Cheering up Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Case of the Mondays

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson must have had a case of the Mondays. On a Monday in mid-January he posted this on Twitter:


He was at a loss for words. One helpful wag responded:


Now I think I understand what Dr. Tyson was getting at: Where has our sense of adventure gone? When you are an astrophysicist your priorities encompass galaxies.

Cheer up, Dr. Tyson. we have landed unmanned probes, one on the planet Mars and one on a motherfucking comet! I suppose it would have been cooler if Bruce Willis had landed on the comet and blown the sucker up but it was still goddam freaking awesome.

You know what else is freaking awesome, Dr. Tyson? What we humans have done here on earth in these past forty-five to fifty years.

“…if you look at what actually happened in my lifetime, the average per-capita income of the average person on the planet, in real terms, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. Lifespan is up by 30 percent in my lifetime. Child mortality is down by two-thirds. Per-capita food production is up by a third. And all this at a time when the population has doubled.” –Dr. Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist.

How cool is that, Dr. Tyson? Happy Monday.

We made these advances because when ideas have sex, innovation happens:

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Foodites Rejoice: Campbell’s Right to Tell…and Sell

rp_F160471_SpaghettiOs_New_Labels-0091.jpgHank Campbell, President of the American Council on Science and Health (and co-author of Science Left Behind), wrote an interesting (and intelligent) post at Science 2.0: “GMO Labeling Is A Smart Marketing Strategy.”

He notes that “anti-science groups are hailing [Campbell’s announcement about labeling GMOs on their products] as a victory. US Right To Know, an outreach group funded by organic food corporations and aided by the partisan attack site SourceWatch, is certainly declaring this a big win for their clients.”

It is not a win for the “Right to Know” folks, rather, according to Hank, it is “a marketing and policy move so savvy it will be taught in business schools for decades to come.” He lays out three reasons:

  1. No one worried about GMOs is eating Campbell’s Soup. It’s “processed” food.
  2. Campbell Soup Co. now has the very people who hate them defending them.
  3. No one who understands science is going to stop eating Campbell Soup.

No one worried about GMOs is eating Campbell’s Soup. It’s “processed” food.

On the first point Hank writes that by going against what other companies have attempted, which is removing GMO supplied ingredients, and flatly stating that their products aren’t going to change, Campbell’s got Foodites(1) such as Michael Pollan on their side. “…all without removing a thing from their food.”

And if any foodites, such as those who quote Michael Pollan’s, In Defense of Food, as though it were a sacred document, buy a Campbell’s product, it’s all to the good. “[Any] cans bought by the organic market as a show of support is a net gain…”

Campbell Soup Co. now has the very people who hate them defending them.

Exhibit A:

It will be interesting to see if, Michael Pollan– author, yellow corn journalist (2), and penner of languid linguistic amuse-bouches that foodites dutifully repeat as though they were really wisps of wisdom and not self-indulgent bits of twaddle such as: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”–will deign to buy a can of Campbell’s Soup. He might. Probably to use as a paper weight.

No one who understands science is going to stop eating Campbell Soup.

Yes. A can of Campbell’s Minestrone as a paperweight, because it’s only a foodlike substance.

“What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” – Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

What an extraordinary achievement indeed! Due to technological progress (that includes food technology) we are healthier, happier, wealthier, wiser, kinder, and freer than at any time in human history.

“The average person lives about a third longer than 50 years ago and buries two-thirds fewer of his or her children (and child mortality is the greatest measure of misery I can think of). The amount of food available per head has gone up steadily on every continent, despite a doubling of the population. Famine is now very rare….Polio, measles, yellow fever, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, typhus — they killed our ancestors in droves, but they are now rare diseases.” – Matt Ridley, Reasons to be Cheerful

Let us ditch what the French call a nostalgie de la boue – ‘nostalgia for mud’– this idea that things were brighter, better, and healthier in the past. Between 1933 and 1935, more than 5,000 children in the United States alone died from diarrhea and enteritis, due primarily caused by food-borne pathogens. Today, the rate is 1/2 of 1% of what it was in the 1930s for Americans of all ages.

I don’t know if Campbell’s has made the right decision. I do know that because of today’s food processes I am healthier than my grandparents. Sure there are problems, but because of science, the trend is in the right direction, in spite of and not because of the Foodites.

Footnotes:

  1. Foodite is a portmanteau of Foodie and anti-technology Luddite
  2. A form of Yellow journalism skewed toward food and deplores food technology

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Let’s Get Vertical: Factory Farming

Dickson Despommier shares his ideas about how ...

Dickson Despommier shares his ideas about how “vertical farming” can help reduce hunger by changing the way we use land for agriculture. photography by kris krüg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Agriculture has one hell of a footprint, occupying 37.6 percent of earth’s land area, or about 0.7 hectares (1.7 acres) per person to feed our world’s current population. “There is no activity that humankind engages in that has a bigger impact on the planet than agriculture,” Jack Bobo, Chief of Biotechnology and Textile Trade in the Department of State’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs wrote. “This is true in terms of impacts on land and water resources [agriculture accounts for some 70% of our freshwater use (PDF)] as well as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.”  Dr. Pamela Ronald agrees, “The worst thing for the environment is farming. It doesn’t matter if it is organic [or conventional]…You have to go in and destroy everything.”

We humans have reduced our agricultural footprint; while both the world population and productivity have increased the area devoted to agriculture has decreased. Today’s agriculture’s land use of 0.7 ha./person is a monumental improvement on the  land needs of  hunter-gatherer societies of about 1000 ha./person.

The increasing agricultural productivity continues. According to Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, “From one hectare, an American farmer in 1900 could provide calories or protein for a year for 3 people.” By the turn of the 21st century, the top farmers could feed 80 people for a year from the same area. This has freed up agricultural land. In fact, Ausubel announced last year that the world may have reached (or nearly reached) “peak farmland.”

“Humanity now stands at Peak Farmland, and the 21st century will see release of vast areas of land [PDF], hundreds of millions of hectares,” Ausubel writes, “more than twice the area of France for nature.” The trend in the percentage of land in agriculture has been downward over the past five years. How redundant land will be used lies beyond the scope of this post. If it is not needed to grow food or fiber what will the land be converted into? (If in fact we can continue the trend)

Obviously, not needing animals to plow and produce manure, better targeted pesticides, irrigation, bioengineering, and synthetic fertilization of crops have had much to do with increased yields. The tradeoff is more impact on a yet smaller area to keep wild land from conversion to agriculture. But, yes, this system  has meant problems, including runoff from the fields polluting waterways. It is a smaller footprint than it otherwise would have been. “If we were to try to feed the present population of 6.8 billion people using the methods of 1960,”Matt Ridley writes, “we would have to cultivate 82% of the land area of the planet instead of 34%…That would mean ploughing an extra area the size of South America minus Chile.”

Additionally, growing food and fiber where it grows best and trading for other food, fiber, and goods has also lowered the overall footprint. Certain areas have a comparative advantage for growing a specific crop; so the best practice is to grow food and fiber where it grows the best, usually a rural area, and then transport it to an urban area. Why grow bananas in Reykjavik when you can buy them for less from South America? This system of using an area’s comparative advantage for growing and then shipping has been around a long time. The Romans grew much of their food in North Africa and shipped it across the Mediterranean.Today huge container ships which lower the cost per mile of shipping goods have contributed much to the lowering of the carbon footprint.

Could our agricultural footprint be reduced even further?

Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier thinks so. He made his case in 2009 at ScientificAmerican.com, “Because each of us requires a minimum of 1,500 calories a day, civilization will have to cultivate another Brazil’s worth of land—2.1 billion acres—if farming continues to be practiced as it is today. That much new, arable earth simply does not exist.” He quotes Mark Twain: “Buy land. They’re not making it any more.” Additionally, he says, farming pollutes places with “fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and silt.” He envisions vertical farms in skyscrapers. The Economist magazine wrote about his ideas, “A wide variety of designs for vertical farms have been created by architectural firms. (The idea can arguably be traced back as far as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built around 600BC.) So far, however, the idea remains firmly on the drawing board. Would it really work?”

The idea so far works only on a limited basis (without high rises) for niche markets. For example, in Japan, “a plant physiologist,” writes Allison Floyd, “has turned a former Sony semiconductor factory into a farm illuminated by special LED fixtures made by GE. At 25,000 square feet, the farm is nearly half the size of a football field and, since the fixtures emit light at wavelengths that spur plant growth, already is producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.” According to “Shigeharu Shimamura, the expert behind the farm…the farm is 100 times more productive for its size than an outdoor growing operation.”

Moving the growing areas of where food and fiber are produced from rural to urban could make redundant some or all arable land currently used for agriculture. The first to move indoors would be the fast-growing, high-value plants. “Obviously, it won’t be apple trees, but arugula, sprouts, basil, cilantro,” Dr. Kevin Folta told Floyd.

The appeal of moving growing food closer to where people live is obvious. As already noted, agriculture occupies nearly 40 percent of the earth’s land area, whereas cities occupy only 0.5 percent [PDF], and now hold more than half of the world’s human population. Demographers expect by the year 2050 that 80% of us will live in cities.

There is a feeling of déjà vu to all of this. “Perhaps the most celebrated past local ‘urban farmers’ were the Parisian maraîchers,” says Pierre Desrochers, co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet. “Through the use of about one-sixth of the city’s area, supporting technologies (from greenhouses to cloches and cold frames) and very long hours, they grew more than 100,000 tons of produce annually in the late 19th century.” They exported some of their produce to London. By the turn of the 20th century however, better transportation able to deliver food and fiber from places better suited to growing coupled with better paying job opportunities for the workers killed their market and made the Parisian truck farm system unsustainable.

Whether we build farms within old factories or stack them vertically, we still need to make the enterprise profitable. Economic sustainability, more than any technological problem, remains the highest hurdle for farming factories.

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