Saving Nation’s Seed Supply

  • Multinational corporations started taking control of seeds around thirty years ago. Now, ten corporations own over half the world’s commodity seed supply. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of the USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Some small gardening businesses
are noticing more customers want organic
and heirloom seeds. Experts think that
trend might be important for the world.
Kinna Ohman reports they believe
those seeds might be the hope of future
food supplies:

Transcript

Some small gardening businesses
are noticing more customers want organic
and heirloom seeds. Experts think that
trend might be important for the world.
Kinna Ohman reports they believe
those seeds might be the hope of future
food supplies:

John Meshna points to a half empty rack of vegetable and flower seed packets in his
store.

“We’ve emptied this thing at least a half a dozen times this year. I thought maybe
we’d have a rush in the spring and that’d be the end of it. And it looks like it’s
going to be going through the winter.”

Meshna owns and runs DirtWorks – a green garden supply business in New Haven,
Vermont. He’s been selling organic and heirloom garden seeds for more than twenty
years. Heirloom seeds come from vegetables that have almost disappeared. And Meshna
thinks people want those types of seeds more and more because they’re worried about our
food supply.

“People call us just to make sure sometimes before they order, now, ‘these are really
organic seeds, right?’ Yeah, it says it right on the label. It’s gonna make you very
happy when you get that package.”

And it’s making certain experts happy too.

Hope Shand is the research director of Etcetera Group. It’s an organization that’s
concerned about corporate control of the food supply. Shand says when more home
gardeners and small farmers grow plants from organic and heirloom seeds, that helps
keep variety in the world’s food supply.

“This is an incredibly important service. People, gardeners, small farmers, urban
gardeners, are conserving, and saving seed diversity. No one else is really doing that
job.”

Hope Shand says multinational corporations started taking control of seeds around thirty
years ago. Now, Shand says, ten corporations own over half the world’s commodity seed
supply. And she thinks that’s risky.

“The seed is the first link in the food chain. Whoever controls the seed literally
controls the world’s food supply. We can’t afford to have the level of vulnerability
and dependence that that entails when we have a handful of multinational seed
companies controlling the world seed supply.”

(sound of watering)

“I’m growing greens without heat.”

At a small organic nursery in Hinesberg, Vermont, Julie Rubaud is one of those who
wants to get these seeds and plants to more people. For her, it’s not just preserving a
strain of a vegetable, it’s trying to match up those plants with the right gardener.

Rubaud grows close to eight hundred varieties of organic and heirloom plants for her
customers. She says that helps her connect people with the right plants for their gardens
and tastebuds.

“I always start out asking, ‘how much room do you have?’ And then I ask them
how they like to eat tomatoes. It’s nice to be able to cater everyone’s garden plan to
their individual needs because we have so many varieties.”

And if next year’s anything like last year, Rubaud will have at least forty varieties of
organic tomato plants ready for new gardens by next spring.

She wonders – with the economy the way it’s been – if one plant might do exceptionally
well.

“There’s Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes. Have you heard of that
one?” (laughs)

Radiator Charlie’s tomato has been around since the 1940s. You probably won’t find it
at the big-box discount-store gardening department. It’s one of those colorful, hardy,
productive plants that many people think will help bring back variety to our food supply.

For The Environment Report, I’m Kinna Ohman.

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How Much Help From Offshore Drilling?

  • Oil is a global commodity, so oil drilled in the US would not have to stay here (Photo courtesy of the Minerals Management Service)

There’s been a lot of talk lately
about drilling for more oil off the American
coasts. Rebecca Williams reports that oil
is not required to go to the US markets:

Transcript

There’s been a lot of talk lately
about drilling for more oil off the American
coasts. Rebecca Williams reports that oil
is not required to go to the US markets:

Oil is a global commodity. Oil drilled in the US would not have to stay
here.

But most of it probably would.

Alan Good is with Morningstar. He analyzes the oil and gas industries.

“It would generally go straight to America because it would incur the lowest
transportation costs to get to the United States refineries.”

But Good says it would be at least a decade before that oil would come
online. And even then it’s not clear how much offshore drilling here would
reduce imports from the Middle East.

“It will help somewhat with imports but it’s not likely to make a huge dent.”

And he says it’ll probably have little effect on the price you pay at the pump
because world demand drives oil prices.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Dirt on the Coal Supply

  • This coal fired power plant sits at the corner of the SIU campus in Carbondale, Illinois. It has sulfur scrubbers and other technology that allow it to burn Illinois coal. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

Presidential candidates John McCain
and Barack Obama are trying to sell us on a
clean energy future. And they’ve got a laundry
list of ideas, including conservation, solar
and wind power, and safer nuclear energy.
But they both want to tweak an old reliable
fuel, too. That would be American coal.
Shawn Allee looks at why McCain
and Obama are gung-ho on coal:

Transcript

Presidential candidates John McCain
and Barack Obama are trying to sell us on a
clean energy future. And they’ve got a laundry
list of ideas, including conservation, solar
and wind power, and safer nuclear energy.
But they both want to tweak an old reliable
fuel, too. That would be American coal.
Shawn Allee looks at why McCain
and Obama are gung-ho on coal:

One reason McCain and Obama tout coal is they’re convinced we have plenty of it.

And they even agree on how to make that point.

McCain first.

McCain: “Our coal reserves are larger than Saudi Arabia’s supply of oil.”

Obama: “We’re the Saudi Arabia of coal, we got more coal than just about
everybody else.”

The Saudi Arabia of Coal.

That’s a sexy political metaphor – it sounds like coal’s just waiting to be scooped up.

Where do politicians get this idea?

“It is really based on data published by the Energy Information Administration.”

That’s Mike Mellish. He crunches coal projection numbers for that agency.

Politicians cite a government figure that we have 250 years worth of coal.

Mellish calls that a very rough estimate. Mellish says we get that number by estimating
how much coal we can get out of the ground economically.

Then, analysts compare that to how much we burn in factories and power plants right
now.

“So that’s really the basis of that statement of 250 years.”

Mellish says, if we use more coal, we’d literally burn through the supply faster.

There are critics who pounce on the idea we have plenty of coal. One of them’s Richard
Heinberg.

Heinberg studies energy for the Post-Carbon Institute, a green think tank. He says
politicians should not expect cheap coal for centuries.

“It assumes we can continue extracting this stuff out of the ground at constant rates
until, one day, it all just runs out.”

Heinberg says America does have lots of coal, but the amount under the ground isn’t the
only thing that counts.

“We tend to get the cheap, easy stuff first, then the production peaks and tails off
afterward.”

Heinberg predicts companies will have to invest money to keep finding new coal, and
that will raise coal prices – not in centuries – but in a few decades.

And Heinbergs says there’s another reason Obama and McCain shouldn’t have so much
faith in coal.

Coal plants put loads of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that makes the global
warming problem worse.

Both candidates want new technologies to put coal’s carbon emissions in the ground.

“But there are a lot of questions as to whether this is really going to work. The cost
of capturing all that carbon dioxide and moving it around and burying it will be
enormous and they will add to the cost of electricity we can make with coal.”

For Heinberg all this talk about the Saudi Arabia of coal, and that 250 year figure, it’s all
a big bet – and it could have a high cost if we’re wrong.

“If we’re going on the assumption that there’s plenty of coal out there for many
decades to come at current prices and we build infrastructure accordingly and then
a couple of decades from now, suddenly coal becomes much more expensive and
scarce we will have gotten ourselves in a very difficult place, sort of like we’d done
with oil.”

A lot of energy experts are more upbeat on coal than Heinberg.

They admit it’s not clear how much coal we have, but it’s a heck of a lot, and we know
how to get it.

They say they don’t blame Obama and McCain for giving clean coal a chance. It’s just
that we should have started testing it a decade ago.

Hmm, a decade ago?

Politicians don’t like to say we’ve missed the mark by a decade.

It’s no wonder we haven’t heard that on the campaign trail.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Groundwater Study Finds Low Voc’s

Federal researchers have detected Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOC’s, in many of the nation’s underground drinking water supplies. But the samples showed lower concentrations of the cancer-causing chemicals than some suspected. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

Federal researchers have detected Volatile Organic Compounds, or
VOC’s, in many of the nation’s underground drinking water supplies. But
the samples showed lower concentrations of the cancer-causing
chemicals than some suspected. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports:


Volatile Organic Compounds are by-products of industrial and
commercial applications. They come from plastics, paints, dry-cleaning
products and gasoline.


Over the past few decades, researchers have detected many places in the
country where soil and groundwater is highly contaminated by VOCs.
This latest study by the U.S Geological Survey took a broader look at
VOC concentrations in the nation’s groundwater.


John Zogorski led the project.


“In most of the wells that we sampled, and we’re sampling before any
treatment by the water utilities, we didn’t find any of these 55
compounds using even our most sensitive analytical methodology.”


Zogorski says VOC’s were found in some drinking water wells, but he
says the good news is that where the VOC’s were found, they were
mostly below federal drinking water standards.


For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.

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Ten Threats: Bottled Water Diversion Debate

  • Some bottling companies, such as Besco, sell water, but keep it in the Great Lakes basin. Some others bottle it and ship it out of the region in great quantities. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Experts say one of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is water withdrawal. Water is taken from the Great Lakes for agriculture, industry, and public drinking supplies. Lester Graham reports there are many ways that water is used and shipped out of the Great Lakes basin, but few are more controversial than bottled water:

Transcript

Experts say one of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is water
withdrawal. Water is taken from the Great Lakes for agriculture,
industry, and public drinking supplies. Lester Graham reports there are
many ways that water is used and shipped out of the Great Lakes basin,
but few are more controversial than bottled water:


(Sound of bottling plant)


I’m watching big clear-blue water bottles, the kind you see on water coolers, are
bouncing along on a conveyer to be washed and then filled with water.
Chuck Swartzle is the President of Besco Water Treatment…


“Uh, we treat it – it’s well water – we treat it, purify it with reverse
osmosis, sanitize it, filter it and bottle it.”


Besco also bottles water in smaller containers, the kind you might buy at
the convenience store.


All of Besco’s customers are within the Great Lakes basin, so the water
will eventually make its way back to the lakes, but some bottlers
distribute water far outside the basin.


One of Pepsico’s Aquafina bottled water plants gets its water from the
Detroit River, which connects the upper Great Lakes to the lower lakes.
Aquafina’s bottled water is distributed inside and outside the basin. That
means Great Lakes water is being trucked away. It’s a net loss of water to the
basin.


That’s not anything new. Water from the Great Lakes basin in the form
of beer from Milwaukee or milk from Minnesota or any of the other
products you can think of that are mostly water are shipped far and wide
and have been for a long time, but some environmentalists say trucking bottled water
away is different. They argue it’s a lot like a recent attempt to take tanker ships
of Lake Superior water to Asia. It’s not like a value-added product that’s made
from water, it’s just water.


Bill Lobenherz is a lobbyist for the Michigan Soft Drink Association.
He says bottled water is a value-added product, just like the many others.


“Indeed, there’s a lot more water in lumber, for example, Christmas
trees, and sometimes a lot less value added to it too. You don’t have to
do that much to cut it and ship it. Cherries, baby food and other non-
consumable products like paint. What about the water we have to put in
the automobile radiators? I really don’t know that there is a distinction
there. It seems to be more of a misplaced perception than it is any kind
of environmental reality.”


“I guess I’m having a hard time getting my head around the difference
shipping water out in a truck-load of bottles and shipping it out by
tanker. What’s the real difference there?”


“I think the difference is that there’s the fear that if it’s by tanker in those
quantities, that it could be abused. If it’s in bottles, it’s really quite
controllable, because there’s so much more value added to put it in small
bottles.”


Not everyone is buying that argument.


Dave Dempsey is the Great Lakes advisor for the environmental group Clean Water Action.
He says the most recent debates about water withdrawals started when that shipping company
planned to take about 156-million gallons a year to Asia. Dempsey says a single new bottled
water plant trucks away even more than that.


“The Nestle’ project, a single project in Michigan that has been sited and
is operating takes 168-million gallons per year. So, the volumes can be
greater in bottles than in tankers.”


But that’s still not that much water compared to other uses.


According to figures in a report by the Great Lakes Commission, the
cities and industries around the Great Lakes withdraw more than 43
billion gallons a day. Much of it is used and returned to the lakes, but
nearly two billion gallons a day is lost. It’s not returned to the lakes
because it evaporates or it’s incorporated into products. Two billion
gallons a day makes the Nestle’ bottled water plant’s 168-million gallons
a year seem minor.


But Dave Dempsey argues there’s a more sinister concern. He believes
if water is treated like any other commodity, large corporations that can
profit from it will begin to horde it, and control it.


“You will hear bottled water companies say that they’re just another user
like a farmer or a manufacturer or even a city water supply, but they’re
not because they’re asserting private ownership of a public resource and
if we essentially allow that by not putting controls on the water-for-sale
industry now, I’m afraid the Great Lakes may become the world’s largest
privately owned reservoir.”


A recent agreement between the states and provinces around the Great
Lakes allows bottled water to be shipped out in bottles as large as five-
gallons, but some environmentalists say that’s a slippery slope. They say
corporations will soon be asking why just five gallons? Why not 55-
gallon barrels? And then, tankers.


The bottling industry says the environmentalists are making a big deal
out of nothing, and would do better spending their time teaching
everyone to conserve water better instead of complaining about someone
in another state quenching their thirst with a bottle of water from the
Great Lakes.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Developing Countries Get Hospital Castoffs

  • A street in Havana, Cuba. After more than 40 years of a U.S. economic embargo and more than a decade after the loss of their Soviet trading partners, Cubans have learned to improvise and make do with old stuff - cars, machines, and even medical equipment. (Photo by Ann Murray)

Tons of medical materials that normally would end up in U.S. landfills are being rescued, repackaged and sent to other countries. An aid group is working with local hospitals and volunteers to get surplus medical supplies to Latin America and the Caribbean. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray takes us on the trip from salvage to salvation:

Transcript

Tons of medical materials that normally would end up in U.S.
landfills are being rescued, repackaged and sent to other countries.
An aid group is working with local hospitals and volunteers to get
surplus medical supplies to Latin America and the Caribbean. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray takes us on the trip from
salvage to salvation.


(Sound of warehouse activities)


In a warehouse near Pittsburgh, Global Links staffers are preparing to load a shipment of medical aid into a forty-foot container bound for Cuba. Workers haul pallets of dialysis kits, mattresses, waiting room chairs and gurneys to the loading dock. Everything here has been carefully sorted, evaluated, and matched with requests from the Cuban Ministry of Health.


Kathleen Hower founded Global Links with two friends back in 1989. It used to operate out of their houses. Since then, Global Links has sent $110 million worth of medical aid, all of it requested by the receiving countries. About two-thirds of that has gone to Cuba.


“Cuba’s unique in so many ways; they’re very advanced medically, they do transplant surgery, they have a lot of doctors. There’s no shortage of physicians there. They’re very different than other countries.”


What Cuba shares with other developing countries is critical shortages of equipment and supplies.


(Sound of busy street)


Here in Havana, the streets are filled with Eisenhower-era cars and lined with shops that repair everything from pots to paperbacks. After more than forty years of a U.S. economic embargo and more than a decade after the loss of their Soviet trading partners, Cubans are masters of improvisation.


The same is true for the island’s medical community, says Sebastion Pererra, the former director of Cuba’s Center for Electromedicine.


PERERRA/TRANSLATOR: “The embargo has been like a school for us. It taught us how to keep working with the same machines and not have the identical parts to replace them.”


Pererra says parts and technical information from Global Links have helped keep old medical equipment going. They’ve also supported new programs in breast cancer screening and dialysis research.


MURRAY: “Has the equipment that Global Links sent to you saved lives?”


PERERRA/TRANSLATOR: “It is undeniable.”


Global Links sends materials to Cuba that other countries can’t use. That’s because medical care is not as advanced in many other developing countries.


Doctor Armando Pancorbo uses the salvaged equipment for minimally invasive surgery at the aging hospital where he works. He and his team have done nearly four thousand operations, using equipment and supplies that were thrown out by U.S. hospitals.


This morning, the O.R. is busy. Anesthesiologists prepare a middle-aged patient for gallbladder surgery while nurses set up sterilized instruments.


Back in Global Links’ Pittsburgh office, volunteers help with the labor-intensive job of packing supplies for shipping. Kristin Carreira says this work is helpful on two fronts.


“Our mission here is both humanitarian and environmental. Environmental because all of our medical supplies that we’re working on would have been put in an incinerator or landfill and so we’re really recycling in that sense.”


The American Hospital Association estimates that U.S. hospitals produce about three million tons of waste every year and they pay about three billion dollars to dispose of it. Many of the supplies that end up in the trash are opened but unused. Worries about liability, changes in technology, and a rash of government regulations account for much of the still-useful materials being thrown out.


Vicky Carse is a nurse who traveled to Cuba as a volunteer.


“Seeing people re-washing gloves where we just would open gloves and throw them away, drapes that we just open up and throw away. To see these people harbor these items, re-wash them and re-wash them because they don’t have supplies, just makes you value what you have.”


The medical community is beginning to take notice. More and more US hospitals are contacting aid organizations. Laura Brannen directs a joint environmental program for the American Hospital Association and the U.S. EPA. She says Global Links and similar groups offer hospitals much needed guidance.


“They provide the infrastructure around what can be used around the world. And without those guidelines, hospitals would be tossing this kind of materials because they don’t know where else to send it.”


Global Links founder Kathleen Hower is happy to set up the guide posts. She says we have to realize that we are all members of a much broader community – one that could use our help, even when it’s a matter of just sharing stuff we’d normally throw away.


For the GLRC, this is Ann Murray reporting.

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City Votes to Reduce Toxic Chemicals

  • Purchases and disposal of many common office supplies can lead to toxic chemicals escaping into the environment. The City of Buffalo has found a way to curb some of this leaching.

Buffalo has become the first city in the Great Lakes region
to pass a law aimed at curbing the amount of toxic chemicals entering the environment. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak reports… officials hope to accomplish this goal by changing their buying habits:

Transcript

Buffalo has become the first city in the Great Lakes region to pass a law aimed at curbing the amount of toxic chemicals entering the environment. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak reports, officials hope to accomplish this goal by changing their buying habits:


Every day, cities buy tons of office supplies and other products containing toxic chemicals. When these products are discarded, they eventually break down and sometimes leach toxins into the soil and water. The City of Buffalo recently adopted a policy to reduce purchasing of products containing Persistent Bio-Accumulative Toxins, or PBTs. But the decision could put more fiscal strain on a city that’s already in crisis. University at Buffalo Chemistry Professor Joe Gardella helped push for the law. He says a university study convinced the city it could both be fiscally and environmentally responsible.


“It doesn’t create additional exprenses, and, in fact, if one takes a long-term view of the fiscal impact, especially on the issue of creating markets for the recyclables that you’re trying to sell, there can be some really solid benefits to this,” said Gardella.


Under the new law, officials can only pay ten percent more for an alternative product. They say other costs will be reduced by eliminating some unneccessary purchases.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Joyce Kryszak.

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Consumers Stocking Up on Banned Pesticide

  • The pesticide diazinon is being phazed out by the EPA for being hazardous. Some gardeners are still buying it despite health warnings. (Photo by Scott Schopieray)

A powerful pesticide that’s popular with gardeners
and homeowners will no longer be sold starting in January, but that
hasn’t stopped people from stocking up on the chemical before it’s
pulled from shelves. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports:

Transcript

A powerful pesticide that’s popular with gardners and homeowners will no longer be
sold starting in January. But that hasn’t stopped people from stocking up on the
chemical before it’s pulled from the shelves. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Chris Lehman reports:


Diazinon, at one time, was the most widely used pesticide on lawns. It can
still be sold through the end of the year. But there’s no deadline for homeowners
to use up their supplies. So that’s led some people to stockpile the product. The
decision to ban diazinon was made during the final weeks of the Clinton Administration.
But the Environmental Protection Agency gave diazinon producers four years to phase it out.


Jay Feldman is director of the environmental group Beyond Pesticides. He says the EPA
should have banned diazinon outright instead of phasing it out gradually.


“When the agency identifies a hazard such as this, one that is particularly problematic
to children, it ought to institute a recall, get the product out of commerce, make sure
that people do not continue to use the product unwittngly.”


Officials at the EPA say over-exposure to diazinon can affect the nervous system. They
also say it poses a risk to birds.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.

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Point: Agreements Will Help Protect Great Lakes

  • The proposed Annex 2001 agreement is the subject of lively debate as to whether it will help or hinder the conservation of the Great Lakes (Photo by Jeremy Lounds)

In 1998, an Ontario company wanted to sell Lake Superior water overseas. Their proposal raised fears that Great Lakes water could be diverted with little oversight. Now, officials from the eight states and two provinces in the region have come up with two proposed agreements that would regulate new water diversion requests. The proposed agreements are known as the Annex 2001 Implementing Agreements. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Cameron Davis says the agreements are a good first step in protecting a cherished resource:

Transcript

In 1998 an Ontario company wanted to sell Lake Superior water overseas. Their
proposal raised fears that Great Lakes water could be diverted with little oversight.
Now, officials from the eight states and two provinces in the region have come up with
two proposed agreements that would regulate new water diversion requests. The proposed
agreements are known as the Annex 2001 Implementing Agreements. Great Lakes Radio Consortium
commentator Cameron Davis says the agreements are a good first step in protecting a cherished
resource:


When I was growing up, my family and I used to go to the beach every Sunday. As I stood
looking out over Lake Michigan, I was awed at how it seemed to go on forever. Today I know
better. The Great Lakes are a gift left from the glaciers thousands of years ago. That’s
because less than 1% of Great Lakes water is renewed every year from rainfall, snowmelt,
and groundwater recharge.


Two proposed agreements by the states and provinces would make diversions of Great Lakes water
to places outside of the Great Lakes a virtual impossibility.


The agreements look to be a vast improvement over current laws. First, federal law in the U.S.
allows a diversion only if every Great Lakes Governor approves. That seems like a tough standard
to meet, but in fact, it’s already allowed two diversions of Great Lakes water to take place. In
the 1990’s, diversions were approved to Pleasant Prairie in Wisconsin and another one to Akron,
Ohio. The water was used for municipal supplies.


Second, the proposed agreements are an improvement over the Boundary Waters Treaty – a pact
signed between the U.S. and Canada almost 100 years ago. The treaty doesn’t cover one very
important Great Lake: Lake Michigan. Because Lake Michigan is solely within the U.S. and not
shared with Canada, the treaty leaves the lake unprotected. This is a problem because Lake
Michigan is directly connected to Lake Huron. So water diverted out of Lake Michigan means
water diverted out of Lake Huron.


The agreements are a good first step, but they need to be stronger. For example, they require
regional approval for diversions of water that go outside of the basin of more than one million
gallons per day, but they don’t require regional approval for withdrawals of up to 5 million
gallons per day that stay in the Great Lakes. In addition, the draft agreements need to do a
better job at requiring water conservation before potential water withdrawals can be considered.


We have a choice. We can be against the agreements and keep the status quo or work to make
them even stronger. We need to work to protect our region’s water so that our kids can continue
to look out over the Great Lakes and see them for what they are: vast, magnificent, but fragile
natural treasures.


Host Tag: Cameron Davis is the executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation.

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