Tag Archives: agriculture

‘Chemophobia’ podcast with Sam Howarth

podcast
Click to listen to the podcast via Soundcloud

In a debut podcast, Sam Howarth discusses with chemophobia research-enthusiast and chemistry teacher, James Kennedy, the evolution of fearing chemicals and the people who are driving it behind the scenes.

Sam Howarth is a self-taught nutrition and fitness enthusiast – a fanatic learned through trial and error over 3 years of research and over 10 years of personal struggles with food and body image.

In the podcast, we talk about chemophobia, its origins and the money that keeps it alive.

soundcloud

(Almost) Nothing is Truly ‘Natural’ – Part 4

Cezanne nothing is natural fruit and vegetables painting still life
Nothing on this table is natural – not even the fruits. The Basket of Apples by Cézanne

Corn isn’t ‘natural’

In 2014, I created a series of infographics to help convey this message. Corn, for example, used to be a spindly grass-like plant called teosinte, which Native Americans farmed and bred through artificial selection until it resembled the yellow corn of today.

In 9000 years, sweetcorn has become 1000 times larger, 3.5 times sweeter, much easier to peel and much easier to grow than its wild ancestor. In the 15th century, when European settlers placed new selection pressures on the crop to suit their exotic taste buds, the corn evolved even further to become larger and multi-coloured. Corn no longer resembles the original teosinte plant at all.

Watermelon isn’t ‘natural’

Watermelon began as a hard, bitter fruit the size of a walnut. It caused inflammation and had an unpalatable bitter taste. Thousands of years of artificial selection (unintentional genetic engineering) have resulted in a modern watermelon that bears no resemblance to its African ancestor. Modern (artificial) watermelons are sweeter, juicier, more colourful and easier to grow than their ancestral varieties.

Peaches aren’t natural, either

Peaches used to be hard, cherry-sized fruits with giant pips. Like corn and watermelon, peaches became larger, sweeter and juicier over thousands of years of inadvertent genetic engineering.

Bananas, wheat, pigs and all farmed animals and plants are not natural

Before agriculture, carrots were white and spindly. Wheat was tall and scrawny with little calorific value. Apples were tiny and sour with giant pips (like crab-apples today). Strawberries were tiny, bananas had stones in them, and pigs were viscous creatures with tiny backsides that made for a not-so-delicious ham. Cows didn’t produce much milk (just enough for their own calves) and chickens were skinny little creatures that laid eggs weekly rather than daily. Every species that’s ever been farmed by humans has been genetically modified over time as a result.

I keep making this point because our ancestors deserve credit for their hard work: they toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of our ancestors’ hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to the millions of ancient farmers who worked so hard to produce them.

Engineers (including genetic engineers) know that humans have toiled for millennia to change nature and suit it to our own needs – animals became tamer and meatier, and plants started producing more edible portions. I want to counteract the misconception that humans encountered nature in a ‘pristine’ state.

Great documentary snippet – Animal Pharm

[ancient humans] toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of their hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to our ancestors.

I show the above documentary my Year 10 Science students to demonstrate what is currently being produced using genetic engineering techniques. The video explains all the concepts mentioned in this article and is accessible for and educated audience of any age.

This post is part 4 in a weekly series on chemophobia. Next week, we’ll look at the psychology behind chemophobia.

Artificial vs Natural Watermelon & Sweetcorn

Inspired by the recent Peach infographic, I set out to find the least natural fruit in existence, and decided it was probably the modern watermelon. Take a look below: which one would you rather eat?

Artificial vs Natural Watermelon
jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com

The watermelon, delicious as it is, has increased from 50 mm to 660 mm in diameter, which represents a 1680-fold increase in volume. While ancient “wild watermelons” weighed no more than 80 grams, modern watermelons can range from 2 kg to 8 kg in the supermarket, while the Guiness World Record for the heaviest watermelon recorded exceeded 121 kilograms in the year 2000. Thousands of years of human-induced evolution have worked miracles on these fruits. Let’s not forget that they’re completely artificial.

The most famous example of artificial selection is of course the selective breeding of the feeble teosinte plant into juicy, delicious, North American sweetcorn.

artificial natural corn james kennedy monash science chemistry
jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com

In 9000 years, sweetcorn has become 1000 times larger, 3.5 times sweeter, much easier to peel and much easier to grow than its wild ancestor. It no longer resembles the original teosinte plant at all. Around half of this artificial selection happened since the fifteenth century, when European settlers placed new selection pressures on the crop to suit their exotic taste buds.

That’s all for now… More exciting infographics coming soon. Enjoy! 😉

Book: Genetic Modification in Food

Genetic Modification in Food

Balanced introduction to GM foods for absolute beginners.
<100 pages, ★★★★★

Quick review today. I spent a long time making a table of organic compounds and their smells (view it here).

This book, Genetic Modification in Food, it’s one of the few books that succeeds in conveying a controversial scientific issue to the public while maintaining balance and accuracy. It’s suitable for readers who know nothing about science at all. It appeals to people who are concerned (with good reason) after reading/hearing/seeing reports about GM crops in the news. The concerned British public, for whom this book was intended, has an unusually high resistance to GM foods—so this book, which is free from ‘pro-green’ or ‘pro-science’ extremism, is a welcome addition to the pop-sci literature mix. ★★★★★

Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown

Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★