Tag Archives: food

Toxic Beaches

algal bloom

algal bloom

Beaches in several counties on Florida’s Atlantic Coast are currently closed due to the presence of slimy, malodorous and most importantly toxic algae. The algae growth comes from nutrient laden water being released from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding. For the back story read on.

Thomas Malthus was a English cleric who in 1798 published an essay which suggested that human disaster loomed due to over population. He postulated that population grew logarithmically [1,2,4,8,16…] whereas food production only grows arithmetically [1,2,3,4,5…] Malthus predicted famine and starvation were the only possible outcomes without controlling population growth.

The Malthusian Catastrophe of course didn’t come about. Although population is growing logarithmically agricultural practices have been able to sustain burgeoning human populations. Improved tools, irrigation, mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides,plant breeding and ever larger farms averted the catastrophe.

An important agricultural innovation was called the Green Revolution of the 1950s-1960s. Food production was increased by careful selection of plant cultivars which responded favorably to large increases of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizers. Application at rates far above what a crop could actually absorb did result in increased production, but resulted in fertilizer run-off. Increased profits from the crops offset the wasted fertilizer.

But everything goes somewhere. The excess fertilizer washes off the farmland and into adjacent low areas to rivers and lakes, and ultimately into the oceans. Just as the fertilizer increases crop production in farm fields, it increases algal growth in the rivers and lakes.

The Atlantic beaches in South Florida are being fouled with algal blooms from water draining from Lake Okeechobee. The fertilizer laden water is the result of run-off from sugar cane fields which have replaced much of the Everglades.

Besides the inconvenience and costs associated with lost tourism dollars, there is significant secondary environmental damage. After an algae bloom comes an algae crash. As the algae dies off it decomposes aerobically. That means it consumes the Oxygen in the water. The same Oxygen that all the animals require, from the simplest aquatic insects up to and including all the fish.

In certain locales there are “dead zones” with little if any animal life. All the coastal areas of the US, including the Great Lakes, are plagued by dead zones at the mouths of major rivers. They are know scientifically as hypoxic (low-Oxygen) zones and range in size from less than a square mile to over 25,000 square miles. The largest is essentially all of the Baltic Sea. The hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is about 7,000 square miles

Around the world there a several hundred of these sterile areas. We have averted the Malthusian Catastrophe for us, but created a catastrophe for the native flora and fauna of the planet.

Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a

Petri Patties – Lab Grown Meat

Even though we have yet to recover from the current recession, we still lead the world in economic might and that is reflected in our high rates of consumption of everything from crude oil to meat. Both of these commodities contribute to our exaggerated contribution to global warming.

As other countries expand their economies, that is become more wealthy, they tend to eat more meat. China in 1961 consumed four kilograms per person. By 2001 that jumped to fifty-four kilograms. Currently half of all pork produced in the world is consumed in China. By comparison the US eats over one hundred twenty kilos of meat per person per year. By the year 2050 global meat consumption is estimated to double, from the current 230 to 465 million tons.

The connection between meat consumption and wealth is easy to see. Protein from meat is expensive. The cheaper alternative comes from diet that balances beans and grains to provide complete protein – nutritious but bland. So what’s the harm if you can afford meat? Two factors; personal health effects such as heart disease correlate with high meat diets, and meat production contributes to global warming.

Enter the lab burger,stage left – PETA has a bounty out for the first practical lab grown meat. A study done a couple of years ago suggests that if meat could be “grown” in the lab, about 50 per cent less energy would be used, virtually no land would be needed, and ninety per cent less green house gases would be emitted compared to traditional agricultural methods. These environmental improvements result from considerable decreases in methane release from ruminants and decreased deforestation not needed for feed; corn and soybeans, and fodder; grass from pastures.

We now have a Petri patty, not practical by any measure but at least the proof of concept has been achieved. Last month a celebrity chef in London, England prepared the world’s first and only hamburger made from meat grown in cell culture in a laboratory in the Netherlands. The idea of lab meat is not new. As early as pre-world war II, Winston Churchill wrote about the possibility. He was concerned that a war which resulted in a blockade of the UK could threaten the population with starvation.

The process is simple in principle but extremely difficult in practice. The simple explanation: take a muscle cell from a cow, stimulate the cell to divide in a nutrient broth, and voilà! The lab burger. In practice the process took several years and over four million dollars. Tissue harvested from a carcass is first treated with an enzyme to remove connective tissue and release the muscle cells. The cells are cultured in fetal bovine serum, a fluid taken from slaughtered calves. Alternative cell culture media exist but performed poorly. Because the cells lack any vasculature the cells can only be grown in thin films. Also methods had to be developed to “exercise” the developing muscle tissue.

One final problem is physical, the cells are colorless and without fat so the lab meat was colored with beetroot juice and cooked in butter and oil. For cultured meat to become a real alternative it has to be a whole lot cheaper, redder and fattier.

Ocean Acidification and Global Warming

The planet passed another milestone this week, nothing dramatic just a way point towards the inexorable collapse of ocean fisheries. The milestone is the the fact that the atmosphere now is at 400 parts per million (PPM) Carbon Dioxide, a condition not seen in over 3 million years. Whereas the composition of the atmosphere and climate change slowly over time without human intervention, the unprecedented change now is happening faster than has ever been seen before.

Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are adding Carbon Dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere at a geometrically increasing rate. Global_Carbon_Emissions.svg This was happening long before the recent technological advances which have increased the rate that we can produce oil and gas here in the United States. Those advances may look good for energy independence but serve to exacerbate the rate of global warming hence climate change via the release of CO2 to the atmosphere.

If you wondered why I mentioned the ocean earlier here’s why. Of the CO2 added each year to the atmosphere about a quarter is absorbed by the oceans. A lot of gases dissolve in water. If oxygen didn’t dissolve in water, there would be no fish in the seas. But CO2 is unique among atmospheric gases because not only does it dissolve, it also reacts. Carbon Dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid.
This is the same stuff of soda pop, it adds tartness to a beverage. It is not a problem for us because we have systems in our bodies which can buffer, basically neutralize, the acidity. No such system exists in the open oceans. If you add more CO2 to the oceans they become more acidic. And this can be a problem of catastrophic proportions.

The shells of many many organisms will not form or actually dissolve in the presence of too much acidity, from the littlest limpets to the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. And herein lies the possibility of a catastrophe. The coral reefs are the nurseries of the ocean.Coral_reef_locations It is here where the food chain begins, and it is here where the ocean fisheries will end if the corals die off. They are already stressed by higher ocean temperatures. Caribbean corals are experiencing a condition known as bleaching, actually dieing. Increased acidity can add to the die-off.

And now there is evidence of acidity impacting ocean organisms. For ocean organisms, the canary in the coal mine is a little known group of animals called sea butterflies. LimacinaHelicinaNOAA Shell thinning among the sea butterflies is occurring making them more susceptible to predation. They occupy the antarctic ocean. Gases are more soluble in cold water so it is not surprising that the effects of acidification of the ocean will be observed in the antarctic ocean first. Just as the canary is more sensitive to toxic gases, the sea butterfly in the antarctic ocean is more sensitive to acidity.

The question becomes just how long do we go on polluting the atmosphere and the oceans? How much damage to the biosphere is enough to convince us to change our ways? H. L. Mencken said it best: It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant, and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.

Exploding Fertilizer and a Dead Zone

Last week saw a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant is West, Texas. Several city blocks near the plant were leveled by the explosion, hundreds were injured and over a dozen people killed. The ultimate cause of the explosion has yet to be determined and may never be known exactly but what is known is that several hundred tons of Ammonium Nitrate had been stored there.

Accidental detonation of Ammonium Nitrate stores are rare but when they do occur they are deadly. The most recent before the West, Texas plant involved a fertilizer manufacturing plant in Iowa in 1994. There an explosion killed four and injured a couple of dozen. The granddaddy of all fertilizer explosions occurred in Texas City, Texas in 1947. A freighter in the port of Texas City carrying over two thousand tons of Ammonium Nitrate exploded, leveling the city. The explosion which knocked people off there feet in Galveston ten miles away, killed almost a thousand and injured many thousands more.

These accidents are tragic but accidents just the same. More hideous are intentional explosions such as Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb in Oklahoma City. He used about 3 tons of fertilizer to destroy the Murrah Federal Building, in the process causing hundreds of millions of dollars of property loss and killing 168 people including 19 preschool children.

So if Ammonium Nitrate is so dangerous, why so much of it? Because as noted it is fertilizer, and a very important one at that. Historically nitrogen from animal dung has been applied to crops. Addition of Nitrogen to the soil improves plant growth, in fact without Nitrogen plants don’t grow at all.

Early in the nineteenth century a concentrated form of Nitrogen fertilizer called Chilean Saltpeter (a form of Nitrate) was obtained from South America. Later a process for manufacturing Ammonium Nitrate synthetically known as the Haber process, was developed in Germany. This process has since been employed world wide and is a key to both large scale agriculture but also large scale explosive manufacturing. Nitrate from the Haber process is used in modern explosives such as dynamite, TNT, and other even more potent munitions.

So Nitrate in explosives is bad, at least the lethality aspect is bad, but Nitrate in fertilizers is good? Up to a point yes, but too much fertilizer used as fertilizer can be bad. When any form of Nitrogen is applied to soil some of it is taken up into plants. If the applied fertilizer is in a soluble form it can wash from the soil into rivers, lakes, and water supplies. Too much Nitrate in drinking water can cause infant deaths due to a condition call Blue Baby Syndrome.

The ultimate insult to the environment from too much Nitrate in waterways is the production of algal blooms. Natural decomposition of the algae consumes oxygen in the water which can kill virtually all aquatic organisms. Every year, a dead zone develops at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone is a hypoxic region, a region with little or no dissolved oxygen. The size of the region varies from year to year, but covers thousands of square miles in the late summer.

As in so many other aspects of life, too much of good thing can cause harm. We need to be good to our mother (Earth). She’s all we’ve got.

Go Eat Bugs!

Last year the world population passed the 7 billion mark. Population projections out to 2100 rise as high as 15 billion or drop to 5 billion. The middle estimate for the future is for population growth to level out at about 10 billion people on earth. That will require a considerable increase in the production of essentials such as food and water. Further complicating the future is the fact energy consumption is growing even faster than population as China, India and other developing countries seek a life style similar to the United States.

Just to feed the future at the current rate where billions go to bed every night hungry will require 40 percent more food and water. To bring the developing world up to western dietary standards will require a 100 percent increase in food, water and land dedicated to agriculture.

Half the land in the United States is already in use as crop land or pasture, and there is little room for expansion. Agriculture already uses 80 percent of the fresh water available. At the same time rising global temperatures are expected to reduce the availability of both land and water. Like it or not, the future of our food production is constrained by energy, land and water.

The only way we will be able to produce more is to become more efficient in our production methods, and/or more efficient in our diets. We are already “eating” crude oil because it takes 10 barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) per person per year to feed ourselves. In reality food is our fuel which we measure in calories. The average American diet takes 20 calories of energy input to produce one calorie of food. This ratio is obtained by dividing the fossil fuel energy input by protein energy output. The higher the ratio, the less efficient the foodstuff.

America’s “it’s what’s for dinner” favorite is beef,Feedlot-1 which is also about the most inefficient food with a ratio of 54. The ratio is high for beef because of our method of fattening cattle on grains. The efficiency of the process would be much better if we only fed cattle on pasture, but there isn’t enough pasture land for us all to eat grass fed beef. The ratios for some other foods are eggs 26, pork 17, dairy 14, catfish 7, and Chicken 5.

It appears the only way to sustainably feed ourselves in the future is to eat much lower on the food chain. At the bottom is a vegan diet which can actually have a ratio less than one. That is, more energy is produced from the foodstuff than is put in in the form of fossil fuels. Vegan diets suffer only one intrinsic problem — there is no Vitamin B-12. A big extrinsic problem is that it is a rather boring diet which few adopt voluntarily.800px-Mealworm_01_Pengo

One underexploited efficient food source is insects. Insects are eaten regularly in the underdeveloped world but insect farming in the first world could be more than 10 times more efficient than beef, with a ratio of four or less. Adult crickets have a very high protein to fat ratio, whereas various pupae such as meal worms are relatively high in fat. Depending on the species, insects can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals. So for the future what will it be, boring vegan or icky bugs?