With global warming looming at the forefront of today’s planetary issues, there has never been a better time to take steps that will decrease your household’s carbon footprint on the earth. Luckily, a variety of things can be done at home that will get the job done without sacrificing your family’s convenience, safety, or current …
For many of us, travelling is more than simply sightseeing and visiting famous monuments. We are looking for experiences that will transform us. We want to find the real gems we don’t hear about; the projects, communities and people that are inspiring personal and global transformation. In 2013, 4 passionate nomads bound together to create a …
Contribute to the global effort to restore soil functions which have been destroyed CLICK HERE Healthy, fully functioning soils will: 1. Provide highly nutritious food without the use of chemical inputs. 2. Solve the health crisis through strengthening the human biome. 3. Hold huge amounts of water and so prevent the flooding …
We’ve all heard of climate change. It is a natural phenomenon for climates to fluctuate and change, however, as most of us know, human caused atmospheric pollution is exacerbating the issue, accelerating the rate of change, making it’s impacts more abrupt and extreme. Climate scientists agree that if we surpass a 1.5 degree (the UN …
Can we do it? Is it already too late? Many of us are wondering how we can possibly turn the juggernaut of limited industrial profit-based materialism around. Time to stop wondering and worrying—yes it is possible—and we are already doing it. Although the statement “the answer lies in the soil” seems too simplistic, this time …
Ending the drought in the West will require rain- not too much rain-and smarter ways to collect and store that water. But something else that can keep things moist? Believe it or not: Beavers.
According to a story in Water Deeply, a group of ecologists have a plan to help repopulate the Central Coast of California with Castor canadensis, the large beavers which once roamed the state in great numbers. (Not to be confused with their ancestors, giant beavers that were seven feet long.) The idea is that beavers are nature’s hydrologists, engineering the way that water travels through the landscape:
“Beavers aren’t actually creating more water, but they are altering how it flows, which creates benefits through the ecosystem,” says Michael Pollock, an ecosystems analyst and beaver specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Science Center.
Beavers were nearly eradicated by humans because they were interfering with our logging and fishing industries. But that’s exactly why beavers need to return. Rivers and streams that have been diverted by humans are designed to remove water quickly from the watershed, destroying local habitats for animals and making it more difficult for an ecosystem to recover from drought. Beavers build infrastructure which help to slow the flow of water, letting it recharge local aquifers, and preventing erosion which helps keep plants alive.
Not everyone is a fan of the Bring Back the Beaver campaign. Ecologists can’t agree where beavers originally lived, for one, so they aren’t sure where they should be reintroduced. And they don’t want to end up with an invasive species, which is what happened in South America. But some scientists aren’t waiting around for a consensus. The Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program is taking matters into its own hands, hiring humans to build their own beaver-like structures to mimic the rodents’ beneficial environmental impact. It sounds like a dam good idea.
[ Water Deeply]
As Latin America’s largest economy and the host of the 2016 Olympic Games, Brazil is a regular fixture in international news. It’s also widely recognized for its agenda on sustainable development issues, especially for reducing deforestation and pioneering clean energy. However, progress remains uneven as the country is struggling to come to terms with one of the worst droughts in history, a chain of corruption scandals and continuing dependence on fossil fuels.
SustainAbility recently met with Álvaro Almeida and Rúbia Piancastelli of report:sustentabilidade, Brazil-based sustainability advisory firm and organizer of Sustainable Brands Rio, to talk about the country’s changing sustainability landscape.
Aiste Brackley: How would you describe the current corporate sustainability landscape in Brazil? What were the dominant themes at this year’s conference?
report:sustentabilidade: With our conference, we seek to push the boundaries of conversation about corporate sustainability in Brazil, challenging ourselves and businesses to imagine what is possible. This year we decided that it was the right time to explore the topics of circular economy and innovation. While many Brazilian companies are working on reducing waste, their thinking predominantly remains embedded in linear models. We would like to challenge companies to think how the circular approach could be integrated into a business model from the very beginning. It is an entirely new way of thinking about design and production.
We also think that Brazilian businesses are ready for a more rigorous conversation about the sharing economy and business model innovation in large companies. This question is especially relevant in the context of the increasingly vibrant social innovation scene. The start-up scene is burgeoning in Brazil with many of them offering innovative solutions that large companies could potentially adopt and scale.
Could you share some examples of innovative corporate sustainability strategies by local companies?
Probably the most widely known example is that of the local beauty products manufacturer Natura. It is leading the field by setting ambitious net positive goals and planning its sustainability strategy as far as 2050. Coca-Cola and Natura are now jointly working with local açai growers in the Amazon to improve their livelihoods and reduce deforestation, a great example of collaboration between large companies.
Another interesting case is , Brazil’s largest retailer, which has also been a leader on sustainability issues. GPA has pioneered a progressive model of working with communities in the Rio de Janeiro and San Paolo neighborhoods, where its supermarkets are located.
In a way, many sustainability leadership examples in Brazil point to collaboration. Getting companies to unite their efforts, seeking synergies and common ground between parallel initiatives will be key to achieving impact.
Our surveys show that Latin America is one of the few regions where local companies dominate sustainability leadership rankings. In many other parts of the world, Unilever and Patagonia are universally seen as dominant players.
Yes, we also see that trend. We ran a survey of conference participants and Natura was overwhelmingly regarded to be the front-runner, with Itaú Unibanco and Unilever taking the second and third spots, respectively.
While we are seeing a lot of progress, for many businesses integrating sustainability into core operations remains to be a major challenge. It is often coupled with lack of a long-term vision and a focus on immediate, short-term issues.
To what extent is this absence of long-term perspective a result of relatively nascent corporate sustainability agendas? Or is it rather a consequence of the current political and economic climate?
Economic and political climate is very important but many Brazilian companies are also facing a challenge of progressing from the very basic understanding of sustainability as simply mitigating negative effects to actually creating net positive impact. I believe this transition is the next big mission for Brazilian companies.
The current economic crisis and corruption scandals have a big impact on business and especially on local companies that primarily rely on the Brazilian market. While global companies are also impacted, they are more resilient to these fluctuations. In their sustainability strategy, most multilateral corporations including Dow Chemical, Unilever, L’Oréal, rely heavily on guidance from corporate headquarters. However, in the past couple of years we have seen the Brazilian branches of some large international companies adopt sustainability strategies that are uniquely designed to address local challenges in Brazil, and that is a very welcome development.
What other sustainability issues are now top-of-mind for companies in Brazil?
Recent corruption scandals have had an effect on many aspects of life in Brazil, including business. Just like in so many other parts of the world, water scarcity is a major concern. The current water crisis is increasingly being linked by scientists to deforestation in the Amazon, another major challenge facing the country. Reducing waste is also a major issue on the corporate sustainability agenda. New environmental regulations, introduced a few years ago, are forcing companies to introduce new measures to reduce waste and rethink packaging. There is also a lot of interest by Brazilian companies in Sustainable Development Goals, with many pursuing partnerships through the UN Global Compact.
And while the Brazilian government is heavily invested in lead-up negotiations to the UN climate change conference in Paris (COP21), for most companies, the energy conversation is first and foremost about efficiency. Our economy remains to be heavily reliant on fossil fuels and hydropower and regulatory incentives are still lacking to advance other forms of renewable energy.
What is the next frontier for Brazilian companies?
Brazilian companies understand well the relevance of CSR and in the last 15 years have made a lot of progress improving sustainability management and embedding it in their governance. But I believe that the understanding of corporate responsibility remains limited. The next step for companies is to create solutions to the challenges that our society faces today and transform those challenges into business opportunities. This is the next big frontier and we are already seeing many promising examples that this transformation is under the way.
This is the third installment in a series of four blogs about Latin America. To find out more about sustainability issues shaping the debate in Latin America, view the presentation deck and listen to the recording of our mid-year Trends webinar. And, you can read our first and second installments of the series, too. For over 25 years SustainAbility has provided companies with timely intelligence and interpretation of emerging sustainability issues and trends. For more information about our bespoke trends service and how your company can benefit from it, please contact Aiste Brackley.
In heavily polluted areas, we all know that we should try to avoid inhaling whatever toxins are floating around as much as possible. That’s why when pollution gets especially bad in China, people are advised to stay indoors, and it’s one of the reasons behind the rise in surgical masks being worn in Tokyo, Japan.
But a new study has found that when it comes to certain airborne pollutants, called phthalates, our skin can absorb just as much as we’re breathing in. “We’re big sponges for these chemicals,” lead researcher, John Kissel from the University of Washington in the US, told Science News.
Phthalates are a group of ‘semi-volatile’ chemicals that are used to make plastic soft and flexible, or as dissolving agents for other types of materials, and are found in all kinds of cosmetics, fragrances, and household cleaners. Derived from oil, around 2 million tonnes of phthalates are produced across the world each year, and more than 20 different types are in common use.
Over the past 50 years, they’ve become the most widely used ‘plasticisers’ in the world, but growing concern over what prolonged exposure – through indoor air, dust, and food packaging, for example – is doing to our health has seen some types banned in Europe and the US.
Studies have shown that phthalates can end up in our bloodstream, breast milk, and urine, and they’ve been classified as ‘endocrine disruptors’, because of the way they affect our body’s hormonal systems, such as the oestrogen and androgen hormone systems.
Preliminary research has linked certain phthalates to the incidences of asthma, with a 2008 study suggesting that heated PVC fumes could contribute to development of asthma in adults, while phthalate exposure in the home could put children at a higher risk of asthma and allergies. There are also indications that exposure could lead to a higher risk of breast cancer, but the research has not yet been definitive.
Kissel and his colleagues wanted to investigate the effect of ‘dermal uptake’ – or absorption through the skin – on the levels of phthalates found in human bloodstreams. They recruited six healthy male participants, and exposed them to elevated air concentrations of two types of phthalates: diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di(n-butyl) phthalate (DnBP). According to Tim Sandle at The Latest News, DEP is used as a solvent in personal care products, such as moisturiser, and DnBP is used as a plasticiser in products like nail polish.
The six volunteers were exposed to the chemicals over a 6-hour period in a special chamber, first with specialised breathing hoods on that prevented them from inhaling any of the phthalates, and then without hoods the following week. The only other clothes they were allowed to wear during exposure was shorts, and they were placed on a restricted diet and restricted use of personal care products 12 hours before entering the chamber and until their urine was collected 66 hours later.
“Metabolite concentrations were lower when the participants were exposed to chamber air while wearing a hood, but the levels were still substantially higher than levels measured before the participants entered the chamber, indicating significant uptake of DEP and DnBP while participants were wearing a hood,” the researchers report in the journal Environmental Health Perspective.
The team found that the dermal uptake of DEP was about 10 percent higher than its inhalation intake, and the dermal uptake of DnBP was 82 percent of its inhalation intake. And the older the participant, the higher the dermal uptakes of both DEP and DnBP from the air. They said that based on the very limited sample of six, the impact of age was surprisingly strong. “The uptake of DEP by the 66-year-old is five times greater than that of the 27-year-old, while the uptake of DnBP is seven times greater,” they report.
The researchers are yet to test how wearing more than just shorts would affect phthalate levels, and yep, that sample size is tiny, but the results warrant some follow-up investigations. Skin is the largest organ in the human body, so if it’s really not protecting us against these commonly used chemicals, that’s a problem. Earlier research has shown that semi-volatile chemicals like phthalates tend to pass through the skin relatively slowly, but they could still build up to damaging levels over several years.
“[I]f the whole body is exposed, then even low rates of exposure can deliver what turns out to be nontrivial amounts of these chemicals,” Kissel told Janet Raloff at Science News.
The megalithic federal bureaucracy known as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is made up of 100,000 employees who are stationed at 4,500 locations across the country. Their mission statement, in part, reads “to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans.”
A recent study by Consumer Reports, however, shows that nourishing Americans consists of feeding them deadly superbugs, food poisoning pathogens, and feces.
While it’s not surprising to the readers of the Free Thought Project that the US government could fail so miserably in their stated mission, this recent study exhibits an unrivaled level of incompetence within this behemoth bureaucracy.
Consumer Reports tested several hundred packages of ground meat from stores across America, and their findings were shocking, to say the least.
According to the report,
New lab tests conducted by Consumer Reports found that of the 300 packages of ground beef purchased in stores across the country, almost all contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination.
More than 40 percent contained Staphylococcus aureus. Almost 20 percent contained Clostridium perfringens, which causes nearly 1 million cases of food poisoning annually, many related to beef.
A significant amount also contained superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics. A key reason is the overuse of antibiotics on cattle farms.
The irony here is that local organic farmers who have harmed no one, are being raided by SWAT teams for selling raw milk, eggs, or grass fed beef. Meanwhile, millions of people are getting sick and dying across the country by government-subsidized factory farms.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan points out how concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are dependent upon the cost of corn remaining low.
The government ensures these low corn prices by throwing billions of dollars a year the top 1 percent of corn farms in the United States. Since 1995, a whopping $85 billion has been taken from taxpayers and given to corn producers; all of this so you can have poop in your burger.
Aside from the horrific results of feeding corn to cows, there is also the apocalyptic problem of creating superbugs by massively dosing the factory farmed cattle with antibiotics to counter the horrendously dirty conditions in which they live.
“That practice (heavy use of antibiotics) can lead to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a major public health problem. If you get sick from these bugs, your infection can be difficult to treat,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports.
The consumer reports study wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. When they tested the sustainably produced, antibiotic-free, grass-fed cattle, they found that these were far less likely to have any of the bacteria.
“This study is significant, because it’s among the largest scientific studies to show that sustainable methods of raising cattle can produce cleaner and safer ground beef,” Rangan said.
Of course, “big government beef” is upset and defensive about these findings. When consumer reports contacted the National Cattleman’s Beef Association for a statement, they received this single comment from Kansas State University professor Mike Apley:
If all cattle were grass-fed, we’d have less beef, and it would be less affordable. Since grass doesn’t grow on pasture year-round in many parts of the country, feed lots evolved to make the most efficient use of land, water, fuel, labor and feed.
Amazingly enough, however, farmers can sustainably raise organic cattle to meet the market demand, without using government subsidized corn. Instead of massive amounts of chemical and mechanical inputs, the organic farmers can plan for the harsh winter months by saving the surplus from summer months.
The good news is that the demand is shifting from factory farmed cattle to sustainable and humanely raised cattle. Despite the best attempts of the USDA to regulate sustainable farms to death, they are thriving as demand increases.
Even some fast food chains are adopting this sustainable method. In December, California-based quick-service chain Carl’s Jr. rolled out the All-Natural Burger, which sources solely grass-fed beef from Austrailia.
Besides Carl’s Jr., a grass-fed burger chain called Farm Burger, has begun to spring up from coast to coast.
Besides sustainable beef, there is also the option of no beef. One of the fastest growing categories in food choice happens to be vegetarian.
In the information age, ignorance is a choice, and it seems that it’s a choice more, and more people are avoiding. While this study shows that we still have an uphill battle when it comes to healthy, non-taxpayer subsidized food, it is only a matter of time before we reach critical mass.
In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones. McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant. It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out. McKinsey was wrong, of course. There were more than 100 million cellular phones in use in 2000; there are billions now. Costs have fallen so far that even the poor – all over world – can afford a cellular phone.
The experts are saying the same about solar energy now. They note that after decades of development, solar power hardly supplies 1 percent of the world’s energy needs. They say that solar is inefficient, too expensive to install, and unreliable, and will fail without government subsidies. They too are wrong. Solar will be as ubiquitous as cellular phones are.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years – as costs have been dropping. He says solar energy is only six doublings – or less than 14 years – away from meeting 100 percent of today’s energy needs. Energy usage will keep increasing, so this is a moving target. But, by Kurzweil’s estimates, inexpensive renewable sources will provide more energy than the world needs in less than 20 years. Even then, we will be using only one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth.
In places such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the Southwest United States, residential-scale solar production has already reached ” grid parity ” with average residential electricity prices. In other words, it costs no more in the long term to install solar panels than to buy electricity from utility companies. The prices of solar panels have fallen 75 percent in the past five years alone and will fall much further as the technologies to create them improve and scale of production increases. By 2020, solar energy will be price-competitive with energy generated from fossil fuels on an unsubsidized basis in most parts of the world. Within the next decade, it will cost a fraction of what fossil-fuel-based alternatives do.
It isn’t just solar production that is advancing at a rapid rate; there are also technologies to harness the power of wind, biomass, thermal, tidal, and waste-breakdown energy, and research projects all over the world are working on improving their efficiency and effectiveness. Wind power, for example, has also come down sharply in price and is now competitive with the cost of new coal-burning power plants in the United States. It will, without doubt, give solar energy a run for its money. There will be breakthroughs in many different technologies, and these will accelerate overall progress.
Despite the skepticism of experts and criticism by naysayers, there is little doubt that we are heading into an era of unlimited and almost free clean energy. This has profound implications.
First, there will be disruption of the entire fossil-fuel industry, starting with utility companies – which will face declining demand and then bankruptcy. Several of them see the writing on the wall. The smart ones are embracing solar and wind power. Others are lobbying to stop the progress of solar power – at all costs. Witness how groups in Oklahoma persuaded lawmakers to approve a surcharge on solar installations; the limited victory that groups backed by the Koch brothers won in Arizona to impose a $5 per month surcharge; and the battles being waged in other states. They are fighting a losing battle, however, because the advances aren’t confined to the United States. Countries such as Germany, China, and Japan are leading the charge in the adoption of clean energies. Solar installations still depend on other power sources to supply energy when the sun isn’t shining, but battery-storage technologies will improve so much over the next two decades that homes won’t be dependent on the utility companies. We will go from debating incentives for installing clean energies to debating subsidies for utility companies to keep their operations going.
The environment will surely benefit from the elimination of fossil fuels, which will also boost most sectors of the economy. Electric cars will become cheaper to operate than fossil-fuel-burning ones, for example. We will be able to create unlimited clean water – by boiling ocean water and condensing it. With inexpensive energy, our farmers can also grow hydroponic fruits and vegetables in vertical farms located near consumers. Imagine skyscrapers located in cities that grow food in glass buildings without the need for pesticides, and that recycle nutrients and materials to ensure there is no ecological impact. We will have the energy needed to 3D-print our everyday goods and to heat our homes.
We are surely heading into the era of abundance that Peter Diamandis has written about – the era when the basic needs of humanity are met through advancing technologies. The challenge for mankind will be to share this abundance, ensuring that these technologies make the world a better place.
A new AIDS vaccine trial is about to begin in the US, and this one is a little different – the vaccine has been developed over the past 15 years by Robert Gallo, the scientist who first proved in 1984 that HIV triggered the disease.
The phase I trial will involve 60 volunteers and will simply test the safety and immune responses of the vaccine, so we won’t know for a while whether it will be more effective than the other 100+ AIDS vaccines that have been trialled over the past 30 years. But extensive testing has been done in monkeys so far with positive results.
Although there have been some promising vaccine candidates in the past, the challenge with AIDS is that HIV directly infects white blood cells called T-cells, so it literally turns our immune system against us. That means that once the virus has entered a T-cell, it’s invisible to the immune system.
The only chance we have to prevent infection is to trigger antibodies against the HIV surface proteins before that happens – something that’s been equally difficult considering the fact that the retrovirus can regularly change its viral envelope to hide particular surface proteins.
But Gallo and his team at the Institute of Human Virology in the US think they may have now found a moment when the HIV surface protein, known as gp120, is vulnerable to detection – the moment the virus binds with our bodies’ T-cells.
When HIV infects a patient, it first links to the CD4 receptor on the white blood cell. It then transitions, exposing hidden parts of its viral envelope, which allow it to bind to a second receptor called CCR5. Once HIV is attached to both these T-cell receptors, it can successfully infect the immune cell. And at that point, it’s too late to do anything to stop it.
Known as the “full-length single chain” vaccine, Gallo’s vaccine contains the HIV surface protein gp120, engineered to link to a few portions of the CD4 receptor. That goal is to trigger antibodies against gp120 when it’s already attached to CD4 and is in its vulnerable transitional state, effectively stopping it from attaching to the second CCR5 attachment.
And before you say anything, Gallo himself admitted to Jon Cohen over at that full-length single chain vaccine is a “terrible name”.
The trial is being run in collaboration with Profectus BioSciences, a biotech spin-off from the Institute of Human Virology, and Gallo explained that they’ve taken so long to get to this point because they’ve been extremely thorough in their testing on monkeys, and then had to scramble for funding to develop the drug into a human-grade vaccine.
“Was anything a lack of courage?” he asked “Sure. We wanted more and more answers before going into people.”
Let’s hope that caution pays off, and we may finally have a viable contender for an AIDS vaccine on our hands. Watch this space.
Both parties of Congress are in agreement on diverting billions in Wall Street subsidies to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. If you’re by a window, look outside for flying pigs.
Currently, the Federal Reserve pays out a 6 percent annual dividend to roughly 2,900 banks – JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo net approximately $350 million apiece each year from the dividend. These banks own stock in the Federal Reserve as a means of becoming members of regional Fed branches around the country, and unlike other stocks, the big banks are guaranteed to never lose money on their investment in the Fed. For years, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has proposed reducing that dividend to 3 percent in order to pay for repairing American infrastructure. After lying dormant for over a year, it appears that idea has now caught on with Republicans as well.
According to Bloomberg, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently told a group of Wall Street executives at a Financial Services Roundtable event that he wouldn’t use his power to remove a new rule that allots funding for federal highways by reducing that dividend to 1.5 percent. The House is now weighing whether or not to back the dividend reduction before highway funding runs out at the end of October. Should the proposal go through, America’s highways would benefit from an additional $17 billion in repairs over the next ten years.
Now, Wall Street is in panic mode.
“The idea that going forward that we are going to pay for our nation’s infrastructure on the backs of one industry sector is a really flawed public policy,” said American Bankers Association president Rob Nichols.
While Fed chair Janet Yellen has taken the banks side, saying she believes the policy “could conceivably have unintended consequences,” Washington prognosticators believe the banks will ultimately have to sacrifice their Fed dividend, and possibly more federal handouts further down the road.
“The industry is in a very dangerous spot because it is a pot of gold,” Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, told Bloomberg. “With the general political climate I don’t know a lot of people on Capitol Hill that like banks.”
The proposal is likely to pass, as past Republican proposals to fund infrastructure repair included a tax repatriation holiday – allowing corporations to bring back some of the $2.1 trillion stashed in overseas tax havens back to the U.S. at a 5 percent rate rather than a 35 percent rate – a proposal that President Obama has promised to veto in the past. As I previously wrote in The Guardian, the only result that came out of past attempts at repatriation was mass layoffs of workers, while corporations used the repatriated cash to buy back their own stock, driving up the value of the options owned by executives.
Bad of an idea as it is, repatriation still attracted the support of Wall street-backed Democrats like Chuck Schumer, and corporations have lobbied Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the House Ways and Means chairman, to include repatriation in a tax reform package. However, lawmakers predicting an Obama veto are rejecting the idea of repatriation for now and are gravitating toward a solution for America’s highways they know Obama will sign by the end of the month.
C. Robert Gibson is editor in chief of US Uncut. His past work has been published in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, NPR, and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @crgibs
Australian researchers have come up with a non-invasive ultrasound technology that clears the brain of neurotoxic amyloid plaques – structures that are responsible for memory loss and a decline in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients.
If a person has Alzheimer’s disease, it’s usually the result of a build-up of two types of lesions – amyloid plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques sit between the neurons and end up as dense clusters of beta-amyloid molecules, a sticky type of protein that clumps together and forms plaques.
Neurofibrillary tangles are found inside the neurons of the brain, and they’re caused by defective tau proteins that clump up into a thick, insoluble mass. This causes tiny filaments called microtubules to get all twisted, which disrupts the transportation of essential materials such as nutrients and organelles along them, just like when you twist up the vacuum cleaner tube.
As we don’t have any kind of vaccine or preventative measure for Alzheimer’s – a disease that affects 343,000 people in Australia, and 50 million worldwide – it’s been a race to figure out how best to treat it, starting with how to clear the build-up of defective beta-amyloid and tau proteins from a patient’s brain. Now a team from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at the University of Queensland have come up with a pretty promising solution for removing the former.
Publishing in Science Translational Medicine, the team describes the technique as using a particular type of ultrasound called a focused therapeutic ultrasound, which non-invasively beams sound waves into the brain tissue. By oscillating super-fast, these sound waves are able to gently open up the blood-brain barrier, which is a layer that protects the brain against bacteria, and stimulate the brain’s microglial cells to activate. Microglila cells are basically waste-removal cells, so they’re able to clear out the toxic beta-amyloid clumps that are responsible for the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
The team reports fully restoring the memory function of 75 percent of the mice they tested it on, with zero damage to the surrounding brain tissue. They found that the treated mice displayed improved performance in three memory tasks – a maze, a test to get them to recognise new objects, and one to get them to remember the places they should avoid.
“We’re extremely excited by this innovation of treating Alzheimer’s without using drug therapeutics,” one of the team, Jürgen Götz, said in a press release. “The word ‘breakthrough’ is often misused, but in this case I think this really does fundamentally change our understanding of how to treat this disease, and I foresee a great future for this approach.”
The team says they’re planning on starting trials with higher animal models, such as sheep, and hope to get their human trials underway in 2017.
You can hear an ABC radio interview with the team here.
Whole Foods Market co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey has never hidden his disdain for labor unions. “Today most employees feel that unions are not necessary to represent them,” he told my colleague Josh Harkinson in 2013. That same year, Mackey echoed the sentiment in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s the Daily Ticker. “Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of  100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We’re not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”
On September 25, the natural-foods giant gave its workers reason to question their founder’s argument. Whole Foods announced it was eliminating 1,500 jobs-about 1.6 percent of its American workforce-“as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure.” The focus on cost-cutting isn’t surprising-Whole Foods stock has lost 40 percent of its value since February, thanks to lower-than-expected earnings and an overcharging scandal in its New York City stores.
Supervisors “in all departments were demoted…and told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties.”
Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store in the chain’s South region, “all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately,” according to an employee who works there.
I ran that claim past a spokesman at the company’s Austin headquarters. “We appreciate you taking the time to reach out and help us to set the record straight,” he responded, pointing to the press release quoted above. When I reminded him that my question was about wage cuts, not the announced job cuts, he declined to comment.
Another source, from one of Whole Foods’ regional offices, told me the corporate headquarters had ordered all 11 regional offices to reduce expenses. “They’ve all done it differently,” the source said. “In some regions, they’ve reduced the number of in-store buyers-people who order products for the shelves.”
I spoke with a buyer from the South region who learned on Saturday that, after more than 20 years with the company, his position had been eliminated. He and other laid-off colleagues received a letter listing their options: They could reapply for an open position or “leave Whole Foods immediately” with a severance package-which will be sweetened if they agree not to reapply for six months. If laid-off employees manage to snag a new position that pays less than the old one did, they are eligible for a temporary pay bump to match the old wage, but only for a limited time.
Whole Foods has “always been an 80/20 company” in its ratio of full- to part-time workers, but managers are now “incentivized to bring down that ratio.”
Those fortunate enough to get rehired at the same pay rate may be signing up for more work and responsibility. At his store, the laid-off buyer told me, ex-workers are now vying for buyer positions that used to be handled by two people-who “can barely get their work done as it is.”
My regional office source told me that the layoffs and downscaling of wages for experienced staffers is part of a deliberate shift toward part-time employees. Whole Foods has “always been an 80/20 company,” the source said, referring to it ratio of full- to part-time workers. Recently, a “mandate came down to go 70/30, and there are regions that are below that: 65/35 or 60/40.” Store managers are “incentivized to bring down that ratio,” the source added.
Employees working more than 20 hours per week are eligible for benefits once they’ve “successfully completed a probationary period of employment,” the Whole Foods website notes. But some key benefits are tied to hours worked. For example, employees get a “personal wellness account” to offset the “cost of deductibles and other qualified out-of-pocket health care expenses not covered by insurance,” but the amount is based on “service hours.”
And part-time employees tend not to stick around. My regional source said that annual turnover rates for part-timers at Whole Foods stores approach 80 percent in some regions. According to an internal document I obtained, the national annualized turnover rate for part-time Whole Foods team members was more than triple that of full-timers-66 percent versus about 18 percent-in the latest quarterly assessment. “Whole Foods has always been a high-touch, high-service model with dedicated, engaged, knowledgeable employees,” the source said. “How do you maintain that, having to [constantly] train a new batch of employees?”
One of Whole Foods’ “core values,” is to support the “happiness and excellence” of its employees. But that may be hard to reconcile with pleasing Wall Street.
Of course, Whole Foods operates in a hypercompetitive industry. Long a dominant player in natural foods, it now has to vie with Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and regional supermarket chains in the organic sector. Lower prices are key to staying competitive, and in order to maintain the same profit margins with lower prices, you have to cut your expenditures. Whole Foods’ labor costs, according to my regional source, are equal to about 20 percent of sales-twice the industry standard.
It’s not unusual for a publicly traded company to respond to a market swoon by pushing down wages and sending workers packing. But Whole Foods presents itself as a different kind of company. As part of its “core values,” Whole Foods claims to “support team member [employee] happiness and excellence.” Yet at a time when the company’s share price is floundering and its largest institutional shareholder is Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs-which owns nearly 6 percent of its stock-that value may be harder to uphold.
Workers join unions precisely to protect themselves from employers that see slashing labor costs as a way to please Wall Street. “There’s a fear of unions coming in, because employees are bitter,” the regional-office source said. “People talk about it in hushed tones.”