News briefs on the puritan style justice for environmental polluters, dirt cheap farmland and the latest information on the U.S. average life expectancy.
Almost every month brings news of another promising biological pest control. The latest USDA find is a tiny South American wasp, Edovum puttleri, which attacks the eggs of the Colorado potato beetle, the number one pest of potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants in the U.S. The wasps parasitized 60 to 80% of potato beetle eggs in preliminary field trials. Edovum puttleri is also easy to raise, which should please vegetable farmers, who spend more than $120 million a year to control the insecticide-resistant beetle.
It sounds like the modern equivalent of a scarlet letter: As part of its punishment, a company convicted of illegally dumping toxic wastes took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times to confess its sins against the environment. The advertisement, which cost the offender $15,000, began, "Warning: The illegal disposal of toxic wastes will result in jail. We should know. We got caught."
In addition, the company, the American Caster Corporation, was fined $20,000 and had to pay for cleaning up the site. The president and vice president were presented with six-month jail sentences.
Just a few years ago, while the average value of U.S. farmland was climbing to the 1982 peak of $823 an acre, analysts were insistent that the price would rise indefinitely. Farmers took them at their word and began buying up available land; land speculation followed; many experts claimed that land was a safer investment than a savings account.
When land values declined slightly two or three years ago, most investors hoped prices were merely leveling off before beginning another inflationary spiral. But now the new trend is unmistakable: The value of U.S. farmland dropped more in the past year than at any time since 1933, down 13.2% to $679 an acre, according to the latest USDA figures. That's bad news for debt-ridden farmers, whose borrowing power has declined with land values.
Excess salt is not just a problem for hypertensive Americans—agricultural land throughout the world is gradually being lost to soil salinity. Reclamation of saline soils can be quite expensive, often takes land out of production for at least a year, and may damage the soil structure. But a scientist working for the USDA has found that certain hybrid forage grasses may offer a better way. A sorghum-sudangrass cross promotes the substitution of calcium for the excess salt and keeps the soil from compacting. Since the seed costs only $3.00 to $4.00 an acre and produces a harvestable crop worth $300 to $500 an acre at the end of the first season, this could prove to be the best and most economical means to improve salt-degraded soils.
Scientists have discovered that plants can defend themselves against pollutants by producing a substance called glutathione, which "sops up" destructive chemicals deposited on leaves. Unfortunately, the researchers also found that glutathione is very appealing to insect pests. To make matters worse, the researchers believe the insects incorporate glutathione into their own defense mechanisms, making them more resistant to pesticides. And if that isn't bad enough, the scientists also report that certain undesirable plants may be using the stress-related chemical to detoxify herbicides!
In 1985, pollution controls will account for only 2.7% of U.S. businesses' capital expenditures, down from a high of 5.6% in 1976, according to a McGraw-Hill study reported by the Wall Street Journal. The percentage has been declining every year since 1976, and researchers expect the trend to continue in 1986.
This year, the contents of safety deposit boxes that the federal government seized from California banks during the Great Depression are finally being returned to their owners. When banks failed in the 1930s, the government secured their assets, including the contents of the safety deposit boxes. Over the years, items of "historical interest" have been removed by various government agencies. But the remainder—pocket watches, gold rings, worthless stock certificates, and the like—will be offered back to the original owners or their heirs.
So if you're still waiting for your 1985 tax refund, don't despair. It's only a matter of time.
Wondering what to do with the extra 70 years modern medicine has promised to tack on to your three score and ten? Don't. The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society states that there is no indication that humans can live much longer than the 85- to 100-year maximum that is typical in developed countries. While the average life expectancy continues to rise, reflecting the fact that a greater number of people are living to see their seventh and eighth decades, there is no evidence that the maximum potential lifespan has changed since the earliest days of human history.
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