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Why overeating is an ecological nightmare
A new research article states that the obesity epidemic is affecting more than just waistlines.
- While the cost of food waste is high, the environmental impact of obesity is even higher.
- According to researchers in Italy, obesity results in an extra 140 billion tons of food consumption every year.
- Obesity costs Americans $1.72 trillion in healthcare costs and is now the leading cause of death.
In July, while visiting my family in New Jersey, we chose an expectable boardwalk restaurant to eat at while down the shore. As it's been decades since I've lived in the area, I was shocked by portion sizes. You would have thought it was a family-style dining establishment, with each plate designed to feed four. Alas, the amount of food that wasn't eaten saddened me. More is not always better; it's often wasteful.
Americans dominate the world in food waste. Somewhere between 30-40 percent of all food in our supply is thrown away — roughly $160 billion into the dumps each year. Not that the rest of the planet is much better. The global figure is close to a trillion dollars, with 1.3 billion tons of food being tossed.
While this is an unsustainable figure, a new research article in Frontiers in Nutrition presents an even more disturbing assessment: food waste is dwarfed by the obesity epidemic.
Forget 1.3 billion tons; lead researcher, Professor Mauro Serafini at Italy's University of Teramo, claims that overeating results in an extra 140 billion tons of food consumption every year. According to Serafini's "metabolic food waste" (MFW) hypothesis, the environmental cost of that food is equivalent to 240 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
Metabolic food waste by region compared with two measures of excess body fat: percentage overweight (OW) and percentage obese (OB).
Toti, Di Mattia, and Serafini, 2019
Specifically, MFW is the amount of food being produced that leads to extra body weight and the impact those calories have on the environment in terms of carbon, water, and land footprints. By his measure, Europe (EU) is the leading culprit, followed by North America (NAO; this region includes Oceania). The other regions are listed in the chart above.
The team writes,
"We provide evidence of the enormous amount of food lost through obesity and its ecological impact. Reducing metabolic food waste associated with obesity will contribute in reducing the ecological impact of unbalanced dietary patterns through an improvement of human health."
As I reported last week, obesity in America costs the national healthcare system $1.72 trillion. Two billion obese adults now walk around the planet, along with 41 million children under age five. If you're beginning life overweight, there are many obstacles ahead, many of which might prove insurmountable.
The team notes that this is in part due to the "push effect" — increased food availability and marketing. Marketing is never honest as to the chemistry involved in producing their foodstuffs. For example, while writing this article, my social media feed is being bombarded with articles on KFC's new sandwich: fried chicken wedged between two glazed donuts. Every new iteration of old products seems to be unhealthier than the last.
How The U.S. Is Exporting Obesity | AJ+
The largest contributors to MFW in the EU and NAO turn out to be dairy products (including milk and eggs), followed by alcohol and cereals in the EU and meat and alcohol in the NAO. Remember, this not only pertains to consumption, but also agricultural, production, and transportation costs. Though the methodology is debatable — even Serafini recommends further research, as does the publication — the ecological costs of obesity turn out to be very high.
The team does not offer specific fixes to the problem beyond public health campaigns that teach consumers the dangers of obesity. People already know this, however. In fact, after my article on obesity last week, a number of readers reached out to inform me that other people's weight is "none of my business."
The problem is, it is. If Serafini's hypothesis is correct — and it's undeniable that obesity is resource-intensive — then this is everyone's problem. We're all paying for the soaring costs of healthcare. Water, carbon, and land costs of overeating are astronomical, serving as yet another driver of climate change. You can't claim that the planet isn't anyone else's business. We're all invested in its health. Right now, we're collectively failing to ensure the survival of our species.
Perhaps this is what happens whenever you give an animal too many options. Alpha predators are known to destroy ecosystems when their power is left unchecked. Throughout history, our power was kept in balance. For eons, our forebears had to scrape together enough food to live. Yet in the time of excess that we now live in, we indulge. The costs are known. Whether or not we have the courage to do anything about them is another story.
- Can This Be Causing the Rise in Obesity and Diabetes? - Big Think ›
- Study finds link between belly fat and an increased risk of dementia - Big Think ›
- Obesity should be redefined to curb fat shaming, say new guidelines - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.