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Fast food battle plans ineffective

The heart of the healthier eating food debate is centered on the cost of healthy food; more specifically the added cost of eating nutritious items over conventional food and therefore poorer people are at a higher risk of becoming overweight.  Since we cling to this idea so strongly our food policy aims to make healthy foods more accessible to low-income families.  However, there is a huge problem with this approach; the largest consumers of fast food are not the poorest.  They are either the busiest or the laziest.

The Journal for Population Health Management published a story stating that middle class American were the most likely to eat at fast food chains.  These were households earning more than $60,000 per year.   It says that a family earning $80,000 a year is more likely to eat at these restaurants than one earning $30,000 per year and that 50% of obsess adults in the US are earning $77,000 for a family a four.

My guess is that there are many misconceptions intertwined.  First, fast food is not cheap.  Mark Bittman reported recently in the New York Times, a typical meal for a family of four at McDonald’s in Manhattan costs about $28.  That is not the cheapest way to feed a family.  So it’s not the money.

They are not the cheapest but they are the fastest.  Going to the food store, preparing a meal and cleaning up requires a lot more work than ordering food.

In addition they are EVERYWHERE. I am sure you can find at least a few fast food options on your way home.

Plus they appeal to children.  They have playrooms and toys to entertain small children.  The toys obviously get kids excited about going, but the playrooms.

So the real picture is that for a few dollars extra one doesn’t have to go to the store, prepare food or clean up the food, but that is just the start.  Those few extra dollars not only buy them time but makes parents lives that much easier.  Parents don’t have to take children to the food store or entertain them while they cook the meal or clean up the food preparation, dinner or even the toys used to distract the children during food preparation and clean up.

Since it appears parents are buying convenience than the ideas being thrown around to make healthy food cheaper for low-income families are not going to address the crux of the obesity issue.  We need new tactics and a new game plan.

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Posted by on December 26, 2011 in food

 

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Still slaves to natural selection

I have always wondered if we have beaten natural selection or do we just think we have.  Humans have advanced science and invented medicines and producers to cure disease and extend human life by decades.  We have not natural predators and our population is unstoppable.  It seems like the pressures of the natural world have very little impact on who succeeds in our world and who doesn’t.  It’s about money and beauty- right?

That might not be true.  Ten to 15% of couples in Western Countries experience difficulties getting pregnant. Of those 30-40% of the issues are associated with each gender and the rest is a combination of issues that are not fully understood yet. Women’s fertility is well researched.  Birth control is the most researched drug ever.  However much less is known about men’s fertility.

Researchers at the Fertility-Assisted Fertilization Centre in Brazil recently investigated lifestyle choices impacts on male fertility.  The results show that sperm quality is linked to lifestyle choices.  Higher fruit and grain diets led to increased sperm motility.  Also, men that drank alcohol and/or were overweight had lower sperm counts and less motile sperm.  These lower quality sperm resulted in men that drank more alcohol and ate more red meat had lower conception rates, compared to men that at more vegetables.

Overall fertility and semen quality have declined in the past few decades.  The scientist believes lifestyle changes are linked to increased obesity and exposure to toxins and pollutants.  Lower fertility rates and semen quality means that it is harder for those men to pass on their genes.  That is the definition of biological fitness the ability of a genotype or phenotype to survive and reproduce in a given environment.

This could mean that after centuries of selecting for a preference of sweet and fatty foods, that in future generations (no time soon), that humans will have preference for lower calorie foods, because the environment has changed.  The ability to store fat is no longer biological beneficial, when food is abundant.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The good caused by community gardens

Longitudinal studies in Philadelphia and Houston showed that when the community transformed vacant lots into parks it changed the neighborhoods, mostly for the better.  There was an increase in personal income and rental rates in the areas around the park.  And in specific neighborhoods, but not all, there were decreases in gun assaults, vandalism, stress levels and even cholesterol.

As I read these articles I wondered what the connection was.  How could trimming the grass reduce assaults?  And what do vandalism and cholesterol have to do with each other?  My theories, like Deep Throats, “follow(ed) the money”.  Increases in the number of people with higher personal wealth could be related to the decrease in violence and the increases in health.  But there is still a missing piece in this theory.  A giant assumption that I am overlooking – how do plants increase personal wealth? I have three ideas.

Idea number one, the plants themselves alter human behavior.  Not in some creepy, science fiction way… but rather, I wonder if humans perceive the natural world differently from the concrete world and therefore respond accordingly to each.   I am not saying that if you live in the middle of the city, surrounded by buildings that you will become a stressed out, violent person.  But we think of cities as fast paced, dangerous places and the country as slow-moving and serene.  Maybe there is something different between green and grey and we just don’t understand yet.

My second theory is that people are drawn to these green areas and therefore pay more to be close by.  This means that the areas surrounding the parks become home to wealthier people because the parks add value to the property, so to get in you need more money.  People pay a lot of money to live near Central Park, why would these parks be any different.  As the area becomes more affluent there is a decrease in crime and healthier individuals.

My last theory is that the parks convey a message that someone cares about this space. A vacant lot sends a message of hopelessness and abandonment.  Plants are difficult to keep alive and I think these sentiments are perceived by those near the park.  Maybe the message is absorbed by the people near the park and the positive vibes result in making improvements in their own lives as well as their communities.

I am not sure if any of these theories are right, but I like to think that it is a combination of these three things that results in positive impact that community gardens have on the communities they serve.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Lower birth rates higher global population?!

It seems to me that there are competing headlines: global birth and fertility rates are dropping and that the population has just exceeded seven billion people and should reach nine billion by the year 2050.

It’s great that more women around the world are getting an education, which is wildly believed to be the biggest factor in the reduction in births.  More education leads to delayed childbirth plus higher health and exposure to birth control.  The birth rates in developed countries are much lower than in developing countries. But there are other factors that impact birth rates.  In the US, new data shows that the most recent recession is blamed for declining birth rates in almost every subsection of society.  Babies are expensive and women are waiting to have them until their financial situation improves, or is at least more stable.

A new CDC study found that birth rates for teens and women in their early 20s are the lowest since the 1940s. Rates fell 6 percent among women in their early 20s. The study also found there were 34.3 births per every 1,000 teenagers in 2010 – down 9 percent from 2009’s rates.

US birth peaked in 2007 with 4.3 million births.  In 2010 there were only 4 million babies born. The number of births pecked in 2007, but the number of babies per 1,000 people has declined since the baby boom, right after World War II.  This is explained by the fact that even though each person is having fewer children there are still more people of childbearing age.

If 1,000 women had 2.5 children then the next generation would have about 1,250 women.  If each of those women only had 2.2 children then there would be 1,375 women to have children in the next generation.

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If 1,000 women had 2.5 children then the next generation would have 2,500 children.  If each of the women from the second generation only had 2.2 children then there would be 2,750 people in the next generation.

As you can see there are fewer people being born, but the size of the subsequent generation is still larger than the one before. This will continue to happen until the fertility rate drops below 2 children per female (one child to replace her and one child to replace her mate).

This explains the first reason that the world’s population is continuing to grow even as fertility rates decline. The second reason is that we are living longer.

In October a baby was born, it was the seven billionth person living on Earth right now.  If that baby was born in an industrialized country it is likely that the baby will live to be 100 years old.  Today the typical life span in these parts of the world is 80 years, which is 30 years longer than it would have been for a person living in 1910. The shortest global life span is 41-49 years in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

National Geographic reports that on April 1, 2010 there were 53,364 people in the US over the age of 100.  That number is projected to reach 601,000 in 2050.

As people spend more time on earth, even if they have fewer children, the number will continue to increase. Let’s take the example above again.

If 1,000 women had 2.5 children at the age of 30, then the next generation would have about 2,500 people. At this point and time there are 3,500 people alive (parents and children).  Now 30 years later the 1,250 women born each have 2.2 children of their own and there are 6,250 people alive.    If each of the women in the second generation has 2.2 children then there will be 2,750 children in the next generation, which brings the population total to 9,000 people. At this point only 90 years has passed. Even with delayed child birth (a starting age of 30 for women) it is extremely plausible that grandparents and great-grandparents will be alive to see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  With longer life spans the mortality rate is lower and therefore the overall population can grow.

These are the two reasons (that I have found) to explain how we can have fewer children and still have a growing population.  It’s just growing slower and older.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Area vs yields

I just experienced an epiphany.  I heard a speech outlining what is in store for global agriculture during the next ten years.  We hope that the global agriculture industry will be able to feed the growing global population.  However, and this is the part that threw me for a loop, in order to do that we either have to increase area or increase yields. Ok- that makes sense.  But if you look at this sentence, either we need more land to grow food (which is against the conservationist in me) or we need new ways to get more food from one acre of land (and bio-technology makes me squirm).  So, suddenly I was asked to pick one of three options:

  1. Not feed a growing human population, which from the beginning of this blog, I have said will not ever happen.  We will not leave land wild to save elephants if it means humans, especially children will starve.
  2. We can increase land for agriculture
  3. We can improve farming practices to increase yields

You might think that increases in yields do not have to come in the forms of bio-technology, which is GMOs.  Throughout most of history you would be correct; most of our advances came in the form of improved farming practices, including irrigation, plow and pesticides.  However, these improvements have taken us as far as they can.  Yes, there might be improvements left, but most of them will be minor and not worth the investment to discover.  Therefore, the big improves to come will come in the form of GMOs and other bio-technology.

Many foodies and environmentalists have very strong feelings about both of these options and express a lot of resistance, but it is unrealistic to think that one if not both of these will continue to happen.  Knowing this people need to understand their options and the impact of their choices.  If you are saying that we should not use any GMO crops then you are also saying that to feed the world we need to bring new lands into production.  Or the converse if you don’t think we should bring new lands into production then you are saying that we must find ways to increase yields on the lands we already use.

Once conservation and bio-technology were placed at odds with each other it forced me to think, where do I fall? As you know I think we should take the action with the smallest impact on the natural world because as much as we try, we have no idea what the long-term consequences of our actions are.

Scientists generally believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption and do not harm the environment.  My concern with GMOs is that we don’t have enough empirical evidence to know for certain what impact they have on humans or the environment.  I think it is likely that in 50 years we will find negative consequences associated with GMOs.

However, the other choice is to bring more land into production.

I think there are two reasons that I side with the conservation and not the anti-bio tech people on this issue:

  1. The name of this blog is “Making the most of our limited lands” that has always been my concern.  The name itself implies that it is important to increase yields to prevent more land from being taken from its wild state.
  2. GMOs are ubiquitous.  If they are unsafe for humans and will damage the environment we already have a disaster on our hands.  So I think we should be researching and asking more questions to make sure they are safe.  But as for right now, we use them and there is no going back.

So I think we should look to increase yields over increase area.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Will higher temperatures increase or decrease net agriculture production?

We talk about global warming in absolutes: it’s happening or it’s not happening, it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon or it’s a result of human actions.  In reality, global warming is like most things, it’s not black or white.  There is a lot of grey area in this debate and a lot of unknowns.  This post assumes that global warming is happening, at some unknown speed and the cause is not relevant.  I am sure that many of you want to scream at their computer screens right now.  Yes, I know, I am oversimplifying a very complex issue and more importantly, I am glazing over the most heated parts of the global warming debate. However, by ignoring these areas I can highlight an interesting side of global warming that is not regularly discussed.

This post will take a cause and affect look at higher temperatures on global food production.  It will only look at the impacts of higher temperatures on our food supply and not on changes in tides, storm systems or other weather patterns that are affected by increased global temperatures.

 

As you may know all crops have ideal or optimal growing conditions, these are the conditions that the farmer will get the largest yields.  There are also acceptable growing conditions.  Here the crops grow, but the harvest is less abundant than in the ideal or optimal growing conditions.  Because of these restrictions certain crops are generally grown in specific regions.  It is interesting to think about what small changes in temperature will do to long established growing regions.  The increase in temperature will have a major impact on local regions but could also impact the global food supply.

It is unclear if an increase in temperature will cause an overall increase or decrease in the amount of food produced globally.  Many people have speculated, but it’s difficult or impossible to know for sure, especially since there are a lot of factors that I am excluding from this post.  There are three categories of temperature changes: changes in optimal growing regions and changes in the marginal growing regions.  The marginal lands category is broken into barely unsuitable for production and suitable but not ideal.

First let’s look at the optimal growing regions.  These are places where a certain crop, for example wheat, will grow very well.  If the temperature changes the production in these areas will decline, because the temperatures are no longer within the optimal region. Areas that are colder will warmer up a few degrees making them the new ideal growing regions.

Now onto the marginal lands that are on the edge of the acceptable growing conditions.  These are places that barely have the right temperature to grow a specific crop, in this case wheat.  People still grow wheat here, but the land does not produce the yields that other places get. Lands that currently slightly too cold for optimal growth will see increases in yields with higher temperatures, while places that are slightly too warm will see declines in yields or might no longer be able to sustain wheat crops.

Then there are the places that are not suitable for production right now.  The places that are too cold might become warm enough to support wheat production and in these places the world will increase its net wheat production.  The places that are currently too cold will be virgin lands; they will not have been used to produce wheat in the past.  It is possible that nothing was grown in these places.  This means that they will be very nutrient rich, because agriculture has not removed the nutrients from the soil yet and in the early years crops will produce high yields that in comparable regions with a history of industrial agriculture.  No new growth occurs in the places that are currently too warm.

There are two ways to compare current wheat production to future wheat production: on a global scale and on a local or micro-scale.  When thinking about the amount of wheat produced globally, the increases from the places that benefit from warmer temperatures and the losses from places that are either less ideal for wheat production or are no longer viable options for wheat production are added together.  The sum of these outputs will result in either a net increase or a net decrease in wheat production.  It all depends on how much the temperature increases and how the new areas compare to the original areas.

On the mirco-level the changes will not be balanced out by the fact of increased temperatures in other regions of the world.  A specific area will either see increases or decreases in wheat production.  These changes will severely impact the economics of specific regions.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Jellyfish prove my point

In the “Next” section of the October 2011 issues of National Geographic magazine there was an article called Jellyfish currents.  John Dabiri, a researcher at Caltech wanted to know if the amount of water jellyfish displace when moving affected the ecosystem.  From his experiment he concluded that as jellyfish move hundreds of feet up to the surface every day they are dragging cold, nutrient-rich waters from the ocean deep up and then pulling warm water back down on their decent.

My reason for sharing this with you is because I think it highlights the fact that each species plays an integral part in the ecosystem and that in most cases we have no idea what it is.  In this example someone took the time to ask a question about a specific species and its role in the larger ecosystem and the result was mind-blowing.  I don’t think that most people would trumpet jellyfish as a critical component in the ocean environment or that they would believe that jellyfish combined other small organisms could rival tides in the impact they have on moving ocean water.   This example leaves me wondering, how many species are there who have a profound impact on the environment, without us realizing it?  My guess is all of them.  This is why I am a conservationist, because we don’t know what the loss of one species will have on fragile ecosystems.

In the jellyfish example, the jellyfish’s action is not extraordinary.  It is moving from the bottom of the ocean to the top to feed, which is required for the jellyfish to stay alive.  While the intent for the jellyfish is to find food, the result is much further reaching; moving water and nutrients allows for other species to flourish.  The absences of these creatures would be devastation for the ocean’s ecosystem, without jellyfish all of the surface species that require nutrients from the ocean floor and all of the deep species that require warmer water would not be able to exist.

On the flip side having too many of one species changes a positive impact into a negative one.  For example elephants knock over trees.  It’s natural and in ideal conditions it’s good for the environment.  They get rid of weak or sick trees.  They create areas for new trees to grow in the bush and the down trees create an ideal living space for other species.  However, due to habitat loss and deforestation, there are more elephants than the land can support.  In these places too many trees are being knocked down by the elephants and the result is that antelope species are not able to hide from predators and their numbers are dropping.  In the short-term the easy prey will boost predator populations, but without a steady food source future generations will not be able to survive… all because of the number of trees that elephants knock down.

These two examples are supposed to show the delicate nature of two every different ecosystems.   These are just two examples and we have them because someone was interested in the impact of a specific action on the environment.  However there are far more instances where the organism or action has not been studied and therefore we have no idea what will happen without that species, or in the case of the elephants an imbalance between the number of species and the amount of habitat available to them.  This unknown is the foundation of my belief that it is important to leave as much of the natural world intact as possible, because we just don’t know and extinction cannot be reversed.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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