from the world's big
8 ways to halt a global food crisis
The future of food sounds bleak, but it doesn't need to be this way.
There are serious challenges to global food supply everywhere we look. Intensive use of fertilisers in the US Midwest is causing nutrients to run off into rivers and streams, degrading the water quality and causing a Connecticut-size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Chocolate production will soon be challenged in West Africa – home to over half of global production. A variety of nutritional impacts are predicted due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide – including decreased protein content in food, which has a potential to exacerbate malnutrition. And this is just a very small sample of the risks to the food supply chain that are foreseen.
The future of food then, may sound rather bleak. But this does not have to be the case. The food system could become part of the solution for environmental challenges, if we make some changes to it. It could also be an instrument of human health, well-being, dignity, and livelihood – rather than the opposite.
But this won't happen without a radical rethink of our food systems and consumption patterns across the globe – particularly within the context of our cities. Upwards of 75% of the global north's population is urbanised and the global south is rapidly moving in this direction. Strategies for how these city regions can be fed using more local resources are crucial.
Those living in the urban global north are very comfortable with having any foods desired available at any point across the calendar year. This comes at a high cost. Foods transported by air cause nearly four times the CO₂ released compared to truck and 38 times that of a comparable amount transported by rail. Biodiversity and ecosystem loss threatens food production – and meanwhile, agriculture is a key driver of this loss. Furthermore, excessive water use for export agriculture in water-stressed areas can negatively impact local food and livelihoods – for example to secure large quantities of avocados for global north markets.
If we are to avoid some of these crises, we need to re-imagine where our food comes from and move, at least in part, towards more seasonal diets with a lower use of land and a serious reduction in global trade – especially for fruits, vegetables, and protein.
We can do all of this by addressing eight factors that have exacerbated and reinforced environmental disasters in our food systems.
1. Dietary patterns
It is especially important that meat consumption and excess calories in countries with high levels of meat consumption and obesity are reduced. Consuming far less meat provides the greatest ability to feed more people with less land within the US, for example, where meat consumption is particularly high. Every global study of diet and greenhouse gases indicates that reduced meat consumption is the biggest driver of reducing greenhouse gas release via dietary change. Approximately 1.1m hectares of excess corn production are needed to produce the excess calories consumed by just Americans annually.
2. Production practices
Greater organic and agroecological strategies should be prioritised over highly industrialised farming practices. These forms of farming use much less fertiliser – which is not only bad for biodiversity but also produces high emissions. In 2011, agriculture in my home state of Michigan collectively purchased about 200,000 metric tons of nitrogen fertiliser at a CO₂ cost of 1.34 million metric tons (the equivalent of that produced by 291,000 US cars in a year). Meanwhile, organic bread wheat production in the UK appears to use less energy per ton than conventional production, with very little of it accrued from nitrogen fertiliser production and use.
3. Supply chains
Large quantities of food are needed for any city region – an American city region of a million people will require about 900m kg of food annually. Although “food miles" are problematic as a discriminator for greenhouse gas release, shorter supply chains are probably more amenable to electric vehicle transportation than long-distance transport – and hence ultimately to renewable energy use. As such, cities should aim to source their food from the surrounding region rather than globally. Within city regions it should also be possible to use waste recycling more robustly, creating carbon cycles as well as biogeochemical cycles for plant nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Since phosphorus is essential and non-renewable while production of nitrogen fertilisers requires a great input of energy this is very useful.
4. Food waste
Although food is lost throughout the supply chain, it's estimated the greatest losses occur at the consumer level in the global north. In addition, a large amount of produce is wasted for not meeting retail cosmetic standards. All of the energy towards production, transportation, and processing of this food is also wasted. This modern culture of waste must be addressed.
5. Concentrated production
Some crops are grown in an intensely concentrated manner, which leaves them vulnerable to climate changes and pests. For example, over half of US fresh produce and nuts are grown in California, and a number of these crops will be negatively impacted this century. While there is research to develop more draught and heat tolerant varieties across a range of crops it also seems prescient to distribute production more broadly. Variations in weather patterns can make this a challenge. But structures such as poly tunnels can markedly expand the season – to 12 months for lettuce and an additional two-to-three months for tomatoes. And a number of crops, for example apples, can be stored fresh for several months with controlled atmosphere storage.
6. Reward structures
Making negative effects (or costs) of production (such as soil loss) transparent so that all costs are accounted for and then rewarding farmers for things such as soil carbon sequestration, minimised external inputs, and low energy use instead of just total production would greatly help reduce these impacts.
7. Future protein sources
The idea of farming insects and jellyfish are just some examples of the innovative suggestions that have been made for diversifying protein sources beyond meat and, say, soya. This would allow for reduced levels of animal protein in the global north and increased levels in much of the global south.
8. Public policy
Very little of the global north's enormous farm policy budgets tend to be spent on policies such as conservation, agroecological research, and organic production. Policies that stimulate new farmer development, regional market and supply chain development (such as food hubs), prioritise appropriate technology development at smaller scales and price points (including robotics), sustainable energy production and research to minimise external inputs while maintaining high productivity are needed in order to help propel their development.
All in all, much more attention needs to be paid on the sustainability of the planet's urban food systems. If the situation continues unchanged, our food supply chains will soon be in deep trouble.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.