November 17, 2016

Taking Stock: To eat, or not to eat, meat (double issue)

It's been some weeks since the last issue of this Taking Stock email newsletter. To try make make amends, this week's issue is a double one. First on offer, several perspectives on the 'meat divide'. Then, for your possible amusement (and/or relief from politics), a few tidbits on pig text messaging and porcine cognitive biases, (frozen) honeybee sperm, microbial fossils of an improbably hoary age, the political (in)correctness of the term' sub-Saharan Africa', and a cautionary tale on taking 'the average' of anything (yielding the accurate proportions of nothing).

The campaign to get Americans to eat less meat has been a bust—Eliza Barclay (s
ummarized by Meridian Institute)
'. . . Americans, despite urging from environmental, health and animal welfare advocates, continue to eat so much meat.

A recent analysis from Rabobank found that consumption of meat in the U.S. rose by five percent in 2015—the biggest increase in 40 years. And that number is expected to increase.

'“There’s a roller-coaster effect here, and we are about to start an upswing,” says Will Sawyer, an animal protein analyst with Rabobank and the author of the report. Which means Americans will take home the prize for the biggest meat eaters on Earth.

'As it turns out, says Barclay, the main reason why meat consumption dropped between 2005 and 2014 was due to tight supplies and high prices. In 2015, prices fell. “Consumers are responding to falling prices. That’s a big part of the story,” says Sawyer.' | | @voxdotcom | @elizabarclay

The millennial meat mindset—It's complicated—Chase Purdy

New research into meat consumption habits show the country’s millennial generation is on track to eat just as much meat as the Boomer generation.

'According to research by Midan Marketing, 78% of millennials ate either the same amount of meat or more of it last year than the year before. And they spent more on meat on average ($162 per week) than Boomers ($93 per week). That’s partly because millennials eat out more than their parents’ generation, and are willing to pay more for convenience.' | @qz | @chasepurdy

The case against protein power—Katherine Ellen Foley

'[W]hen we distill protein—or any technically good nutrient—we lose out on so much more. As science writer Michael Pollan pointed out in his book In Defense of Food, often when we think about nutrition, we forget that we’re actually talking about food. What we eat has become so processed to concentrate things like protein and minimize things like fat, that in many cases we’re left with 'edible foodlike substances'—not food.'

'If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims', Pollan writes. 'Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.' | @qz | @katherineefoley

On having the moral high ground and the pork chop—Tamar Haspel

Sustainable agriculture—David to factory farming's Goliath—is capturing the eating public's imagination with its contented cows, bucolic landscape and its practice of leaving the environment intact.

'Vegetarians had a good claim to the ethical and environmental high ground. . . . When you put the vegetarian vision up against a system of small, sustainable farms, though, the equation changes.

'Ecologically, vegetarians focus on efficiency. If humans eat animals that eat plants, it takes much more land to feed us than if humans just eat the plants [but] what would we put on freed-up farmland? Gated communities? Wal-Mart?

'There's also more to agriculture than efficiency. If animals make farming less efficient, they also act as weed control, pest control and fertilizer while they do it—they're integral to sustainability. Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, profiles Polyface Farm, where the cows and chickens make the lettuce and sweet corn possible. And Joel Salatin, the farm's owner, makes a different kind of efficiency argument: Animals convert calories that human can't eat (such as grass) or prefer not to eat (such as grubs) into calories humans want to eat (such as chicken). . . .

'There's a strong case that giving a farm animal a happy life making a constructive environmental contribution and slaughtering it humanely to feed people is ethical. . . .

'And so we can have the moral high ground and the pork chop. . . . By eating only animals that are raised sustainably and treated well—and those in moderation—we can protect our environment, our livestock and our health and support the small, sustainable farms that might be able to change the nature of American agriculture.' | @washingtonpost | @tamarhaspel

Grass-fed manifesto—Megan Perry
'Why do we have such a seemingly illogical food system? This is the question at the heart of Graham Harvey’s recently published book, Grass-Fed Nation, a manifesto for grazing livestock and the extensive benefits of mixed farming.

'Peppered with case studies, the book convincingly asserts how mixed farms are essential for improving soil fertility, increasing yield and reducing pests. How do mixed farms strengthen local communities and rural economies by providing jobs and using a diverse range of local services? And how do they improve the long-term health of the planet by converting arable land back to pasture, thus improving the soil’s ability to store carbon? . . .

'Integrated thinking combining food, farming, health and the environment has been in short supply for many years. But recently there appears to be a shift, away from thinking in siloes, and towards a more systemic approach. This informs one of the strongest messages in Harvey’s book, that the way we farm impacts our diet and our health, and vice versa—our diet and concerns about health affect the way we farm. . . .

A major study in 2008 found that industrial crop growing would not be capable of feeding the global population and was unfit for purpose. With smallholder farmers still producing 70% of the world’s food, a change of direction is evidently needed to ensure sustainable, small-scale farming is given protection and support.

'According to Harvey, the way to enable this is through a return to mixed farm systems in which pasture and grazing livestock form a central part. . . .' | @SusFoodTrust | @MeganPerry90 

When pigs fly—and when cows send text message to their farmers—Ananya Bhattacharya

'Soon, farmers won’t have to wait to take their cows to the cattle crush to see the vet. A text message will tell them what’s wrong.

'An Austrian startup, SmaXtec, is placing connected sensors in cows’ stomachs to transmit health data over wifi. The sensors, each the size of a hot dog, track minute-by-minute data about the temperature of the cow, the pH of her stomach, movement, and activity, and they identify when the animal is in heat. They can predict whether or not a cow is pregnant with 95% accuracy, therefore letting farmers take advantage of increased milk production prior to calving. When changes are monitored, the farm staff receives a text update.

The device, which has roughly four years of battery life, is inserted into the first of four stomachs through a cow’s throat using a metal rod and lodges in the rumen, Bloomberg reported.

'. . . Nearly 350 farms across two dozen countries are reportedly using this technology to monitor livestock. Over the last six years, the devices have been implanted in 15,000 cows in Britain. . . .

'SmaXtec sees a big opportunity for its sensors because of the “90 million cattle on dairy farms around the world,” but the opportunity may in fact be even bigger. The Economist’s global cattle count places the cattle population at 1.4 billion.' | @qz | @Ananya_b94

Cognitive porcine bias—Helena Horton

Pigs, apparently, can be optimists or pessimists, just like humans.

'In a new study by the University of Lincoln, published in Biology Letters, it was found that some pigs are go-getters, whereas others are moody and see the glass as half-empty. Researchers tested 36 domestic pigs, some of which were given roomy, comfortable living space with extra layers of deep straw. . . .

'"Reactive pigs in the less enriched environment were more pessimistic and those in the more enriched environment more optimistic.' | @telegraph | @horton_official

Honeybee sperm added to genebank for bee (and agricultural) back ups—Taryn Phaneuf

'The US government preserves the genes of more than 31,000 “agriculturally important” species. Honeybee sperm was just added to the bank.

'Hopkins is collecting the first-ever honeybee samples to deposit into the National Animal Germplasm Programa national livestock gene bank run by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The bank contains the genetic material of approximately 31,000 species that have been deemed agriculturally important in the United States.

'Housed in Fort Collins, Colorado, the repository began in 1957 as a seed library, but in 1999, the ARS started collecting the genetic material of animals used for food or fiber as well, including various kinds of beef cattle, freshwater fish, yaks, and bison. Researchers selecting for certain traits, or breeders trying to introduce greater variability to their stock, can draw from the ever-growing gene bank. And, in the event of catastrophic disease or man-made extinction, the library’s stock could be used to rebuild a population.' | @CivilEats | @tarynphaneuf

Fossils, (LOTS) older than you thinkJoel Achenbach

'Scientists probing a newly exposed, formerly snow-covered outcropping in Greenland claim they have discovered the oldest fossils ever seen, the remnants of microbial mats that lived 3.7 billion years ago.

'It's a stunning announcement in a scientific field that is always contentious. But if confirmed, this would push the established fossil record more than 200 million years deeper into the Earth’s early history, and provide support for the view that life appeared very soon after the Earth formed and may be commonplace throughout the universe. . . .

'The Australian researchers do not contend that these stromatolites represent the first examples of life on the planet. Rather, these would have to be the descendants of the earlier life forms. Microbes capable of performing photosynthesis and forming communities are relatively sophisticated organisms. They presumably had less-sophisticated ancestors that lived more than 4 billion years ago, the Nature paper states. . . .

'Earth, along with the other planets in our solar system, formed about 4.5 billion years ago from a cloud of dust and gas swirling around the embryonic sun. For hundreds of millions of years, ours was a harsh, molten world, heavily bombarded by debris. At one point, a Mars-sized object slammed into the Earth and blasted into space the material that eventually cohered into the moon.'

An early appearance of life on Earth has implications for the abundance of life beyond Earth. Life on a young Earth could imply that life is a routine development in the universe, and could be, as Nobel laureate Christian de Duve put it, a 'cosmic imperative'. | @washingtonpost | @joelachenbach

The colonially loaded 'sub-Saharan Africa' (aka 'black Africa')—Max de Haldevang

First the World Bank (no less) reported it was dropping ‘developing world’ from its data vocabulary.

In the 2016 edition of its World Development Indicators, the World Bank has made a big choice: It’s no longer distinguishing between “developed” countries and “developing” ones in the presentation of its data. The change marks an evolution in thinking about the geographic distribution of poverty and prosperity. 

Now ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ comes under fire, judged not only as unhelpfully vague but also as a phrase carrying racist colonial baggage. . . .

'So, why use this vague term that few can agree on and is geographically inaccurate? And where does it come from?

'The term spread as a replacement for the racially-tinged phrases “Tropical Africa” and “Black Africa” that were used until around the 1950s, says Columbia University anthropologist Brian Larkin.

'The dividing line itself also has some troubling origins in what Larkin calls “racist” colonial theories that thought northern Africa more culturally developed. . . .

'“[S]ub-Sahara” is too vast to shed light on those traits and can strengthen an often imagined divide between northern Arab countries and the rest of Africa, Larkin says.'

What’s wrong with more accurate geographic markers, like East, West, Central and Southern Africa? Or even just calling Nigeria, the world’s seventh biggest country, by its own name? | @qz | @MddH

The beginning of the end of 'average'Avery Trufelman

In many ways, the built world was not designed for you. It was designed for the average person. Standardized tests, building codes, insurance rates, clothing sizes, The Dow Jones—all these measurements are based around the concept of an 'average'.

'From standardized tests to insurance rates, the podcast '99% Invisible' tells the history of averages, including how our t-shirt sizes (small, medium, and large) come from averages calculated in the American Civil War; how our obsession with averages caused high death rates in the US Air Force during the 1950s; and how averages went from the Platonic ideal to meaning something sub-par.' | @qz |

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To eat, or not to eat, meat