for bagging groceries on April 22.

For those looking to get real local, the Heartland All Species Project offers a free, web-based "Earth Day in Your Neighborhood" guide outlining ways kids can bring neighbors together to celebrate the Earth and commit to greener living. The concise and illustrated guide details ways to get composting, tree planting, energy efficiency and recycling projects going on a street-by-street basis.

For additional ideas, consider perusing the posts on the Earth Day/Ecology Projects Chatboard on Teachers.net. Several teachers have posted ideas for Earth Day projects and activities, from putting on a play based on Dr. Seuss" Lorax, to raising money for school by recycling inkjet cartridges.

CONTACTS: Earth Day Network, www.earthday.net; Kaboose.com, www.kidsdomain.com/holiday/earthday; Earth Day Groceries Project, www.earthdaybags.org; Heartland All Species Project, www.allspecies.org/neigh/blocka.htm; Education World, www.education-world.com/holidays/archives/earthday.shtml; Teachers.net, www.teachers.net/projects/earthday.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that some foods we buy contain genetically engineered ingredients known to cause health problems?—George Kaye, New York, NY

First made available in the U.S. during the mid-1990s, genetically modified (GM) foods have become staples of American agriculture, though most consumers are unaware of this. According to the non-profit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, the majority of corn, soy and cotton grown by American farmers today are from seeds genetically engineered to repel pests without the need for spraying pesticides or herbicides. GM versions of canola, squash and papaya are also coming on strong in the U.S.

As is the case with so many scientific controversies, the jury is still out regarding the potential health effects of GM food products. But while conclusive results have been hard to come by, some of the few studies conducted on animals fed diets consisting of GM foods have generated some disturbing results.

In one study, potatoes engineered to contain an insect-repelling gene to improve agricultural yield caused intestinal damage in the test subjects—some lab mice. While the mice did not die from eating the altered food, lesions that formed in their digestive tracts gave researchers pause enough to recommend more thorough testing of the "transgenic potatoes" before marketing them to humans.

In another study, mice were fed so-called "Flavr Savr" Tomatoes—tomatoes developed in the early 90s by Calgene that were "optimized for flavor retention." Similar lesions arose in the intestines of the mice, causing reviewers from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to conclude that "the data fall short of "a demonstration of safety"," adding, "unresolved questions still remain." Yet later, yielding to the pressure of industry lobbyists, the FDA not only approved the Flavr Savr for mass human consumption, but also claimed that all safety issues had been satisfactorily resolved.

According to Belinda Martineau, a Calgene researcher who later published the tell-all book, First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods, when the Flavr Savr hit store shelves consumers were not particularly impressed with its taste. Also, farmers were coping with disease problems and low yields, the very problems the technology sought to address in the first place. Eventually the FlavrSavr—or "Franken tomato," as some cynics dubbed it—was abandoned altogether.

Its legacy lives on, however. Many environmental advocates feel that the FDA’s nod on the Flavr Savr set the bar particularly low for approval of other GM foods that may or may not cause health problems. Further, it remains to be seen what effects these hybridized species might have on the environment at large, reason enough to delay the mass release of GM foods into the market until more is known.

Meanwhile, European countries have remained steadfast against allowing GM crops to be grown on their own farms for fear of widespread environmental contamination. And whether or not to allow GM food imports into Europe is a matter of great debate right now within the European Union.

CONTACTS: Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, www.pewagbiotech.org; First Fruit, www.books.mcgraw-hill.com/getbook.php?isbn=0071360565.