Sunday, December 29, 2013

Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet - Sarah Elton

There has been much talk recently about what the world will be like in 2050. Speculation on a future economy in a world of nine billion people, how we will deal with decreasing oil and natural gas reserves, and the effects of climate change top the list for most people. Author Sarah Elton, in her book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, combines all of these – along with increased urbanization – to ask the question: how will the world feed itself in 2050?

Today’s industrial food system is affected by everything on this list. Elton argues that in order to best use the finite resources available to us, we need to find alternatives to the industrial food system that are sustainable, based in ethics and human rights, and maintain ecological balance. She outlines a decade by decade set of targets to be met which she believes is the path that will lead us to food security.

Elton travels to India where she meets with organic farmer Chandrakala Bobade, who epitomizes the first decade’s target: ending industrial farming and making agricultural systems sustainable. Many of India’s farmers are in crisis. They are indebted to companies from which they purchase expensive inputs for their crops – fertilizers, seeds – yet the returns are too little to pay for the next round of inputs. Thousands of farmers commit suicide each week as their farms fail. Others, like Bobade, have decided to go organic and cut out the expensive fertilizers and seeds. They have been successful, increased yields, run successful farmers’ markets, and shown that organic farming can feed a country the size of India.

Elton interviews Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, professor of rural studies at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who believes industrial agriculture is “on its death bed” as it does not pay farmers sufficiently to grow food and is environmentally damaging. In his opinion, the small-scale farming model followed by Bobade and others will become the norm. However, Elton argues that this transformation must also include a move away from a farm system based on created cheap, processed food that results in further depressed farm workers’ wages. Instead, says Elton, there need to be localized markets for food so that people have “a real choice about what to eat and the right to choose food grown in a particular way”.

Farmland itself is under pressure as governments and developers snap up whatever acres they can grab – forests, wetlands, farms – to build industrial parks and housing developments, or to plant cash crops for biofuels and the export market. Countries like India are buying up land in Burma, Kenya and Ethiopia to grow the food it needs as it paves over its own farmland. In a world suffering the effects of climate change, Elton states that sustainable agriculture would have farmland near to the urban markets needing the food and governments should be actively protecting it instead of opening it up to speculators waiting for a food crisis.

Elton’s second decade target is to ensure food security through diversity in the seed supply. While in China, she visits a remote Hani village that farms local rice varieties in terraced paddies irrigated by a stream dammed with rocks, the soil worked by animals and birds. Each rice variety is adapted to the local microclimate and is resistant to local pests. At one point centuries ago, this mountainous landscape supported over ten thousand hectares of rice paddies and in the 14th century it was known as the Eastern Grain Barn.

Pressures on farmers even in this corner of China mean they are foregoing planting traditional rice varieties, instead using the high-yielding hybrid rice varieties. These new varieties are not well adapted, requiring fertilizers and pesticides that harm the fish and ducks that help keep the paddies healthy, as well as the wild foods once gathered. Not saving seeds mean that the genetic material within them is lost forever, and the diversity within food crops diminishes. Lower genetic diversity means that crops will be more susceptible to increased levels of carbon dioxide or certain pests because there are fewer genes to recombine to find a vigorous one that will survive.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of crop diversity was lost in the 20th century. India in the 1950s could boast thirty thousand wild varieties of rice; by 2015 is it likely that number will have dropped to 50 wild varieties. North America 50 years ago had multitudes of varieties of apples, but today most grocery stores carry only a few varieties year round. Food supply is closely tied to the diversity of the gene pool in the seeds of wheat, rice, corn and other crops.

For Elton, it is in the best interest of human survival that seed banks continue to collect seeds, and publically-supported research continues into development of crop varieties able to survive the conditions predicted in a globally warmed future world. While Elton does not come out fully against genetically modified seeds, she does say that patented seed technologies hinder gains and the free exchange of scientific research into new varieties is necessary.

The third target Elton outlines is more difficult to pin down, but hearkens back to a time when societies were less urbanized and “more connected” to nature. European countries like France still show this trend, though it too is struggling against the “modernization” of food culture. Monsieur Valadier is a 78 year old cattle farmer who never gave up the traditional peasant life of the mountainous Aubrac region, where they kept the cows and continued to make the famous Laguiole cheese used in the traditional dish aligot. Elton writes of the food grown in a certain region as having a terroir – a unique taste created by the air, water and soil. It is these things that connect people to the land around them.

However, “cultures of food are eroding” as urbanites do not experience this same close connection, instead learning the taste of the supermarkets with their pre-roasted chickens and boxes of salad mix. Price and convenience are more important in busy lives than taste and nutrition. The danger, says researcher Harry Balzer, is that food habits learned at a young age are difficult to change later in life. Basically, he says, growing up on a diet of processed foods means it will likely be in your diet as an adult. Reconnecting with the terroir of locally purchased and “home-cooked” foods may be what is needed to raise a generation concerned about the farmland that sustains them and wanting to take part in the process.

To achieve this requires a food production revolution. It may take Elton’s many urban gardens, small organic farms run by peasant farmers, seed banks and culture-awakening terroir. It may take and entire change to the economic system. What is obvious is that tying food and food production into the current system has been a disaster, leading to price fluctuations in staples, increased poverty as farmers are driven off their land by corporations, and environmental degradation. The ideas in this book are good starting point for the changes needed as we move towards 2050.

This review was previously published here:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Coal: A Human History - Barbara Freese

Watt and Stephenson whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta; and with its comfort brings its industrial power.

So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, brilliantly summing up why coal became so central to our lives. It allowed us to take the primitive world and turn it into one that is comfortable and civilized. However, it has also led to serious consequences: deaths of thousands of miners, particulates from burning, and carbon dioxide emissions that are driving climate change. Barbara Freese takes us on a journey from the first time coal was burned in Britain to today’s debate over coal’s role in climate change and how we can fuel our world without it.

Before the Industrial Revolution, coal use was inconsistent. During the Roman occupation, coal was mainly used to make jewelry, and only burned by blacksmiths. It wasn’t until the after the 1500s that coal use soared in Britain. By this time the forests had been cut down to such an extent that another energy source was needed. Despite the acrid smoke produced during coal burning, there was no choice but to accept it. No one knows for sure how poor the air quality was over London at the time, but an anecdote from Fumifugium, written in 1661 by John Evelyn, give some clues:

…the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the Suburbs of Hell, than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the Imperial seat of our incomparable Monarch.

Naturally, the effects of coal burning were worse on the poor than on the rich, many of whom had a country home to where they could flee when the air quality became too bad. The rich also had the resources for regular bathing, and cleaning of home and clothes that the poor did not.

By the 17th century, demand for coal was so high that in places like Newcastle coal mining became a singular industrial focus, even more than agriculture. Freese outlines what this meant for the people who migrated to the area to work in the mines:

…rural immigrants…were crowded into the hovels the mine operators threw together to house them. They were not welcomed by their neighbours. The miners and their families, commonly referred to as a separate race of humans, were increasingly ostracized by society. According to one historian, “Coal created a new gulf between classes.”

This isolation of miners coupled with dangerous working conditions led to the development of a strong community and fierce solidarity which would later play out in some of the fiercest struggles for better working conditions in the British and American labour movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The greatest example of this being the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-85 after the announcement by Thatcher that mines would be closed and jobs lost.

One mining danger, flooding, led to the invention of the steam engine which was used at mines to pump out the water at a much faster and cheaper rate than horse-driven devices. By adapting the iron manufacturing process to be compatible with coal-fired steam engines, Britain could finally produce its own iron, and speed the pace of industrial development both domestically and throughout the empire. By the mid-1850s, coal had:

…completely permeated society. It was not only directly present in the bellies of the steam engines, but indirectly present in the engines’ iron cylinders and pistons, in the looms’ iron frames, in the factories’ iron girders, and later in the iron railroads, bridges, and steamships that would define the industrial age.

This industrial development came at a price, and Freese uses the example of Manchester, epicentre of the industrial revolution, to illustrate coal’s “might and misery”. Coal-powered steam engines ushered in unnatural working conditions. Coal gas lights meant that workers could be toiling in factories at all hours. Machines never tired and had no idea of seasons, so work was no longer limited by the energy and output of the worker. It also led to an increase in child labour. Now that machines could provide the muscle and skill, employers jumped on the chance to employ children whom they considered “cheaper and far easier to discipline”, working them 12 to 16 hours a day.

In 1842 Friedrich Engels was sent to learn the family business at their cotton mill in Manchester. He wrote about the suffering of the workers in his 1844 book The Condition of the Working Class in England In an 1842 study of Manchester’s population, 57 percent of children died before they reached five years old. The poor had a life expectancy of 17 years, compared to the rural poor average of 38 years. Coal made Britain a mighty economy on the misery of the working poor.

The US coal industry fared little better than the British one, as Freese explains. British settlers of the 1700s believed coal was proof of America’s special destiny. The rapid pace of development and pollution due to coal continued here, beginning around Pittsburgh. In 1768 when the city had only 376 inhabitants, the first pollution complain was lodged:

…by reason of using so much coal, being a great manufacturing place and kept in so much smoke and dust, as to affect the skin of the inhabitants.

The course of industrial development in the early years of the US paralleled those of Britain: coal needed to be worked so it could run factory machines, and it needed a railroad to transport it from mines to urban industrial centres. This development had a serious effect, as Freese explains. Economic and political division between the industrial US North and the agricultural slave-dependent South deepened, leading to the US Civil War.

The Civil War transformed the US. The anthracite coal industry was the first monopoly formed, epitomizing the “gospel of bigness”. The Irish, fleeing the potato famine, found themselves again oppressed as they worked the coal mines. The legend of the Mollie Maguires – an alleged secret organization of Irish Catholic coal-mining terrorists – heated up as coal miners struggled against Franklin B Gowen who in 1873 brought together mine owners in a price-fixing agreement and weakened the miners’ ability to organize.

This was not the case in the bituminous coal industry of the western US where coal miners’ unions were seen as a stabilizing force in a competitive industry. This is where the United Mine Workers formed. Regardless, all coal miners lived in dehumanizing conditions, eventually rising up in 1902 when 150,000 anthracite miners went on strike. This led to an energy crisis as the bituminous mines could not meet the demand. Ultimately, President Roosevelt was forced to intervene to stop the strike.

During this strike the US learned how dependent it was on coal and how it could be harmed during a shortage. The strike also drew attention to the impact of coal burning on nature. Anthracite burns more cleanly, so when areas were forced to burn the dirtier bituminous coal it came as a shock:

"If New York allows bituminous coal to get a foothold, the city will lose one of her most important claims to pre-eminence among the world’s great cities, her pure atmosphere, ” said Andrew Carnegie, whose own steel industries burned bituminous coal that made Pittsburgh so unpleasant.

Across the country groups decried the effects of coal smoke and dust on nature and health. However, as many of those in the movement were women, their requests were seen as “frivolous” and “insufficient to warrant interference with something so vital to the nation as coal burning”. The argument to give up burning coal was difficult at the turn of the 20th century as natural gas and oil were small suppliers, and were not thought to be long-lasting by the coal industry.

As science and technology have advanced, we now know much more than many are comfortable knowing about the effects of coal mining, transport and burning on the environment and health. Freese spends the last third of the book investigating the recent past and the possible future for coal in relation to climate change.

Throughout the 1970s, evidence surfaced linking coal burning and sulfur dioxide to acid rain harming fish and killing plant life. The coal industry denied the link, dismissing acid rain as “a campaign of misleading publicity”. Fortunately for the coal industry, Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and nothing was done about emissions until 1990 when the Acid Rain Program was adopted, requiring power plants to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by nearly half by 2010. Despite this, nature is not rebounding as quickly as anyone expected.

Particulates from burning coal get into the lungs and can lead to lung conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma. It is difficult to determine exactly how many deaths from these conditions are directly related to coal but estimates put the number similar to that of car accidents – about 42,000 per year in the US.

Then there is carbon dioxide. Coal creates significantly more carbon dioxide when burned than other fossil fuels: twice that of natural gas and three times more than petroleum. With carbon dioxide playing the biggest role in global warming, the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the future are more worrying than what increase has already occurred.

Freese analyzes the trend towards carbon sequestration: capturing the carbon dioxide emitted and somehow permanently disposing of it. This in itself has problems, which Freese lists. Many of the underground locations to “hide” the carbon dioxide have limited capacity. Also, the ocean is not a viable location as dissolving carbon dioxide creates an acid that would affect marine ecosystems. Not to mention that it would take worldwide governmental cooperation on a scale never seen before.

Even green options have the drawback in that electricity needs generating directly when it is needed. Freese proposes that renewable energy be used to extract hydrogen from water and the hydrogen piped as oil and gas are to where it is needed to create electricity, or turned into fuel cells. She also mentions solar panels and wind energy as options for not only replacing coal as a fuel, but for breaking up the “concentrated power system that coal represents”. At least for the near future this energy will likely remain more expensive than non-renewables, says Freese, and would be what would hold the US back from switching.

Freese places the lack of movement away from coal on what she calls the “highly centralized, mass-produced approach to energy” controlled by “highly regulated monopolies” that have left little room for competition and new ideas, leaving a stunted technological evolution of the industry. Ridding the world of coal monopolies while the rest of the economic system stays in place will not result in a switch to cleaner energy generation. It is only when the profit motive is removed that we will see an energy revolution that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and move us towards a more sustainable world.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History - Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History is both a brilliant history of the Burgess Shale fossils and its discoverer Charles Doolittle Walcott, and an in depth look at the zoology of the animals behind the fossils. However, this book is not an easy read in many ways and is certainly not for the faint of heart. Gould does not hold back on the zoology. He bandies about scientific terms and evolutionary debates as though every potential reader has at least a Bachelor degree in biology. Yet despite of my own background in invertebrate zoology and taxonomy, there was a period of time where I put the book down and wondered, “Why am I pushing myself to read this?”. Perserverence is key, as by the time Gould wraps up the book all of the time spent learning about the work done in the 1970s on these fossil animals makes perfect sense.

Gould proclaims the Burgess Shale the most important fossil bed in the world as it was the first major find of fossils of soft-bodied creatures from the period just after the pre-Cambrian explosion 570 million years ago. The Cambrian explosion itself is important as it “marks the advent (at least into direct evidence) of virtually all major groups of modern animals – and all within the miniscule span, geologically speaking, of a few million years”. For Gould, the story of the Burgess Shale is interesting on a human scale from where classification of the fossils began with Walcott, the discoverer, and where it ended up with the reexamination by Harry Whittington of Cambridge University.

When Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale in southeast British Columbia during a field season in 1909, he was the head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Walcott’s commitments to administrative tasks led to years of putting serious research into his Burgess fossil collection on the backburner. He published a few preliminary papers, and a few monographs on some of the sponges and algae but none on the more complex animals. Unfortunately Walcott was not able to spend more time with his fossils during his retirement as he died shortly after it began.

After his death, Walcott’s wife prevented any serious study of the Burgess Shale fossils, primarily as she believed no one was up to the task. The massive fossil collection languished on high and out-of-the-way shelves in the Smithsonian. No paleontology student or research was likely to come upon them and have a eureka moment that would launch them into a lifetime of research, further pushing the Burgess Shale fossils to the back of every paleontologist’s mind. It was not until 1959 that one of the first major post-Walcott publications on Burgess Shale arthropods appeared. Leif Stormer, a Norwegian paleontologist, created a classification scheme published in the collectively written “Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology”. Stormer’s classification was entirely different from Walcott’s, bringing nearly all arthropods into the same grouping as trilobites based on what he saw as similarities in their primitive appendages.

It was with Stormer’s classification that Harry Whittington, a paleontologist out of Cambridge University, and his two grad students, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris, began their own intensive study of the Burgess Shale fossils. Much of this book is a discussion of the dilemmas thrown up during fossil study. Whittington started with an analysis of Marrella splendens as it is by far the most abundant fossil in the Burgess Shale. Walcott, in 1912, admitted that Marrella was not a conventional trilobite, but still placed it in the class Trilobita even as some of his contemporaries expressed their doubts. However, even these doubters did not stray from the notion that all of the Burgess fossils should fit into classification groups already known, even if they did not seem to fit. In 1971 Whittington knew that Marrella was different, but even he felt constrained by the belief that Burgess fossils were old yet primitive versions of modern species, and to keep Marrella in the Class Trilobita despite evidence that suggested otherwise.

For example, when he was working on reconstructing Marrella’s head with its appendages, he came up with a very different configuration than Walcott. In fact, Stormer had also seen differences in his own reconstructions compared to Walcott, and had decided to ignore the head when making his classification (instead concentrating on leg structure). Upon studying the illustrations Walcott had made of Marrella’s head, Whittington noticed that they had been retouched to the extent that they were essentially falsified, showing mouth part features that were not there. Despite these differences, and those Whittington noticed in the legs, Gould writes that “on the brink of a transforming insight he chose caution and tradition this one time – and placed Marrella in Stormer’s Trilobitoidea…yet as he did so felt the pain of betraying his own better judgment.”

Regardless, this first study and its conservative conclusion by Whittington eventually led to a revolution in classification of the Burgess fossils. The third Burgess fossil Whittington worked on, Opabinia, was what Gould calls a “eureka moment” in this restudy. By dissecting one of the ten fossil specimens of this organism, Whittington found that Walcott had been mistaken in his classification: it did not have the right leg appendages to be classed as an arthropod, nor did it have any features that would classify it in any of the known groups. It was an orphan. Finally, Whittington was able to free himself from the constraints of fitting a specimen into the existing scheme, and could simply describe an organism as he saw it, writing in his monograph, “My conclusions on morphology have led to a reconstruction which differs in many important respects from all earlier ones.”

The more Burgess organisms Whittington’s team investigated, the more they confirmed that Burgess organisms in the Cambrian showed body plans beyond the range of those seen in later times. There was tremendous diversity and disparity at the time, and as evolution proceeded this was whittled down to fewer different body plans in fewer different groups of organisms. These reclassifications of Burgess fossils are significant, as they demonstrate how the beliefs and world view of society or the paleontologist of the time can affect how the fossils are seen to fit in to the evolutionary record. More generally, how the personal views of a scientist can affect their interpretation of a revolutionary scientific idea. Gould associates Walcott’s “shoehorn” of Burgess fossils into existing taxonomical groups with his traditional, conservative, political, social and religious beliefs.

The remainder of the book is an exploration of this as Gould postulates evolutionary “what if” scenarios that challenge the notion that there is only one way to think about the progression of life, based on preconceptions of scientists like Walcott. Gould ends up reminding us that we should not let ourselves be led into thinking that there is only one path to take, one choice, one way of doing things because it is the one that we are willing to accept based on our expectations or comfort level. We need to explore what is possible, and be willing to accept even the most revolutionary idea, the most revolutionary change.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind - Richard Fortey

Dictionaries define a survivor as a person or thing that continues to function or prosper in spite of hardship or setbacks. Biology has named many organisms in its time, though not all have survived in the way that Richard Fortey defines survivor in this book. For Fortey, a naturalist and paleontologist, a survivor is an organism that has survived as close to its original form through geologic time. That is, through the hundreds of millions of years. Hominins (human-like organisms), to the best of our knowledge, have walked Earth for only about four million years. Fortey’s survivors are truly ancient.

Though a paleontologist – and one obsessed with trilobites – Fortey does not play favourites. In a rare foray into the world of living organisms, he runs the gamut from microscopic algae to plants to musk oxen, describing each one in the lyrical language that makes his writing come alive and make even the most humble creature seem like the most exciting thing on the planet…at least for that chapter!

In his visit to Yellowstone National Park, Fortey visits the many geysers in search of extremophiles, the microscopic algae and bacteria that thrive in the acidic, boiling hot water where the pH is around 2 and the temperatures around 80C. It was here at the Obsidian Pool that a group of hyperthermophile (extreme heat loving) Archaea (bacteria-like cells) named Korarchaeota were discovered and in 2008 were claimed based on molecular evidence to be the most similar in structure to the first living cells ever. In response to this Fortey says:

“Now we start to see the horseshoe crab as an afterthought, the velvet worm as a postscript, and even seaweed as a tardy arrival: we have taken a huge bound back to the earliest moments of life on earth.”

That would be in the range of 3500 million years ago.

As for plants, they do not date from quite as far back as the Archaea but Huperzia, a small green herb known as a club moss, is related to the massive trees from the Carboniferous of 300 million years ago whose tree trunks were one of the major contributors to coal seams. Fortey traveled to Norway to visit Huperzia, which had survived both the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions meaning it would have been on earth near the Silurian – 400 million years ago – when plants first began to colonize land and developed vascular tissues in order to transport water throughout their bodies. Fortey describes Huperzia as “the botanical equivalent of the horseshoe crab”, which also dates from the same geologic era.

Throughout the descriptions of the many organisms in this book, Fortey explains in the simplest terms possible the relationship between organisms as well as their relative positions on the evolutionary tree. He discusses the hypotheses for their ability to survive alongside those hypotheses about why others were not able to survive the same conditions without getting bogged down in terminology or the minutiae of debates amongst evolutionary biologists. In this way he makes this information accessible in a way many writers on evolution are unable.

At times Survivors takes on a more polemical tone, as Fortey involves humans in the fight for survival of his survivors. Sharks and their relatives have also survived since the Paleozoic along with Huperzia and the horseshoe crab, although they may now have met their match in humans who may engineer the loss of several species of shark due to an “appetite for their fleshy fins”. Sharks from which fins are removed are not killed, but are thrown back into the ocean where they spiral to their deaths in the depths as their fins are what stabilize them as they swim. Fortunately, Fortey makes these arguments without falling in to the trap of many who make similar claims of humanity’s effects on the populations of organisms, that there are just too many humans on earth causing destruction of nature by their mere presence and nature. Instead his tone is more measured, and about how it is human choices that are wreaking havoc on populations, from shark finning for making soups to contributing to the climate change that may throw off reptilian gender balances.

“I grieve that the Nautilus that has survived the dinosaurs is declining because of a trade in tourist trinkets. … The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species. There’s no meteorite this time, no exceptional volcanic eruptions, no ‘Snowball Earth’, just us, prospering at the expense of other species.”

Fortey wrote this book because he cares about survival of ancient bacteria, lungfish, musk oxen, sharks and the multitudes of other organisms he wrote about in this book and the ones he hopes to write about in a future volume. I believe in writing Survivors Fortey also hoped to make its readers care about these organisms’ survival as well, and to work to make choices that will allow that to happen. Since many extinctions are happening as a result of things like habitat loss and climate change, these choices and changes are well within our reach.