Tag Archives: Food supply

Some good science and thinking related books for you

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-07-03-amA Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos

This is a concept that has always fascinated me, ever since reading some stuff about the Periodic Table of Elements. Check it out:

Over the last forty years, scientists have uncovered evidence that if the Universe had been forged with even slightly different properties, life as we know it – and life as we can imagine it – would be impossible. Join us on a journey through how we understand the Universe, from its most basic particles and forces, to planets, stars and galaxies, and back through cosmic history to the birth of the cosmos. Conflicting notions about our place in the Universe are defined, defended and critiqued from scientific, philosophical and religious viewpoints. The authors’ engaging and witty style addresses what fine-tuning might mean for the future of physics and the search for the ultimate laws of nature. Tackling difficult questions and providing thought-provoking answers, this volumes challenges us to consider our place in the cosmos, regardless of our initial convictions.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-12-09-amGetting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks

Understanding risk, and misunderstanding it, became a major topic of discussion, initially in economics, about the time that I was working in a major think tank where much of this discussion was happening. Risk perception had been there as a topic for a while (the head risk-thinker where I worked had already won a Nobel on the topic) but it became a popular topic when a couple of economists figured out how to get the message out to the general public.

In my view, the modern analsyis of risk perception is deeply flawed in certain ways, but very valuable in other ways. This book is very relevant, and very current, and is the go to place to assess health related risk issues, and I think it is very good. I do not agree with everything in it, but smart people reading a smart book … that’s OK, right?

Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Does BPA threaten our health? How safe are certain dietary supplements, especially those containing exotic herbs or small amounts of toxic substances? Is the HPV vaccine safe? We depend on science and medicine as never before, yet there is widespread misinformation and confusion, amplified by the media, regarding what influences our health. In Getting Risk Right, Geoffrey C. Kabat shows how science works?and sometimes doesn’t?and what separates these two very different outcomes.

Kabat seeks to help us distinguish between claims that are supported by solid science and those that are the result of poorly designed or misinterpreted studies. By exploring different examples, he explains why certain risks are worth worrying about, while others are not. He emphasizes the variable quality of research in contested areas of health risks, as well as the professional, political, and methodological factors that can distort the research process. Drawing on recent systematic critiques of biomedical research and on insights from behavioral psychology, Getting Risk Right examines factors both internal and external to the science that can influence what results get attention and how questionable results can be used to support a particular narrative concerning an alleged public health threat. In this book, Kabat provides a much-needed antidote to what has been called “an epidemic of false claims.”

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-19-43-amFeeding the World: Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century (Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service Series)

In the not too distant past, it was understood that we, the humans, were going to run out of food within a certain defined time range. This actually happened several times, this estaimte, followed by the drop-dead date coming and going, and the species continued. Kind of embarassing.

Historically, that estimate of when we would run out of food has been wrong for one, two, or all of three reasons. First, the rate of population increase can be misestimated. We now know a lot more about how that works, and still probably can’t get it right, but in the past, this has been difficult to guess. Second, it hasn’t always been about food production, but rather, distribution or other aspects of the food supply. Right now, the two big factors that need to be addressed in the future are probably commitment to meat and waste. Third, and this is the one factor that people usually think of first, is how much food is produced given the current agricultural technology. That third factor has changed, in the past, several times, usually increasing but sometimes decreasing, depending on the region or crop. Sadly, this is probably also the factor that will change least (in a positive direction) in the future, even given the supposed promise of GMOs, which have so far had almost no effect.

Anyway, this book is about this topic:

The astounding success of agricultural research has enabled farmers to produce increasingly more—and more kinds—of food throughout the world. But with a projected 9 billion people to feed by 2050, veteran researcher Gale Buchanan fears that human confidence in this ample supply, especially in the US, has created unrealistic expectations for the future. Without a working knowledge of what types and amounts of research produced the bounty we enjoy today, we will not be prepared to support the research necessary to face the challenges ahead, including population growth, climate change, and water and energy scarcity.

In this book, Buchanan describes the historical commitment to research and the phenomenal changes it brought to our ability to feed ourselves. He also prescribes a path for the future, pointing the way toward an adequately funded, more creative agricultural research system that involves scientists, administrators, educators, farmers, politicians, and consumers; resides in one “stand alone” agency; enjoys a consistent funding stream; and operates internationally.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-9-22-54-amModern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9

Gene editing and manipulation has come a long way. We may actually be coming to the point where methods have started to catch up with desire, and applications may start taking up more of the news cycle. We’ll see. Anyway:

Would you change your genes if you could? As we confront the ‘industrial revolution of the genome’, the recent discoveries of Crispr-Cas9 technologies are offering, for the first time, cheap and effective methods for editing the human genome. This opens up startling new opportunities as well as significant ethical uncertainty. Tracing events across a fifty-year period, from the first gene splicing techniques to the present day, this is the story of gene editing – the science, the impact and the potential. Kozubek weaves together the fascinating stories of many of the scientists involved in the development of gene editing technology. Along the way, he demystifies how the technology really works and provides vivid and thought-provoking reflections on the continuing ethical debate. Ultimately, Kozubek places the debate in its historical and scientific context to consider both what drives scientific discovery and the implications of the ‘commodification’ of life.

Genetics and Food Security

There is a food crisis sneaking up on us right now. A lot of them, actually. A lot of little one, some big ones. There are always places in the world where food has become scarce for at time, and people starve or move. You’ve heard of the “”Syrian refugee crisis,” and the often extreme reactions to it in Europe and among some in the US. That started out as a food crisis, brought on by human pollution induced global warming in an already arid agricultural zone.

Nearly similar levels of climate change related pressure on agricultural systems elsewhere has led to very different outcomes, sometimes more adaptive outcomes that won’t (at least for now) lead to major geopolitical catastrophes as we have now in the Levant and elsewhere in West Asia. What’s the difference? The difference is how agriculture is done.

Are GMOs a solution? Are GMOs safe, and can the produce a small or medium size revolution in crop productivity? What about upgrading traditional agriculture to “industrial agriculture”?

And speaking of GMOs, what is the latest in GMO research? How should GMOs be regulated, by the method they are produced, or by the novel or altered traits they have? How do we communicate about GMO research and GMO crops? What about labeling?

These and many other questions are addressed ad Mike Haubrich, me, and Anastasia Bodnar talk about “Genetics and Food Security” on the latest installment of the Ikonokast Podcast. GO HERE to listen to the podcast. Also, if you go there, you can see a picture of Anastasia holding her latest GMO product, a corn plant that can see and talk!

Also, Iknokast has a Facebook Group. Please click here to go and joint it!

And, if you have not yet listened to our first podcast, with author and science advocate Shawn Otto, click here to catch up!

The Coming Food Crisis And What To Do About It

According to the best available research, we are going to have to double food supplies, globally, by 2050. Think about that for a moment. Children born today will be in their 40s at a time that we need to have already doubled food production, yet during the last 20 years we have seen only a 20 percent increase in food supply. Assuming a steady rate of increase in production (which might be optimistic) we should expect to fall far short of demand over the next few decades. This is a problem. The problem is expected to most severely affect poorer people, people in less developed nations, and poor farmers, but if the entire world is double digit percentage points short of food, almost no one is going to get by unscathed. And, at some point, when nearly everyone is seeing some sort of food shortage or extraordinarily high prices, the totally unscathed are going to start looking pretty tasty to the rest of us.

eat-the-rich_11-26-11Also, agricultural production, whether for food or biofuel, has a fairly large Carbon footprint, both by reducing natural Carbon sinks and by using fossil fuels at a fairly high rate. Doubling production of food would presumably involve increasing these effects, unless alternative approaches are developed. So even if we solve the problem of production, we might exacerbate the problem of human caused climate change. Let us not even speak of sea level rise; Over the coming century we expect sea levels to rise sufficiently to flood, either regularly or permanently, some of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, which would seriously dampen efforts to increase productivity.

And water. This will all require more water, when we are facing increasing shortages of water.

How do we address this problem? Will Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) save the day? Are there other approaches to quickly increase agricultural output? Can we eat different foods that are less difficult or costly to produce?

See: The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization

See: GMOs Are Interesting

Emily_CassidyEmily Cassidy knows some of these answers. Emily is a scientist with with over five years of experience working on land use, agriculture, and the impacts of growing biofuels vis-a-vis developing food crops. She is currently a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Earlier she worked as a scientist with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, measuring impacts of coastal activities. Her Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota involved detailed modeling of global food availability, which involved developing a new index to quantify the number of people fed per hectare of cropland. This research was widely disseminated in mainstream media.

Recently, Emily produced a report for EWG that looks at the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in addressing the world’s food supply. You can get the report here. I had a few questions, so I interviewed Emily about this report as well as the larger issue of humans running out of food during the present lifetime of so many of us.

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Question: The amount of space, energy, and other resources dedicated to the production of meat is enormous. According to your EWG report, producing meat requires three-quarters of the agricultural land in use. For every one calorie of meat we produce we displace about 10 calories of plant based food. You also note that there is a huge amount of waste in the food stream, with about a third (by weight, about one quarter of the calories) lost. The US tosses closer to 40 percent, and of all the forms of food, a disproportionately large percent of meat is wasted. Having recently purchased, twice in a row (apparently you can fool me twice) “fresh” chicken at my local not-very-good grocery store that was rotten the next day, I was wondering where the waste in the food stream, especially for meat, was concentrated, and if we could help solve this problem by distributing meat primarily in frozen form.

On food waste in the US, especially meat, do you have a breakdown of where the meat is wasted? I wonder if a switch to having almost all meat frozen and sold in frozen form would reduce a lot of waste.

Emily: Meat production takes a massive environmental toll, and when we waste meat, we’re wasting all the resources used to produce it. About half of the meat wasted in the U.S. and Europe is tossed at home. Better meal planning and freezing meat could be a big step to reducing household waste. Although supermarkets have an important role to play in reducing waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, only about 15 percent of meat waste in the U.S. occurs at supermarkets.

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Emily’s report pretty much slams GMOs. The report states:

Proponents of GE crops claim that they are essential to “feed the world,” but recent evidence indicates that so far, GE crops have How to feed the world. [GMOs have] not increased crop yields enough to significantly contribute to food security…In recent decades, in fact, the dominant source
of yield improvements has been traditional crossbreeding, and that is likely to continue for the
foreseeable future. Relying on genetic engineering to double food supplies by 2050 would require a huge leap in biotechnology and doubling the recent yield trends of crops.

Question: Are there any examples of GMOs being developed that will help with this that are not just vague promises? In other words, is there any tangible namable project or potential project you know of that would contribute to that “giant leap in biotechnology”?

Emily: “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans represent over 80 percent of the acreage growing GMOs, so it’s clear that the industry’s focus since the 1970s has been on genetic modification for herbicide tolerance. These crops haven’t improved yields because there are inherent biophysical trade-offs between productivity and pest resistance. This is why I wouldn’t bet the farm on biotechnology generating massive yield improvements. It’s similar to the live-fast die-young principle in evolutionary biology; plants are limited by their resources and can’t be good at everything at once.

Not all forms of genetic modification are created equal. There are some projects which could be promising and aim to modify a plant’s genome to improve the efficiency photosynthesis. But it seems to me that most genetic modifications only see benefits in the short term, until evolution catches up to the new genome. For example, insects have evolved tolerance to Bt crops, and U.S. Farmers have been told to lay off of them.

Where I do see exciting research that could really improve food security is the cross breeding of often ignored “orphan crops.” Just recently a new kind of drought-tolerant bean was bred by combining a modern bean with a variety traditionally grown by communities in the American Southwest. We should focus efforts and funding on improving the yields of nutritious food crops, not crops that mostly go to animal feed and biofuels.

See: The Case for Vegan Hot Dogs

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Question: On a related matter, how much does the the nature of the research itself ruin GMOs as a potential source of a modest or even minor agricultural revolution? It seems to me that helping poor farmers to be less poor will always lose to helping big corporations make more money, and the big corporations seem to be doing or funding most of the research. Is this a general pattern for ag research in general? In the old days big government money went into public universities to develop crops, technology, and methods that were available to all. The current system seems different. Is this a problem?

Emily: Universities are increasingly reliant on private industry for agricultural research funding, and companies are a lot more interested in making money than improving the lives of poor people. Private spending for agricultural research is more than twice the public expenditures. Unless public research funding for agriculture improves, the future of our food system will be heavily influenced by companies seeking to make a profit.

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Question: I think a lot of people assume that technology will solve many of our big problems, such as food shortages and climate change. People are divided mostly into two groups: GMO Frankenplants will rise out of the ground and take us in the dead of night (I exaggerate slightly), or they will fix the future. You are suggesting, it seems, that neither of these scenarios is likely. Bottom line, what does your report tell us about GMOs and the medium term problem of people, the poor farmers first, not having enough food?

Emily: There’s a myth that I often hear in Washington, that GMOs help the world’s poorest. If you really look into the evidence though, there’s no support for it. That’s why I wrote EWG report, to address ways to help small farmers, which is the real key to helping the world’s poorest. I’m not anti-GMO but I think we should be honest about their contribution to global food security and improving the livelihoods of poor people.

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Question: Current research suggests we need to double our food supply by 2050. But we’ve heard that before. In every decade there are predictions about future population growth or future agricultural productivity that suggest catastrophe, and we’ve passed many of those due dates for an expected Malthusian apocalypse. Is this projection different?

Emily: Malthus assumed population growth would continue without limits. We know now that as people have more income, they generally have less children. Another result of people being wealthier us that they demand more meat and dairy. Recent research has shown that population will increase by about 30 percent by 2050, yet demand for crops is estimated to increase by 100 percent. This difference means that demand for meat and dairy is a bigger driver of crop demand than population.. We also have to keep in mind that many countries are starting to adopt biofuels mandates. Tim Searchinger recently estimated that if all countries met their food-based biofuels targets, it would be the equivalent of removing about 30 percent of calories out of the food system. So depending on biofuels mandates, crop production may have to more than double to meet demands.These policies clearly threaten global food security.

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Emily’s report makes a series of specific recommendations that will close some of that huge gap in productivity vs. demand. She doesn’t mention eating the rich, but she does have a few other worthy suggestions. Eliminating food waste, shifting away from biofuels, and changing diets are all on the menu. So far, GMOs are not. I recommend that you read it and get working on this right away.

Check out: The First Earth Day, an epoch journey into politics, explosions, folk music, and old boats floating on stinking rivers.

Forum: Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy

I recently wrote a post called “Did you ever wonder how you are going to die?” which was my response to a forum at the Humphrey Center, University of Minnesota, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy: How Citizens, Scientists, and Public Health Advocates Can Partner to Forge a Better Future“.

It was a great forum, with sessions moderated by my friend Don Shelby, and including an absolutely excellent group of speakers and discussants. Every single one of the talks was excellent, and the panel discussions were amazing.

It is a little long, 2 hours and 47 minutes, but it is worth watching every bit of it. The Surgeon General couldn’t be there but he beamed himself in via satellite, and gave a great big-picture talk on the effect of food systems and the public’s health. Richard Salvador, director of the UCS Food and Environment program (30:20) gave a great talk in which he made a very important point about the recent evolution of our food supply system, and touched on points I often make when teaching about the evolution of human diet. I plan to use his talk in class in the future. RT Rybak, (53:30) Mayor of Minneapolis until the last election (he did not run for re-election) is one of the best mayors anyone ever had anywhere, and while he was in office spent considerable effort supporting and developing local food growing programs. Following his talk, during the session and later on during post-forum conversations at the reception and dinner, it was often re-stated that “the first thing you need to do as a city concerned with healthy food supplies is to get a mayor like RT Rybak.”

The forum discussion started around 1:10, and there is too much there for me to summarize. Paula Daniels said some stuff that compelled me to hunter her down and ask more questions after the event. Pakau Hang was the audience’s favorite, with her discussion of dealing with the food supply from the point of view of a community that provides much of our locally grown food in the Twin Cities. Edward Ehlinger, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Health blew me and everyone else away with his high level of discussion and clear and present inspirational competence. Shawn Otto, who was not part of the forum but with whom I was sitting, noted later in conversation that Governor Mark Dayton had done an excellent job putting truly outstanding people in important positions in the Minnesota government, Ehlinger being an example of that. But it was all good, just watch it. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy (UCS) gave a great summary at the end.

I also enjoyed meeting my internet friend Michael Halpern, and having a long and engaging conversation with UCS senior analyst Pallavi Phartiyal.

Background information on the forum is HERE. A video of the entire thing is at that site as well as below, watch it!

Then, GO HERE and join or donate to the Union of Concerned Scientists!

The Problem With The Global Food Supply: New Research

Emily S Cassidy, Paul C West, James S Gerber and Jonathan A Foley, from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, have produced a very important study for IOP Science Environmental Research Letters. (This is OpenAccess so you can access it openly!) You know Emily as one of the participants in our CONvergence panel on food last July. The research Emily and her colleagues do is some of the most important work being done right now, because it is about the food supply.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe bottom line is this: When we look at our food supply, we find that a large amount of what is grown in agricultural fields does not make it into the stomachs of people. There is a lot of waste, there are problems with delivery and distribution, and so on. But what this study looks at is the percentage of potential calories that go to non-food final products, or do get into our diets but do so in a way that significantly reduces the efficiency of the system. There has been a huge increase (percentage wise) in how much field crop is used for biofuels instead of food, but the total amount now is still only 4%. Also, one could argue that this is good use of field crops if the production of biofuels reduces carbon emissions (which is only partly the case). More importantly, a huge amount of the corn and other crops (but mainly corn) that is grown is used as animal feed, and only about 12% of that, in terms of calories, ends up in the human diet. The reduction is because as we move up trophic levels, energy is taken out of the flow.

This graphic from Cassidy et al shows the distribution of calories across food and non-food destinations:

Figure 2. Calorie delivery and losses from major crops. Calories delivered are shown in green (this includes plant and animal calories) and calories that are lost to meat and dairy conversion as well as biofuels and other uses are shown in red.
Figure 2. Calorie delivery and losses from major crops. Calories delivered are shown in green (this includes plant and animal calories) and calories that are lost to meat and dairy conversion as well as biofuels and other uses are shown in red.

The graphic at the top of the post is also from the paper, and has this caption: “Figure 1. Calorie delivery fraction per hectare. The proportions of produced calories that are delivered as food are shown.” The thing to note here is the unevenness across the globe in efficiency of calorie production-to-plate. There seems to be a latitude effect, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the environment and seasonality. But the largest contributor to this variation in efficiency is probably simply the amount of meat in regional diets. As Emily points out in the video that accompanies the paper, even small changes in dietary practices can result in large changes in ultimate agricultural productivity.

We, as a species, need to eat less meat. In particular, certain groups of people, like Americans, need to eat less meat. So let’s do that: Eat less meat!

As an aside, Emily is a friend and colleague and I’ve been really impressed with her work and have been very excited to see these important results coming out. Go Emily! (And co-authors, of course.)

Cassidy, Emily, West, Paul, Gerber, James, & Foley, Jonathan (2013). Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare IOP Science, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015