Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Organic vs. conventional agriculture

The new Scientific American blog Science Sushi dispels some myths about large-scale organic agriculture. Here's one example:

Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

Better for the environment does not necessarily mean better for you (or for the climate). Not that the environmental benefits are clear either:

Yes, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together.

It's worth a read. 


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Is it time to start holding virtual conferences? The case of the International Coral Reef Symposium

The only thing hotter than the U.S. and Canada (east of the Rockies!) in the past week was the discussion on the Coral-List, the NOAA-managed read by pretty much anyone that does research related to coral reefs, about the cost of attending next year’s International Coral Reef Symposium. The ICRS is THE meeting in the world of coral reef research. Thanks to the Olympian once-every-four-years timing, attendance is, I’d argue, as mandatory as it comes in the sciences. Miss an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting, and you can attend another in six or twelve months. Miss an ICRS, and, well, you’ve got four full years to train for the next one.

The full week registration fee for the meeting has been set at AU$960 - AU$1250, depending on membership in the scientific society and the date of purchase. While registration fees of $1000 or more are not unheard of for scientific meetings in other branches of research, like say medicine, the price is extraordinary for the natural sciences, and especially for a sub-field in which many of the researchers are based in developing countries. Naturally, people from small NGOs in SE Asia to large academic instituions in North America are upset and stating that they will not attend.

Shocking as they be to many, the real story is not the registration fees. The real story is is the travel.

In addition to timing, the ICRS shares a logistical challenge with the Olympics. There is no optimal site for the event. Coral reefs are found throughout the tropics and subtropics, and that is excluding the cold water reefs in places like our own BC coast. Coral reef researchers are even more widespread, with scientists dotting every continent save Antarctica (I think - anyone at McMurdo care to correct me here?). No matter where the ICRS is held, be it Florida (2008), Okinawa (2004) or Bali (2000), a majority of top researchers in the field will have to travel long distances to attend. That means a lot of money – I estimate a weeklong trip to Cairns for the meeting from this part of the world could cost CAN$3500-4000 with registration. Moreover, that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. All for a scientific meeting about an ecosystem which many argue is existentially threatened by climate change and ocean acidification.

Hence the question on many people’s minds. Should the ICRS go virtual?

Of any scientific conference, there are certainly strong arguments for making the ICRS virtual: no optimal location for the meeting, cost being a significant barrier for many potential participants, travel restrictions being problematic (e.g. Middle East researchers requiring special visas for places like the U.S. and Australia), and of course the subject of conference being sensitive to atmospheric CO2. A counterargument is that the meeting is held only once every four years, in part for some of these very reasons, so rather than make ICRS virtual, other annual meetings should go virtual and adopt an Olympic schedule for the “live” meetings. A compromise first-step would be a hybrid meeting in which people had to option to participate "live" or online.

Society has adapted quickly to tectonic shifts in the way we communicate. Virtual conferences, which so many disdain for missing that personal connection of a live meeting, will become perfectly normal to us at some point in the future, just as e-mail, web browsing, Google Earth, Facebook, and Twitter have. It's a question of when, not if.

My question is: Which scientific society is willing to be the early adopter?


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Climate impact of different foods

Earlier this week, the Environmental Working Group, a research and lobby group in DC, released a report on the “environment” and "health" impact of different foods. It found that lamb is the worst offender, followed by grain-fed beef, pork, cheese and farmed salmon.

The report was brought to my attention by a writer at the Huffington Post, who subsequently published this story which includes thoughts on the report a number of outside experts on the issue. I commented on the climate impacts of feed production and the logic of farming top-of-the-food chain fish like salmon, both issues that have been discussed frequently here at Maribo.

Here's a more complete list of my thoughts upon examining the short report:

1. “Environmental” impact or “health” impact can be very different than “climate” impact. For example, I’d expect lamb to be much lower on a list based purely on greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. per gram of food produced). I can't comment on "health" impacts as it is not my area of expertise.

2. What I call the “land use cascade” is potentially the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions from food production, but also the hardest to calculate. That’s why GHG emissions from dairy relative to beef cattle tend to be overestimated (more methane from dairy cattle, more land required to grow feed for beef than dairy products). It’s also why any study like this should have large positively skewed error bars.

3. All meat is not created equal in terms of greenhouse gases. Grain-fed beef is far less efficient than pork, which is again far less efficient than poultry.

4. If your food choices are motivated purely by concern about greenhouse gas emissions, eating less grain-fed beef is more important than eating locally.

5. Historically-speaking, we are just starting to develop industrial-scale farming of fish, as discussed in the recent Time cover story. Farming the ocean is, in a sense, thousands of years behind farming on land. Right now, many of the choices we are making are, as I put bluntly in the Huffington Post story, “stupid”. Cattle are logical choice for farm animals. They eat grass, so they are only one step away from the sun. Salmon are much higher up the food chain. That’s why many of us say farming salmon is like farming wolves or tigers – you need the whole ecosystem to support the one salmon.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Eliminating the US corn ethanol subsidy is no panacea

One possible casualty of the endless U.S. budget fight may be the federal subsidy for corn ethanol production. There's been a lot of quiet, and some not-so-quiet, cheering from the environmental community, based on the premise that eliminating the subsidy will lessen nutrient pollution from growing so much corn.

In reality, cutting or repealing the 45-cents-per-gallon ethanol tax credit is unlikely to have much of an effect on planting decisions. As a recent article in the NY Times nicely explained last week, the subsidy is, at this point, unnecessary. Between laws requiring blending of ethanol into gasoline, the federal ethanol mandate, the tariff on imports, the size of the ethanol production industry, and the high price of corn, there's already enough incentive to maintain the status quo in corn production and corn ethanol production.

There are certainly good reasons to eliminate the subsidy. No one should pretend that doing so will solve of the problem of nutrient levels in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. That is a far greater challenge.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Housekeeping and new links!

I wanted to draw people's attention to the updated list of links on Maribo. I've added a few new links which I learned of at the terrific Google Science Communication Fellows workshop last month: Alan Townsend's new blog State Factors, Jon Koomey's blog and Eugene Cordero's effort Green Ninja.

Maribo itself is likely to change in the next few months. I'm considered new formats for the blog, and also alternative approaches to online outreach about climate issues. Feel free to pass along any suggestions!


Monday, July 11, 2011

Farming the sea

The cover story in this week's issue of Time Magazine tackles the pros and cons of farming fish, a subject that gets suprisingly little solid media coverage in North America. Bryan Walsh's article does a decent job covering the decline of the world's fisheries, and the need for solutions. But like so many articles on the subject, it buries what should be the lede:

Especially troubling, many of the most popular farmed species are carnivores, meaning they need to be fed at least partly with other fish. By one count, about 2 lb. of wild fish ground up to make fish meal is needed on average to produce 1 lb. of farmed fish, which leaves the ocean at a net loss.

I've written about this before: A substantial proportion of the wild harvest is used to maintain marine aquaculture of carnivorous species like salmon. It is wildly inefficient, the marine equivalent of farming wolves rather than herbivorous cattle. This is why many experts conclude that the future for pescetarians is probably the blander, lower-on-the-food-chain species like tilapia and catfish.

In coverage of aquaculture, we tend to focus on the sexier and scarier subjects: pollution from farms, genes mixing with the wild population, PCBs in farmed salmon, etc. Certainily, no doubt, these are all serious concerns (except perhaps the PCBs). But the feed-to-fish ratio is the very core of the matter; if you get less fish protein out than you put in, aquaculture doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense.

Walsh gets to this central dilemma in the second half of the article:

When producers began raising fish intensively, they picked species that people like to eat: salmon and sea bass. But those species are high on the food chain, and raising them on a farm is a bit like trying to domesticate tigers. [ed - nice. I always say wolves] The aquaculture industry has gotten better at replacing fish meal with plant-based feed, but not fast enough. You're not feeding the world sustainably if you need to remove the base of the marine food chain to do it. 

The solution that many propose is expanding the use of plant-based products in fish food. That brings it's own complications. For one, salmon certainly didn't evolve eating soymeal, cornmeal or wheat, so shifting to a majority plant-based diet will likely involve further genetic engineering, which has supporters and detractors. 

And second, feeding plant products to fish would add another player in the struggle for the world's productive croplands. 

Forget food vs. feed. Or food vs. fuel. In the future, it will be a battle of the 4 Fs:  food vs. feed vs. fuel vs. fish.