Thursday, August 29, 2013

Desperate measures

There were several stories on the BBC last week that at first glance appear unrelated, but with a deeper perspective all deal with the same thing. All of the stories share a similar structure. First, they optimistically discuss some sort of new scientific miracle or breakthrough. Then, they explain why the new innovation or idea is so urgent, usually because of some dire need, with plenty of statistics to back it up. Then they explain the downsides and stumbling blocks to adaptation of the new idea. And finally, often times there are things which show just how ridiculous these innovations are, and how inferior they are to alternatives.

Now what makes these stories all the same? The simple fact that all of these scientific breakthroughs and innovations are desperate measures – they are invented to deal with the dire situations that a  previous scientific innovation has unleashed upon the world – overpopulation, ecosystem destruction, pollution, climate change, desertification, malnutrition, fossil fuel dependence, and so on. Or, they are ways to keep the existing status quo going at all costs. They are all solid evidence of the fact that we need to innovate ever faster in order to avoid disaster thanks to past innovations.

These articles are all illustrations of the vicious circle principle - the idea that we need to innovate ever faster to keep disaster from occurring. Every time we innovate, we need to make society more complex, and the stakes for failure get higher. At the same time, the vast majority of people are worse off, with only a few elites at the top of the pyramid benefiting. This has been the case since the invention of agriculture with one exception – the extraordinary bounty created by the harnessing of fossil fuels and the application of science. But those abilities are increasingly being applied to fix problems caused by fossil fuel use, such as climate change, overpopulation, resource scarcity, and economic collapse.

Let’s look at an example. This article is about a favorite subject of techno-optimists – meat grown in a laboratory: World’s first lab grown burger is eaten in London.
Scientists took cells from a cow and, at an institute in the Netherlands, turned them into strips of muscle that they combined to make a patty... The burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown, from Cornwall, and tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald.

Stem cells are the body's "master cells", the templates from which specialised tissue such as nerve or skin cells develop. Most institutes working in this area are trying to grow human tissue for transplantation to replace worn-out or diseased muscle, nerve cells or cartilage. Prof Post is using similar techniques to grow muscle and fat for food. He starts with stem cells extracted from cow muscle tissue. In the laboratory, these are cultured with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals to help them develop and multiply. 
Three weeks later, there are more than a million stem cells, which are put into smaller dishes where they coalesce into small strips of muscle about a centimetre long and a few millimetres thick These strips are collected into small pellets, which are frozen. When there are enough, they are defrosted and compacted into a patty just before being cooked. Because the meat is initially white in colour, Helen Breewood - who works with Prof Post - is trying to make the lab-grown muscle look red by adding the naturally-occurring compound myoglobin.
Yum! And why do we need to turn to a fossil-fuel powered university laboratory to procure animal flesh, something humans have been doing for literally thousands of years, and harvesting from nature for perhaps millions of years before that?
Researchers say the technology could be a sustainable way of meeting what they say is a growing demand for meat.... The world's population is continuing to increase and an ever greater proportion want to eat meat. To meet that demand farmers will need to use more energy, water and land - and the consequent increase in greenhouse gas emission will be substantial... An independent study found that lab-grown beef uses 45% less energy than the average global representative figure for farming cattle. It also produces 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 99% less land.
Ah, I get it now. We're running out of land, water, and energy, while the demand for meat keeps growing. So we're kind of up against it, aren't we? But rather than address the root causes of this situation, we're going to grow meat in a lab like in some sort of bad science-fiction novel from the seventies. And we can imagine there is some sort of billionaire funding all of this:
Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has been revealed as the project's mystery backer. He funded the £215,000 ($330,000) research.
Of course he did. But I’m guessing Mr. Brin can afford the finest Kobe beef imported from Japan; petri dish meat is what the rest of us are going to eat. And no doubt it will be a good deal less tasty than what Mr. Brin has for dinner:
One food expert said it was "close to meat, but not that juicy" and another said it tasted like a real burger. Upon tasting the burger, Austrian food researcher Ms Ruetzler said: "I was expecting the texture to be more soft... there is quite some intense taste; it's close to meat, but it's not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper. "This is meat to me. It's not falling apart." Food writer Mr Schonwald said: "The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there's a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger. "What was consistently different was flavour."
There are usually a few curmudgeons with crazy ideas about reforming the social system who can safely be ignored:
Critics of the technology say that eating less meat would be an easier way to tackle predicted food shortages …Prof Tara Garnett, head of the Food Policy Research Network at Oxford University, said decision-makers needed to look beyond technological solutions." We have a situation where 1.4 billion people in the world are overweight and obese, and at the same time one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry," she said. "That's just weird and unacceptable. The solutions don't just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access and affordability, so not just more food but better food gets to the people who need it."
There are just a few obstacles to be overcome, though, before we can save the world with our latest techno-fix:
Currently, this is a work in progress. The burger revealed on Monday was coloured red with beetroot juice. The researchers have also added breadcrumbs, caramel and saffron, which were intended to add to the taste, although Ms Ruetzler said she could not taste these. At the moment, scientists can only make small pieces of meat; larger ones would require artificial circulatory systems to distribute nutrients and oxygen.

Prof Mark Post, of Maastricht University, the scientist behind the burger, remarked: "It's a very good start."
And if I may cheat a bit by turning to another British paper, the Guardian has an article on another development on the meat front – growing insects for food. They’re highly efficient sources of protein no doubt, but why are turning to ranching insects rather than sheep, cows and pigs?:
 As meat prices rise, consumers may change their minds, but this is an argument insect enthusiasts are wary of pushing too hard. "What we don't want people to think, which has been some people's interpretation, is that insects are just meat for those who don't have money," says Eduardo Galante, professor of zoology at Alicante University and an expert in entomology. "When you look at the comments below news articles on the internet here in Spain you can see that lots of people have got the message that 'salaries are going down, economically we're doing really badly, and we're going to have to eat insects.' It's very important how we transmit the message. I'm convinced that, if one day an important chef decides to put insects on the menu here, then from that day on people will eat insects...

It's true that the movement of westerners towards eating insects has been dwarfed by the movement of people in the rest of the world towards meat. According to the FAO, in 1961 the Chinese consumed 3.6kg of meat per person. In 2002 that figure had increased to 52.4kg. If the world's two billion entomophagists were to decide that insects are disgusting, there's no way of producing enough meat to feed them all. Even vegetarians will find prices of staples rising as more land is set aside for animal feed.

The "dystopian" future of meat for the rich, insects for the poor, however, has to be better than "meat for the rich, nothing for the poor". Either way, the mission of groups such as Ento and the Nordic Food Lab could be more important than we think. If the new question is "how do we eat insects?" or, indeed, "how do we cook lab-burgers?", then it's chefs, not biologists or chemists, who will have to lead the way.
 Quite a long way from hunting and gathering, eh? Not so much really, most likely, pre-humans like Australopithecus and earlier human ancestors relied on insects as sources of protein before they developed the large brains required for tool use, fire, and big-game hunting. Progress!

Here's another example from the BBC that same week: GM rice approval 'edging closer':
Scientists in the Philippines are weeks from submitting a genetically modified variety of rice to the authorities for biosafety evaluations. They claim it could be in the fields within a year, but national regulators will have the final say. Supporters say it will help the 1.7 million Filipino children who suffer vitamin A deficiency - which reduces immunity and can cause blindness. But campaigners say "Golden Rice" is a dangerous way to tackle malnutrition. They say that it threatens the Philippines' staple food.
So we need to genetically modify rice to prevent vitamin A deficiency, eh? And why, exactly, are 1.7 million children suffering from vitamin A deficiency (a number that would constitute a significant portion of the human race in pre-agricultural  times) that we need to start screwing around with the genetic structure of our staple grains?
Rice is by far the most important crop in the Philippines, with the average Filipino eating 100kg (dry weight) per year. Two thirds of households don't eat enough to meet their dietary energy needs, and most of the calories they do get come from rice.
Aha. So this techno-fix is intended to rectify malnutrition caused by poverty. But we're not going to fix the poverty, are we? This innovation, like the one above, has been a long time in the making and has required a lot of resources to pull off:
It has taken scientists more than two decades to boost the beta-carotene in Golden Rice to meaningful levels. But Dr Antonio Alfonso, who leads the project at PhilRice, says the product is now ready.
Oh, so twenty years later it’s finally ready. That’s good. Of course the powers that be want genetically engineered rice to be the answer, since people will be dependent upon solutions provided by agribusiness and engineered in labs. While they claim that this is not being done for profit, it's hard to not see how we won't become dependent on the major corporations that have the money to genetically modify seeds, produce pesticides, etc. They don't want to tackle the fundamental problems that are causing children to experience vitamin A deficiency. That would tip the apple cart in some way, and that is unacceptable. And while it's not mentioned in the article, I know from other sources that yet another tech billionaire, Bill Gates, is one of the main backers, in the interests of "philanthropy" of course.

Once again, there are some critics:
In fields outside the town of Tayabas in south Luzon, Dr Chito Medina, national coordinator of charity MASIPAG, is working with farmers to improve the diversity of their crops using organic growing techniques. He argues that a more diverse harvest contains naturally high levels of Vitamin A and other nutrients, making Golden Rice redundant."Malnutrition is a broader issue, therefore the solution needs to be broader also," he explained."The more important thing is alleviating poverty, providing more diverse seeds to farmers so they can grow more diverse crops and having more diverse food and a more balanced diet. Then there would be no vitamin deficiencies at all.
"There are so many natural sources of Vitamin A, especially in tropical countries: almost all green and leafy vegetables, yellow vegetables and fruits like mangos and cantaloupes."Dr Medina added: "We have a variety of sweet potato which has five times the level of Vitamin A than there is in Golden Rice. Ecologically, this is more sustainable and it's the way agriculture should be in the future.

"Economically, it generates more income for farmers because there are fewer expenditures: they don't have to buy chemical pesticides, fertilisers or seeds."
Not having to buy chemical pesticides fertilizers or seeds is not part of the plan. No, we're probably going to go the GM crop route. And what about climate change? What sort of techo-fixes are we talking about here? Well, how about 'powdered rain?': Can 'powdered rain' make drought a thing of the past?
The lack of water is a growing, global problem that seems intractable. While the UN estimates that a large majority of the water we use goes on irrigation, researchers have been working on a range of ideas that make the water we use in agriculture last longer. 
There has been a great deal of excitement and some dramatic headlines in recent weeks about a product that is said to have the potential to overcome the global challenge of growing crops in arid conditions. "Solid Rain" is a powder that's capable of absorbing enormous amounts of water and releasing it slowly over a year so that plants can survive and thrive in the middle of a drought.
So we'll use this solid rain made in labs to replace the natural rain that's no longer occurring thanks to climate change? Wonderful. Once again, some people are skeptical:
But not everyone is convinced that Solid Rain is a significant solution to the problem of drought. Dr Linda Chalker-Scott from Washington State University says that these types of products have been known to gardeners for several years now. "They're hardly new, and there's no scientific evidence to suggest that they hold water for a year, or last for 10 years in the soil," she told BBC News. "An additional practical problem is that gels can do as much harm as good. As the gels begin to dry out, they soak up surrounding water more vigorously. That means they will start taking water directly from plant roots," she added. Dr Chalker-Scott says that research she carried out in Seattle with newly transplanted trees showed that wood chip mulching was just as effective as adding powdered materials and gels to the soil. And it was significantly cheaper.
But mulch is not as profitable, is it? Lab-grown meat, Golden Rice, Solid Rain; these all come from the high-tech laboratories of the world’s corporations. And they are all innovations desperately designed to keep the status quo going at all costs. And speaking of high-tech laboratories: Critical phase for Iter fusion dream:
Since the 1950s, fusion has offered the dream of almost limitless energy - copying the fireball process that powers the Sun - fuelled by two readily available forms of hydrogen. The attraction is a combination of cheap fuel, relatively little radioactive waste and no emissions of greenhouse gases.

But the technical challenges of not only handling such an extreme process but also designing ways of extracting energy from it have always been immense. In fact, fusion has long been described as so difficult to achieve that it's always been touted as being "30 years away". 
I don’t think we need to elaborate too much on the fundamental reasoning behind this research – trying to come up with enough power to keep global civilization growing and expanding in the age of fossil fuel depletion. Fracking, which could be the ultimate example of “innovation” being used to preserve the status quo despite horrible negative consequences, also figured in the BBC news for that week: Fracking: Water concerns persist?
Recent studies from the US have again raised questions about the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on water supplies. These show that chemicals, including methane and arsenic, have been found more often in water wells near natural gas extraction sites. Despite this, the actual causes of the contamination are not clear.

In the UK, water companies say drinking supplies must be protected "at all costs" if fracking becomes commonplace. Hydraulic fracturing's impact on water is a concern because the gas and oil they aim to extract are normally quite deep in the earth compared with our drinking supplies. The fracking pipes go through the drinking water aquifers and there are worries that any cracks in the lining of the drilling wells could contaminate supplies.
And as for high-tech, the challenges of fusion make lab grown meat and GM rice look like stone-age technology by comparison:
It will involve creating a plasma of superheated gas reaching temperatures of more than 200 million C - conditions hot enough to force deuterium and tritium atoms to fuse together and release energy. The whole process will take place inside a giant magnetic field in the shape of a ring - the only way such extreme heat can be contained.

The plant at JET has managed to achieve fusion reactions in very short bursts but required the use of more power than it was able to produce. The reactor at Iter is on a much larger scale and is designed to generate 10 times more power - 500 MW - than it will consume.
An EROEI of 10:1 for billions of dollars in cost? Sign me up!

Finally, here’s another one from that same week showing how desperate we are to come up with new antibiotics after abusing them for the last fifty years: New antibiotic that attacks MRSA found in ocean microbe:
The unique chemical structure of the compound could lead to a new class of antibiotic medicines. Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently warned of the risk posed by antibiotic-resistant "nightmare" bacteria while Sally Davies, UK Chief Medical Officer, described them as a "ticking time bomb" that threatens national security. The Infectious Disease Society of America has expressed concern that the rate of antibiotic development to counter resistance is insufficient. This makes this latest discovery particularly welcome news.
 Yes, we're now dredging the sea bed for antibiotics (and methane hydrates, too).

A lot of times the point that so much of our scientific research is just trying desperately to fix conditions caused by earlier discoveries or to prolong the status quo is rather academic. But here we can see a whole host of stories proving the point beyond any doubt all in one week in one British publication! (okay, two). Genetically modified rice, lab grown meat, insect farming, fusion reactors, hydraulic fracturing, GM crops, trolling the sea bed for antibiotics; this ought to give you a good picture of where we’re headed as a civilization. These are not new breakthroughs that are raising the living standards of the world's population. They are desperate measures, aimed at averting disaster. Increasingly, this is the subject of our “innovation” (or making products nobody needs and convincing us we want them).

What if in the Philippines we encouraged diverse perennial polycultures? What if we integrated animals into these perennial polycultures? What if we encouraged natural pest control, including eating the pests? What if we encouraged water conservation through terracing, mulch and storage? What if we protected the tree canopy through agroforestry? What if allowed small farmers to get good prices for what they grow instead of exporting it to foreign markets? What if we used these to harvest energy sources like wood and bamboo, along with wind and solar power? What if we protected the natural environment? This would solve:

1.) Vitamin A deficiency/malnutrition
2.) Poverty
3.) Protein demands
4.) Carbon sequestration/climate change
5.) Drought
6.) Energy needs
7.) Pollution

But those types of solutions are not on the table are they? They are not considered "innovations" that will save us. So the next time you read a story in the media of some sort of miracle techno-fix solution, ask yourself: what fundamental problem is it trying to solve, is there a simpler/easier way that gets to the root of the problem, and who benefits? I think you'll look at a lot of stories very differently.

Addendum: I started writing this last week, but I see that today's Archdruid Report has a similar theme.

Bonus: Enhancing indigenous knowledge in rice terraces, and Discovering the wonders of the coconut (Our World 2.0):
In the Philippines, coconut oil was until recently used solely for roasting and baking. Now, it’s used to produce vast quantities of biodiesel.

Romulo Arancon, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, says using coconuts to produce fuel cuts down on the high cost of importing fossil fuels. “Using coconut oil instead of diesel will make countries more and more independent. Now we’re trying to increase the coconut harvest without destroying the environment. It’s important that making biodiesel does not compete with food plants,” said Arancon.

The eco-friendly fuel is not only cheaper but also releases a minimal amount of CO2. Plus, coconut-based diesel oil is also said to smell much better than the traditional variety.

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