Making a killing with kindness

“If you’re looking for a business opportunity, here’s the most under-served market in the world,” said Craig Kielburger, founder of the charity Free the Children. Absolute silence.

That market: “People who live in desperate poverty and need,” said Kielburger, who was, for the remainder of lunch on Saturday, keynote speaker at the Impact 2007 Leadership Conference, billed as “Canada’s premier entrepreneurship event.”

The crowd is a bunch of young entrepreneurs itching to put what they’ve learned over the past day and a half to good use in their fi rst, second, third, or maybe their fourth business venture— and some of these people aren’t even out of high school.

Kielburger defi nes an entrepreneur as “someone who brings an innovative model to create social change,” and claims Mother Teresa as “the quintessential entrepreneur.”

Throughout the conference, the organizers tried to break the stereotype of CEOs as suits (despite the formal dress code).

On Friday, George Roter, CEO of Engineers Without Borders, spoke about applying business principles to a charity. According to Roter, “entrepreneurship is an approach, not an end.”

Such Zen-like business philosophies were common over the two days. Successful CEOs were treated like gurus. Admittedly, conferences, whether for entrepreneurs or Star Trek afi cionados, can be a surreal experience for an outsider. Business conferences are no different for having their own cultures, their own celebrities, their own lingo. Business schools have their own cheers.

“Man, if this were West Coast…” said one of the Albertan delegates after the banquet. West Coast biz conferences are known, surprisingly, for being more laid-back and booze-soaked. Here at our East Coast conference, everyone’s heading back to their rooms to work on case studies.

Kielburger put social responsibility in an economic context. Last year, the world population spent $15 billion on perfume—three times as much money as it would take to provide universal literacy, he claimed. We spent the same amount on makeup as would take to eliminate hunger. Stopping the spread of AIDS? Less than Europe spent on ice cream in a single year.

Kielburger isn’t arguing that we stop buying these things, but that we do have the resources to solve the world’s problems. Throughout his speech, he returned to his refrain that such a change can only be effective if expressed at the ballot box, the cash register, and the boardroom.

To a packed house of aspiring CEOs, those that many would consider at the forefront of me-culture, the co-author of From Me to We argued that “helping others is good for the bottom line. What’s good for the heart is good for the wallet.”

Is he trying to redefine selfishness?

“More than that,” he said when we sit down for an interview—he’s trying to “redefi ne the self.” There’s a myth in North America, argued Kielburger, that we’re more independent than those in developing countries, but “we don’t grow our own clothes, we don’t make our own food. We’re more dependent on others here than [they are] anywhere else.”

In his keynote remarks, the recent U of T grad provided examples of charitable businesses and charities with business principles. Take Participant Films—which produces socially responsible films, such as North Country, Syriana and Nobel-maker An Inconvenient Truth—and the Institute for One World Health, what would strike most as an oxymoron: a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company.

“It’s a charity,” says Kielburger, “it’s non-profit, but it brings in those business principles.” The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is hiring, first and foremost, MBAs.

For some, the greatest challenge comes not in the form of case studies or, for that matter, taking over the world, but over dinner Friday evening. The occasion: a banquet at the Westin Harbour Castle, where Michael Lee- Chin, the major donor to the ROM’s Crystal renovation is giving his keynote address. Two delegates’ vegetarian option arrives. Looks good to me, but—

“Omigod, what is that?”

“I think I just got served a bowl of rice.”

“Try it. What’s it like?” Some tentative poking at with fork follows.

“It’s kind of mushy, but kind of grainy, and it tastes really cheesy.”

Opined the other vegetarian at the table: “It’s like they were trying to make Indian food.”

The first vegetarian picks up the sprig garnishing her plate. “And what’s this?”

“I hate it when food is decorated,” pipes in one of the high schoolers.

The next morning, as I’m riding the escalator on my way to a breakout panel hosted by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, I catch the tail end of a conversation between two older delegates, one of whom had just attended the Social Etiquette in a Business Setting workshop.

“It was a good reminder,” I overhear the woman say. “I went to the banquet last night and some of the kids didn’t have a clue.”

Oh well. Today we take over the world. Tomorrow, risotto.

Ontario under siege: purple loosestrife

Aggressively invading Ontario’s wetland regions, purple loosestrife’s damage is beautiful, yet devastating. Although admittedly an aesthetically pleasing plant, its destructive and dominant nature has earned it a spot on Canada’s top-five invasive species list, making the flower a significant biological priority. This one- to two-metre tall “marsh monster” leaves a trail of destruction with serious consequences for the local environment—and we may already be unknowing accomplices.

Native to Eurasia, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria, from the family Lythraceae) was introduced to North America from European ships in the 1800s as a medicinal herb, used to treat bleeding, ulcers, diarrhea, and dysentery.

Upon arrival, the plants spread quickly across Canada, populating their preferred habitat: freshwater lakes, river shores, and marshlands. As a result, dramatic growth of these purple-pink pests is causing water flow disruptions and drastic declines in biodiversity in many of Ontario’s wetlands.

Identified by its uniquely-shaped square stem, each purple loosestrife plant can produce as many as 30 rigid stalks from a central, woody root mass that grows 8.5 inches each year. Surrounded by clusters of leaves and ravishing pink and purple flowers, this weedy species makes for an attractive ornamental garden plant. Garden strains of purple loosestrife—commonly known as Morden Pink, Morden Gleam or Dropmore Purple—are usually sold in packets of wildflower seeds. Unwitting gardeners may grow this invasive species in backyards and contribute to its survival and spread.

Strains originally thought to be sterile may not be, according to recent scientific research. An experiment in Manitoba showed that after six months of cultivating the strain known as Morden Pink, each plant produced an abundance of “garden escape” seeds in ideal condition for germination.

Purple loosestrife has the remarkable ability to produce approximately three million small, light seeds that can be easily dispersed long distances by wind, rainfall, and wildlife. Both rural and urban settings also provide pollination by bees and butterflies.

Growth of purple loosestrife has caused far-reaching ecological damage in the wetlands of southern Ontario. The loss of native flora and fauna through competition, and the reduction of natural food and protective habitats for wildlife results in the disappearance of a variety of rare animal and plant species, many of which play critical roles in maintaining wetland ecosystems.

Many researchers are looking into control and preventive measures to eradicate the growth of this obnoxious weed. Some suggest that hand-removal and proper disposal of purple loosestrife from gardens is a helpful strategy. The approved release of four natural purple loosestrife predators may help. Two beetles (Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla), a seed weevil, (Nanophyes marmoratus) and a root weevil, (Hylobius transversovittatus) feed on the purple loosestrife plant while posing no known threat to other species.

Despite these measures, purple loosestrife continues to remain a number-one threat to Ontario’s wetland habitats.

U of T falls through the ranks

U of T’s prestige endured a withering assault last week from the international ranking of the Times Higher Education Supplement, which knocked the university to 45th overall in the world, down from 27th in 2006. The THES, based in the U.K. issues an annual report of the top 200 universities worldwide. One of the most watched publications on higher education, the annual survey is heavily reported on throughout the world.

It uses the following weight distributions to assign scores: peer review score (40 per cent), number of citations earned in research papers (20 per cent), review of graduates by employers (10 per cent), proportion of international faculty members and students (5 per cent each), and faculty/ student ratio (20 per cent),.

As are many school ranking schemes, this system has been critized heavily for aggregating dissimilar data (combining research citations with international complements, for instance), and boiling down each university’s performance to a single number. For this very reason, U of T’s administration has refused for the past two years to participate in Maclean’s magazine’s Canadian university survey (which nonetheless recently rated U of T fourth overall in its category).

Professor George Luste of the University of Toronto Faculty Association commented on the large fluctuations in rank seen by some of the schools on the list, and how it is difficult to derive any significant meaning from the report. U of T’s 18-spot drop was not the only precipitous decline: UC Berkeley also fell drastically from last year. It went from eighth place in 2006 down to 22nd. Luste, like many university members, views the survey with a critical eye.

“To me it says there’s something screwy about their measurement process, university reputations and quality do not just change on that time scale from year to year that much,” Luste said.

Ontario Under Siege: European frog-bit

The story of European frog-bit’s introduction and spread in North America follows a pattern common to many invasive species: intended for cultivation in a controlled setting, they escape and spread rapidly at the expense of native species.

European frog-bit is an invasive aquatic plant that grows in stagnant or slowmoving bodies of water, infesting lakes, marshes, swamps, and streams. It has become a dominant species in many wetland ecosystems in eastern North America.

Found widely in Europe and certain parts of Asia, European frog-bit was first imported into Canada from Switzerland in 1932. It was cultivated at the Arboretum of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. By 1939, the plant escaped the Arboretum and wild populations were spotted on the Rideau Canal. By 1952, it had reached the Montreal area, and was observed on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie by the 1980s.

Invasive species are successful because they possess traits that give them a competitive advantage in a new environment. European frog-bit has submerged roots and horizontal stems called “stolons.” Rather than embed in the sediment at the lake bottom, the roots intertwine underwater, allowing the plants to aggregate in dense, free-floating colonies. This ability for dense growth is the plant’s main advantage. Unfortunately, the thick layer of foliage formed on the water’s surface reduces the amount of light, nutrients, and dissolved gases available to native plants growing under the surface.

Besides monopolizing vital resources, European frog-bit is also able to spread rapidly due to its reproductive strategies. Typically, the species reproduces asexually as new plants grow out of the tips of the stolons. This mechanism allows entire colonies to establish when pieces of stolon— which naturally break off—are carried to new locations by water currents. This kind of reproduction, also known as “vegetative reproduction,” is a characteristic of many invasive species. It offers a competitive advantage, allowing new individuals to produce at a much faster rate compared to sexually reproductive plants.

In the autumn, European frog-bit also uses a variation of asexual reproduction specific to aquatic plants, in which specialized buds known as “turions” are formed. The turions fall off the plant and sink to the sediment below, where they spend the winter in dormancy. Once spring arrives, the buds float back towards the surface and start developing into new plants. Since up to 100 turions can be released from a single adult individual, turion production contributes to the species’ high reproductive rate, helping it quickly take over a particular area.

Currently, there are no known control measures to combat the European frog-bit invasion, and it is extremely difficult to destroy an established colony. The most effective way to stem the spread of the species is to prevent the extent of new populations. Like zebra mussels, European frog-bit can reach new locations by attaching itself to boats and other watercraft. Cleaning watercraft before moving between bodies of water is an important tactic used to control outbreaks. Waterways and wetlands should also be monitored regularly for new population outbreaks, and any frog-bit that appears should be quickly removed and correctly disposed of, ideally before autumn, so that turions do not have the chance to form and disperse.

Now screening at York: Noam Chomsky

The famous intellectual Noam Chomsky enjoyed a warm welcome at York University on Friday, even though he was there as a disembodied torso. Unable to attend in person, the linguist and sometime political theorist spoke to a packed auditorium for over an hour via video conference.

He spoke without notes, hunched in front of a nondescript wall somewhere at MIT. Students, though, were enthused: so many wanted to come that the event had had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the demand.

Event organizer Jennifer Rego was effervescent. “It was completely a success to have a packed house of approximately 600 people,” she said. Rego had reason to be happy—it took her and two other York students several months of emails and a trip to Boston to convince Chomsky to speak. “Persistence was our friend,” she explained. “He was enamoured by our initiative and he agreed.”

“I thought it was really interesting,” first-year U of T law student Brendan McCutchen said. “He’s just a really important voice in our society.”

Second-year students Isabel Medel and Tania Lukacsovies made the trek from St. George campus for the event.

“I know he’s an anarchist—I wonder how that will filter into his talk,” Medel said beforehand.

Sadly for Medel, anarchy lost out to the energy crisis in Chosky’s speech. The lecture stuck to three topics the organizers had asked Chomsky to discuss: nuclear weapons, DNA and biomass.

Chomsky listed the virtues of biomass, or organic byproducts, as a viable alternative energy source. He supported the idea in theory, but was quick to condemn the current U.S. pursuit of corn-produced ethanol, which he called “unfeasible economically” and likely to bring high tariffs against cheaper corn from other countries. According to Chomsky, this would ultimately drive up the cost of agricultural products and harm poor countries, with major agricultural companies as the only beneficiaries.

Energy policy provided a segue into Chomsky’s discussion of the socalled “DNA revolution” that brings the possibility to design energy-creating organisms. Modified organisms could have benefits, but the consequences could be dire, leading to, for example, bioweapons used by subnational entities.

The bulk of Chomsky’s talk concerned nuclear proliferation. He repeatedly stressed the “enormous gulf between public opinion and public policy.”

The treaties in place now are so widely violated that even today the “threat of something close to terminal destruction by nuclear war is very high,” said Chomsky.

He ran through a list of examples of how U.S. policy undermines global nuclear stability, such as a hardline approach to the newly-nuclear Iran and North Korea from the Bush administration.

Chomsky ended on a hopeful note, preaching public action on environmental degradation, corporate tyrannies, and government bullying.

“Students have played a leading role in protest and activism, and movements to progressive social change,” he said.

Manifest destiny: Kudzu and cheatgrass slowly creep north

We’ve undoubtedly transformed the earth through the extensive use of fossil fuels, but uncertain are the longterm effects that climate change will bring with it. An important—and most certainly overlooked—side effect of warmer climates is the advance of invasive species.

These species take advantage of warmer temperatures to spread beyond their natural habitats—opportunists in every sense of the word. Dr. Rowan Sage, a professor at the University of Toronto, works with invasive plants. He is currently researching the spread of kudzu and cheatgrass, two species that were intentionally introduced to the United States.

Kudzu, native to eastern Asia, was introduced in 1876 as a forage crop and ornamental plant. Farmers in the 1930s were encouraged to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion, but under ideal climate conditions in the southwestern United States, the plant grew out of control and was officially named a pest weed in 1953. Normally, this pest weed would not be able to grow for long in Canada’s harsh climate. However, due to warmer winters and longer summers, kudzu is quickly becoming a potential threat.

Sage studies plant physiology and mechanisms of plant response to global climate change. More specifically, he looks at the mechanisms affecting productivity, competition, and species distribution.

“We’ve been studying kudzu to identify the physiological controls on its distribution and to ask a question: will it be a serious pest in Canada in the very near future? Will the climate warming that we’ve experienced and we will experience allow the kudzu to establish here?” he said.

After monitoring kudzu on a rooftop greenhouse at U of T’s Earth Science Centre, Sage found the plants did not die until late December. Due to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, as well as increasing nutrient deposition from agricultural fertilizers, the kudzu plant has responded well to human activities across urban landscapes.

Kudzu is becoming more aggressive as it rapidly responds to changes in the global climate. In North America, kudzu is not subject to its native land’s usual biological controls, such as the predatory insects that prevent uncontrolled proliferation. It can overtake trees and fields, eroding entire forests and conquering established ecosystems by outcompeting native plant species.

Kudzu continues to climb northwards into the Mohawk River Valley in New York and is predicted to reach southern Canada within 10 to 15 years. A warmer winter in the Niagara region could jeopardize the state of its wineries, the area’s biggest agricultural enterprise.

As it turns out, geography has a lot to do with the problem of invasive plants.

“In Eastern Canada, we’re lucky because we have some significant geographical barriers—the great lakes and the St. Lawrence River,” said Sage. But, “because of the high level of commerce we have, there is an excellent probability it will come over the border, so you have to take more stringent measures.”

Cheatgrass is another invasive plant, spreading in western parts of North America, including British Columbia. It is interfering with winter wheat and other crops.

Fine, feathery, and brown, cheatgrass competes for moisture with other plant species by maturing quickly in the spring. In turn, this plant dries up quickly and becomes a fuel source for wildfires. Left uncontrolled, these fires can wipe out other vegetation and also pose a threat to rural communities.

The potency of pests increases in foreign environments where they become “super-invaders,” suppressing all native vegetation and resulting in an ecosystem collapse. Water and atmospheric quality decrease, dust and particulates are suspended in the air, and soil terrain becomes more susceptible to erosion.

Benefits of preventional measures easily outweigh the cost of dealing with invasive species once they arrive. With frequent commercial trading between the U.S. and Canada, monitoring the cross-border movement of invasive species becomes crucial.

“California has a very strict quarantine system in place,” Sage said. “At all the entry points on the highways, there are quarantine stations where you have to stop and declare anything you might have that’s a problem, mostly fruits and vegetable—so everybody there knows you can’t take certain things in.”

Canada has a program addressing this issue, but its aim is elsewhere:

“It’s more focused on keeping stuff out from Europe and Asia than it is dealing with what might be lurking out in the U.S.,” said Sage.

Critics say areas with problematic plant species should enforce more rigid quarantine measures. Border controls should also have stricter policies for importing soils and checking construction equipment, which can bring in unwanted plant seeds. The public should be made aware of the appearance of the invasive species and how to avoid their spread.

“Our hope, with this work, is that the Canadian government will institute more severe controls on kudzu and many other invasive species that are potentially moving up from the south,” said Sage.

But the professor appeared grim about the odds against plants such as kudzu and cheatgrass.

“Once you can actually see global warming, it’s probably too late— same with bio-invasives.”

Queen’s gives OUSA three more years

Seventy per cent of undergraduate students at Queen’s University have voted to remain members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance for another three years, after the student union organization fee came up for mandatory renewal in last week’s fall referendum, held by Queen’s Alma Mater Society. One of OUSA’s founding members in 1992, Queen’s AMS parted ways with the alliance in 1995 but rejoined in 2004, when students passed over the larger, better-known, Canadian Federation of Students.

According to Joey Coleman, a Macleans.ca blogger on education, OUSA suits the structure of Queen’s large and policy-focused student union, whereas those of CFS schools are smaller and more political.

OUSA has a strong research and policy implementation record, calling itself member-driven, as members make their own lobbying decisions. OUSA also has a history of forming relationships with government officials and bureaucrats.

However, CFS represents over 250,000 students in Ontario, 80 student unions across the country, and has a strong track record in attracting media attention for lobbying campaigns.

Last week, the university-produced Queen’s Journal published an article by Queen’s official representative to OUSA, Julia Mitchell, attacking CFS’s operational tactics and lobbying strategies. Mitchell wrote that the CFS’s messages are about “flashy taglines, not implementable ideas,” and that their tactics “have lost them a great deal of credibility in the eyes of both voters and decision-makers.”

The allegations in the piece left CFS’s Ontario chairperson, Jen Hassum, fuming and in shock. “It’s laughable to think that the Canadian Federation of Students doesn’t have credibility, and it’s essentially not the reality of what students are working on across the country.” she said.

Coleman said he believes CFS and OUSA are two halves of a whole, and both are necessary for effective student lobbying. According to Mitchell,suggestions that Queen’s AMS join both OUSA and CFS have never been seriously considered.

Using tough toads for biological control— and failing

The Bufo marinus is perhaps the most well-known invasive organism. It is seen either as a successful colonizer, or as an extreme nuisance with the potential to devastate an ecosystem. This species, more commonly known as the cane toad, has invaded many countries, most famously Australia.

The cane toad is originally native to Central and South America. Imported to other countries for the toad’s effective control of pests that devastate sugar cane, cane toads now form naturalized populations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Barbados, and Hawaii.

The cane toad integrated itself smoothly into ecosystems when introduced to Hawaii in 1932. Meanwhile, sugar crops in Australia were under attack by greyback and Frenchi beetles. These insects’ larvae feed on the roots of sugar cane plants, causing the plants to collapse. Because of the successful introduction of the cane toad in Hawaii, optimistic Australian naturalists brought a number of toads into Queensland, Australia as a preliminary experiment. Over 40,000 young toads were released into the wild in August 1935.

This optimism proved naïve when the toads’ introduction severely impacted the Australian ecosystem. Because the toad has no natural enemies on the continent, the population grew unchecked. Though there are few objective reports of the extent of the devastation, the effects on predators are well known. Native snakes have been virtually eliminated from toad-infested areas because of the poison that coats the toads’ skin. One study estimates that 30 per cent of Australia’s snake species will be at risk by 2030. The toads are also blamed for the decrease in waterfowl in Australian swamps.

They might not even have performed their intended task. The seasonal habits of the toads and the beetles they are supposed to consume do not match up properly. The toads usually only emerge when the beetles are old enough to fly and escape the toads. Most Australian sugar cane fields now use chemical pesticides for pest control.

Historically, cane toads in Australia were also used for a practical— if slightly curious—purpose: the detection of human pregnancy. Hormones in the urine of a pregnant woman, when injected under a toad’s skin, stimulate sperm cell release in the toad. Toad pregnancy detection was commonplace in Australia up until 1965.

So what state are the cane toads in now? One research group in Australia found that the most rapidly advancing toads are evolving longer legs. This might be good news for pest control, because the toads are also developing arthritis in their longer limbs. Some species of birds in Australia have also learned to attack the toads’ bellies instead of their heads, where the poisonous glands are. These might be reasons for the toad’s slower-than-expected spread westward across the island continent.

There is an urgent need for methods to control the cane toad population, so scientists and naturalists must be creative. The move to build a cross-national fence was widely criticized because of the cost. Also, if even a few toads crossed the barrier, they would breed easily, making the effort useless and wasteful. Male sterilization was considered, but also found to be too expensive and not effective enough. Right now, the best potential strategy seems to be biological control, such as the introduction of a virus or parasite that would naturally control the toad population. But this solution could cause further problems. After all, the introduction of a new species to control a pest is what started the whole mess in the first place.