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December 11, 2007

Food Economics

corn.jpg

As we pointed out in The World Almanac 2008, U.S. ethanol production in 2007 has been at record levels—not surprising, considering the ever-higher demand. An interesting cover story in The Economist last week shed a different light on ethanol production, in the context of food prices, which are rising for the first time in 30 years. (The Economist article is, of course, indexing the cost of food in terms of real dollars.) The article theorizes that the U.S.'s increased diversion of corn to ethanol production—and the 200-odd subsidies that support it—is working in tandem with the growing demand for meat worldwide to push food prices higher.

Definitely an interesting read, but if you're short on time, at least check out a few of The Economist's usual somewhat-dry-but-very-informative charts on the subject.

The End of Cheap Food

Flickr photo by r-z

March 23, 2007

No Impact Man

beavan.jpg Yesterday, the New York Times published an article that quickly jumped to the top of the 'most-emailed' list. The story profiles Colin Beavan, who, with his wife and daughter, are making scads of sacrifices (think: in-house composting and no toilet paper) to live a "no impact" lifestyle and reduce their ecological footprints. Now, this is something that's been done by others in the past—insert obligatory reference to kooky commune-dwellers here—but not, to my knowledge, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. This makes the process different when you consider a lot of the changes the family has made—they've walked up many, many flights of stairs, they have no backyard for the compost heap (it's in the kitchen), and they're limited to eating only locally-grown food even though there's only so much that can be produced locally in a New York December.

Check out the article and visit Beavan's blog at the links below. Or measure your own impact on the earth with an ecological footprint quiz. You can also read the first chapter of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices online, which contains a less life-altering approach to reducing our negative impact on the environment.

The Year Without Toilet Paper
No Impact Man blog
My Footprint quiz
The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices

Photo of the Conlin-Beavan family from the No Impact Man blog.

March 5, 2007

Cefquinome and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

cefquinome.jpg Cefquinome is an antibiotic (made by Intervet, Inc.) that the FDA may soon approve for use in cattle. Usually, this wouldn’t cause much of a stir outside the medical or veterinary industries, but according to the Washington Post, approval of cefquinome may have negative consequences on a global scale. Some doctors fear that overuse of the powerful antibiotic may speed the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Proponents argue that the risk outweighs the reward. But a curious point is that FDA’s own advisory board rejected approval of cefquinome last fall (in a non-binding resolution), and a number of health organizations, including the American Medical Association, have also come out against it. According to the Post article, a recently implemented “guidance document” called “Guidance for Industry #152,” codifies how the FDA should weigh the risk/reward of new animal drugs. In an excerpt from the article:
The wording of "Guidance for Industry #152" was crafted within the FDA after a long struggle. In the end, the agency adopted language that, for drugs like cefquinome, is more deferential to pharmaceutical companies than is recommended by the World Health Organization. Cefquinome's seemingly inexorable march to market shows how a few words in an obscure regulatory document can sway the government's approach to protecting public health.
It'll be interesting to see how or if this'll play out in a more visible public forum. It should be noted that no antibiotic from the class in which cefquinome belongs has been approved in the U.S. for animal use.

"FDA Rules Override Warnings About Drug," Washington Post, March 4, 2007
Reuters Synopsis of above article
"Introduction to Cefquinome (CEQ) and Overview of Microbial Safety Assessment" (FDA information page)
FDA Guidelines: Guidance for Industry #152" (PDF)

February 1, 2007

"The World as You've Never Seen it Before"

That's the tag line for Worldmapper, a novel approach to visualizing global data, and a collaborative project of a group of cartographers, social scientists, and other experts at the University of Michigan and the University of Sheffield. From a recent article on The Daily Telegraph website:
"You can say it, you can prove it, you can tabulate it, but it is only when you show it that it hits home," said Prof Danny Dorling, of the University of Sheffield, one of the developers of Worldmapper, a collection of maps — cartograms — that rescale the size of territories in proportion to the value being represented.

On the maps of public health spending, research expenditure and wealth, Africa appears tiny. But in those that show global malaria cases and the deaths due to drought, Africa appears enormous.

You'll find a year's worth of maps on the site, spanning categories from income and housing to pollution and "destruction." Each map is also accompanied by a brief summary of the topic, plus links to labeled territory and population maps, data sheets in Excel or Opendoc formats, and even a downloadable PDF poster showcasing the map and some of its key data points.

Choose a topic, and you're bound to find something interesting. I was struck by two maps, which are as good a place to start as any:

map_childlabor.jpgChild Labor (at left): "Nine of the ten territories with the highest proportions of child labourers are in Africa. . . . The map shows that most child labour occurs in African and Southern Asian territories. India has the highest number of child labourers, twice as many as China where the second highest population of child labourers lives."

map_toyimports.jpgToy Imports (at right): "Most imports of toys (US$ net) are to the United States, followed by the United Kingdom. Toys are fun but not necessities. Thus toy imports give an indication of disposable incomes. The lowest imports of toys (US$ net) per person are to territories in Africa and also Tajikistan (in the Middle East)."

Link: Worldmapper

January 24, 2007

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Measurement? That's Sooo Corny

Each year in the Environment chapter of the World Almanac, we present the annual atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (for 2007, it’s on page 284). We get that information from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, which is part of the Department of Energy. Pre-1943 levels are derived from air bubbles in ice core samples taken in Antarctica, and later measurements are taken directly from the atmosphere. corn_crop.jpgSoon though, you may see us presenting CO2 levels taken from corn samples. That’s right, good ol’ fashioned corn, the vegetable that can do anything from feeding the world, to fueling our cars, to giving us a tasty treat at movie theaters.

Scientists from U.C. Irvine measured levels of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in corn samples taken from 31 locations across the U.S. They chose corn because it’s grown pretty much everywhere, and the carbon in it is collected during a single growing season (so it's just the carbon from the most recent growing season, and not seasons past). CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels doesn’t contain any radiocarbons, so the scientists can easily tell if the carbon dioxide came from fossil fuels or from natural sources (veeeery C.S.I.-type stuff). By measuring the corn, the scientists were able to accurately tell which areas of the U.S. had highest concentrations of fossil-fuel-derived carbon dioxide. The highest levels were in California, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The lowest concentrations were in Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico--because, as scientists found, the Rocky Mountains act as a sort of CO2 barrier.

There are lots of ways to measure CO2 in the atmosphere but this method may provide a cost-effective complement to other methods. If anything, it just goes to show that whatever is in the air can eventually end up in our popcorn.

Press release:Scientists map air pollution using corn grown in U.S. fields (U.C. Irvine)
Map: CO2 concentrations in the U.S. (Red areas have the highest, blue areas have the lowest)
Abstract: Regional patterns of radiocarbon and fossil fuel-derived CO2 in surface air across North America (Geophysical Research Letters, January 23, 2007)

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