Most of the time, when somebody goes undercover inside a meat processing facility, it's done with the express goal of convincing other people to stop eating meat. But that wasn't what journalist Ted Conover had in mind. He was more just curious, especially given the growing trend of state laws preventing undercover infiltration of agribusiness facilities. So, using his real name and address, Conover got a job as a USDA meat inspector at a Cargill plant.
What's fascinating here is that the problems he finds have less to do with animal abuse (Maryn McKenna reports that Conover was surprised to find himself in a clean, safe, humane facility) and more to do with the abuse of antibiotics — a trend that is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance.
The United States Geological Survey has an interesting FAQ report on dowsing — the practice of attempting to locate underground water with divining rods. It's got some interesting history and comparisons between dowsing and modern hydrology. The part on evidence for and against dowsing, though, is pretty sparse. If you want more on that, The Skeptic's Dictionary has some deeper analysis. The basic gist — what little research there has been suggests the successes of dowsing aren't any better than chance. (Via an interesting piece by Mary Brock at Skepchick about dowsing in the wine industry.)— Maggie
Sense About Science is a UK non-profit aimed at making science more understandable to the public. Right now, they're hosting a virtual plant science panel, where you can submit questions directly to scientists and see them answered on the Sense About Science website. What topics are fair game? Just about anything plant-related, from "Ash Dieback disease, to GM crops, bees to pesticides, mycotoxins in food to biofuels." Some answers are up already!(Via Mark Lynas)— Maggie
Winter is here. Which means it's time once again to start science-wanking the climate of George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. Back in May, i09 had a great piece on possible astronomical explanations for Westeros' weird seasons, where Summer and Winter can each last a decade. The hard part (which prompted lots of great conversations here) is that the lengths of the seasons are apparently totally unpredictable. Here's an eight-year-long Summer. There's a Winter that lasts five years and another that lasts a generation. The implications for food storage, alone, are enough to drive one batty.
Word of Martin says this is magic. But it presents so many science-related questions that it's really, really fun to speculate about how you might explain the differences between that world and ours in purely naturalistic terms.
Now, at The Last Word on Nothing, Sean Treacy brings up a different sort of food-related problem that I'd not even considered while I was busy trying to figure out the volume of the average Westerosi grain silo. How do you grow wine grapes without predictable seasons?
... grapevines have a life cycle that depends on regular seasons. In winter, grapevines are dormant. Come spring they sprout leaves. As summer begins, they flower and tiny little grapes appear. Throughout the summer the grapes fill up with water, sugar and acid. The grapes are finally ready for picking in early autumn, then go back to sleep in winter. This cycle is why wineries can rely on a yearly grape yield. Obviously, in Westeros, something must be different about how grapes work.
But it turns out there is a real-world way to produce wine throughout an endless summer. São Francisco Valley is a wine-growing region in tropical Brazil that is only about 600 to 700 miles south of equator. Despite the constant warmth, they pump out two and sometimes three grape harvests a year. How? By depriving the vines of water and removing their leaves after every harvest, which forces them to hibernate. “They trick the plant into thinking it’s wintertime,” Busalacchi said.
Jess Bachman, whose infographics we've featured on Boing Boing before, recently started getting into animation as a way to tell data-intensive stories. This video on food labeling, and why so many big businesses donated so many millions to defeat California's Proposition 37, is his first experiment.
"I opened After Effects for the first time last monday and finished this video on GMO labeling last Friday," Jess says. "It's nothing too special, but I'm excited about this new story telling medium for me, so if you have any stories to tell, let me know."
Your suggestions for future videos welcome in the comments!
Ray sez, "I was looking for teat cups to build a simple hand vacuum pump milking machine for our new pet goat. And I found this website for milking machine teat cup liners, with the associated disco dancing promotional video.
I wrote a story about the future of crop science that's printed in the June issue of Popular Science. When I was doing the research, the big question I wanted to ask was this: "How can we take the most important agricultural crops and make them more sustainable and adapted to climate change?"
I suppose there are a lot of ways to define "most important", but I went with the crops that feed the most people. Wheat, rice, and corn account for more than 50% of all the calories consumed on Earth. So those are the plants I looked at. And that's where I ran into a surprise. Scientists had some really interesting, concrete suggestions for how to prepare wheat and rice for a changing world. But with corn, they took a different tack. Basically, the scientists said the best thing to do with corn was use less corn.
Large yields and high calorie content have made corn the most popular and most heavily subsidized crop in America. That’s an increasingly urgent problem. In 2010, corn production consumed nine million tons of fertilizer and led to greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 42 million tons of CO2—and corn isn’t even something we can easily eat. “The digestibility of unprocessed corn to humans isn’t very high,” says Jerry Hatfield, a plant physiologist with the USDA. “We have to put it through processing of some sort, whether that happens in a factory or an animal.” Set those problems aside, and a deal-breaker remains: modern corn is more sensitive to heat than any other major crop, and attempts to create drought- and heat-resistant corn through genetic modification are still unproven. A recent study found that a 3.6°F increase in global temperatures could make corn prices twice as volatile.
All of which is why many experts advocate replacing corn with a portfolio of hardier, more nutritious and more efficient food sources. Wheat production generates less than half the fossil-fuel emissions of corn and returns 63 percent more protein. Other crops actually give back to the land. Chickpeas and peanuts contain twice as much protein as corn, and they increase the nutrient content of soil.
Ever since researching Before the Lights Go Out, my book on energy in the United States, I've been a little skeptical of the locavore movement. Sure, farmer's markets are a nice way to spend a weekend morning, and a good way to connect with other people from my neighborhood. There are arguments to be made about creating local jobs and contributions to local economies. But I see some holes in the idea, as well—particularly if you expect eating local to go beyond a niche market or a special-occasion thing.
Think about economies of scale—the cost benefits you get for making and moving things in bulk. That works not only for cost (making non-local food often cheaper food), but it also works for energy use. It takes less energy for a factory to can green beans for half the country than it would take for us all to buy green beans and lovingly can them at home. When our energy comes from limited, polluting sources—that discrepancy matters. Plus, you have to think about places like Minnesota, where I live. In winter, local food here would require hothouse farming—something that is extremely unsustainable, as far as energy use is concerned.
Basically, I think there are benefits to local food. And I don't think the problems with local food mean we shouldn't change anything about our food system. But we have to acknowledge that the locavore thing isn't perfect, and maybe isn't as sustainable as we'd like it to be. That's why I like this Grist interview with Pierre Desrochers, a University of Toronto geography professor and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Desrochers talks about some of the problems he sees with the sustainability of local eating and explains the nuance of his argument. It's not "local eating" vs. "change absolutely nothing, hooray for Monsanto!" And that's what makes it interesting, and important.
Q. Was there anything that surprised you as you got deeper into the issues?
A. I was surprised by the number of local food movements I discovered in the past, but I was not surprised to see that they all failed. There was a local food movement in the British empire in the 1920s. And it turns out that even the British empire was not big enough to have a successful local food movement. The first world war cut Germany off from the rest of the world, so they had to revert to local food. And of course people starved there, and they had a few bad crops, and all the problems that long-distance trade had solved came back with a vengeance.
Nobody would bother importing food from a distance if it did not have significant advantages over local food. [In the book] we talk about food miles, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments — transportation is a tiny thing [in terms of climate impacts], and if you try to cut down on transportation, then you need to heat your greenhouse as opposed to having unheated greenhouses further south. Then your environmental footprint is actually more significant.
Frycook posted this fascinating video from the Apollo era on the BoingBoing Submitterator. The basic gist: Back in the day, NASA scientists tried exposing various crops—corn, lettuce, tobacco ... you know, the essentials—to moon dust. The plants weren't grown in the dust, exactly. Instead, it was scattered in their pots or rubbed on some of their leaves. In this study, the plants that were exposed seemed to grow faster than unexposed plants.
That's pretty interesting, so I dug around a little to find out more about these studies. Turns out, growing plants in lunar soil isn't quite as promising as the video makes it sound, but it's not a ridonculous idea, either. In 2010, scientists at the University of Florida published a review of all the Apollo-era research on this subject, which amounted to exactly three published studies. From that data, we can say that the plants weren't obviously affected in any seriously negative ways by their exposure to lunar soils—which is good—but we can't really say the plants grew better their terrestrial-only cousins, either.
In the end, and as recorded in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, there were only three published primary studies of seeds, seedlings, and plants grown in contact with lunar materials. In those three cases, small amounts of lunar material were used, and the plants were relatively large. In general, the dusting of plants or the mixing of lunar fines with other support media makes plant interaction with the lunar material a small part of the plant experience. At no point were plants actually grown in lunar samples in the way that one might imagine, with the entire root structure growing through and in constant association with a lunar soil. It is no accident that the wording of most of the titles of the studies, as well as the careful discussion within the papers, refers to growth “in contact with” lunar samples—not “in” lunar samples. With only a small portion of the roots, for example, interacting with the lunar materials, it is likely that plant responses to the lunar materials were, therefore, quite attenuated due to the lack of an extensive plant/lunar soil interface. Biophysical issues, such as root penetration of dry and variously hydrated lunar sample types, were completely unaddressed. Thus, the effects of actual growth within lunar soils were simply not a part of the plant studies of the Apollo era.
On the other hand, in 2008 scientists with the European Space Agency tried growing marigolds in a medium of crushed rock—basically the much-cheaper equivalent of growing plants in moon "soil". There's no indication that the marigolds did better than those grown in real dirt, but they did grow and they did survive (even without any added fertilizer), which could be indirect evidence in support of the Moon gardeners of the future.