Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Food for Thought: The Case for Science-Based Farming

Over the past decade, the issue of food production has rightfully gained a lot of attention. Documentaries like Food Inc. and the modern animal welfare movement have gotten us all thinking about what we eat and how it is produced. While this is a great thing, generally speaking, getting informed about the food you eat doesn’t help anyone if your knee-jerk reaction to new information is to abandon all the progress we’ve made over the past century.

The world of 2015 is very different from the one of a hundred years ago. The global population has doubled, and doubled again. As we begin to rethink food production and learn from past mistakes, it is tempting to romanticize a time in the past when everything was done by hand without the use of pesticides. The simple fact is, that system doesn’t work in 2015 if you want to feed everyone; but a more important question is: would we even want it to?

Setting aside for a minute the ways in which we raise animals for food, let’s focus on fruits and vegetables. The driving goal for food production needs to be sustainability. While it may be easy to produce a bumper crop by dumping harmful pesticides on every farmer’s field, that doesn’t help anybody if the field is radioactive the next year and the nearby ocean is so full of contaminated runoff that the fish have five eyes and are made of poison. Sustainability is the idea that we should farm as efficiently as possible in a way that doesn’t waste resources or make it impossible for people in the future to grow the same food in the same place.

So which is more sustainable: the classic version of farming with overalls and hand-picked food, or the cold, machine-driven methods of today where tomatoes live in greenhouses and are only ever outside as we move them from the truck into the grocery store? As much as we all love overalls, it may be time to relegate them to the wardrobes of urban, loft-living art students.

Let’s continue looking at tomatoes, since most people have tried to grow them at some point. If you’ve ever potted a tomato plant on your balcony, you know how tough it can be to get even a single snack out of a plant, never mind a pot of pasta sauce. Modern tomato farms use greenhouses to direct as much light as possible onto plants. They recycle carbon dioxide from industrial practices to speed plant growth, and they don’t need to use much pesticide because they are enclosed. The upshot is that they can grow 70 kg (154 lbs) of tomatoes in one square meter of soil. Try producing that on your balcony.

Modern farms can also be insanely efficient with water, if they have a mind to. In an enclosed system where water condenses on the walls of a greenhouse and is collected and recycled, one kg (2.2 lbs) of tomatoes can be grown using between 4 and 6 liters (1 – 1.6 gallons) of water.  By comparison, farms that allow water to evaporate away – I’m looking at you, overalls – need as much as 60 liters (16 gallons) to grow the same amount.

One area where technically advanced farming is at a disadvantage is in transporting food to the places it needs to go for people to buy it. Large industrial farms are located away from cities where large plots of farmable land exist. However, even here science and technology have made things better. Foods in transport are often stored with gases, chips, or in bags that ensure they ripen at just the right time, leading to proportionally less waste than traditional farmers can manage. The carbon footprint of shipping these foods is also a problem, but as electric vehicle technology improves and the world moves towards renewable energy systems, those impacts can also be reduced.

The lesson here is that knowledge and technology will help us feed the world in a sustainable way and we shouldn’t shun improvements to farming processes on principle alone. With the right policies in place to ensure that corporate greed does not win out over environmental sustainability and healthy produce, high-tech farming will save lives and keep us all fed.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Lowdown on Language – Aphasia and your Brain

Language is something that we often take for granted, but it is at the core of what makes humans such an impressive species. Right this second, as you are reading this sentence, your brain is seamlessly recognizing the squiggles that form the letters, linking the squiggles together to form sounds in your head, connecting the sounds to form words, and connecting the words to let you know what the message is that I’m trying to communicate. And you can somehow manage to do all that while simultaneously eating a sandwich. Humans are masters of language.

In addition to allowing us to communicate complex messages across impossible spans of time, language is responsible for another great human achievement: understanding that different parts of our brains do different things. It may seem obvious, but for a very long time, we didn’t have the faintest clue what was going on up there.

The thing about people with difficulties in how they understand and produce language is that, compared to people with other neuronal deviations, they are easy to study. First of all, language impairment is obvious. Whereas a problem like face-blindness or colour-blindness can go unrecognized for a person’s entire life (researchers estimate that as many as 2% to 2.5% of people could be prosopagnosic, or face-blind, to some degree), language is something we notice more quickly because we rely so much on verbal communication. Second, language impairment frequently leaves unaffected the areas of the brain that control behaviour, intelligence, and curiosity. The upshot is that you have otherwise normal (or in some cases brilliant) people who just aren’t able to talk, read, or write as easily as others.

Back in the early 19th century, when scientists were still scratching their heads about the way our heads worked, having cooperative patients was a huge advantage. That is likely the reason that language was one of the first systems to be identified in a somewhat useful way. As early as 1825, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Baptiste Bouillaud predicted that language function would be located in the left-hand side of the frontal lobes of the brain.

In 1861, Bouillaud’s own son-in-law, Ernest Auburtin, was working with a patient with an exposed frontal lobe (if that sounds gross to you, don’t read our story about Phineas Gage) and noticed that when pressure was applied to that part of the brain, the patient lost the ability to speak. Auburtin predicted that after the patient died he would find a lesion on the left frontal lobe. Unfortunately for Auburtin, his patient was of hearty stock and lived to see another researcher by the name of Paul Broca prove Auburtin’s prediction correct. Subsequently, and pretty unfairly, the speech area that was discovered is now called Broca’s area.

Dysfunction in Broca’s area produces what is called non-fluent aphasia, meaning that a person has a tough time retrieving and producing words. This does not mean the words are not in the person’s head, just that there is a problem with the connections that move them from memory to the mouth or pen. What is really curious is that verbs and the use the grammar suffer the most.

Deeper research into language also revealed the brain area humans use to understand words. Named for its discoverer, Carl Wernicke, Wernicke’s area is located in the left temporal lobe of the brain (behind your temple) and directly connects to Broca’s area. Wernicke’s area helps us understand the sounds of speech, and its function can be built up or lost depending on a person’s environment. For example, people who grow up speaking Japanese often lose the ability to distinguish between the sounds made by “L” and “R”, since their language doesn’t require them to and their brain is out of practice.

The other function of Wernicke’s area is in producing speech, but where people with difficulties in Broca’s area have a hard time producing sounds and words, people with problems in Wernicke’s area talk a lot. The problem is, what they say makes no sense. It is a string of nonsense that researchers call “word salad.”

Problems with language, or aphasias, come in all shapes and sizes, to the extent that a person dealing with aphasia can almost seem like they are faking it. For example, researchers Bryan Kolb and Ian Q. Wishaw describe a patient in their book Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, who suffered from anomic aphasia, meaning that he could not retrieve the names of objects. When shown a picture of a ship’s anchor and asked what it was, he couldn’t name the item but replied, “I know what it does… you use it to anchor a ship.” The patient could use the word as a verb, but not as a noun.

The take home message here is that no brain is perfect. Some of us have a hard time with sports, others can’t cook, some people are quick to feel sad or angry, and others struggle with language. It is up to each of us to show the world the things we’re good at, while trying to improve on the things we’re not… At least until we can repair our brains with nano-bots and everyone is as smart as Da Vinci.


Kolb, B & Wishaw, I.Q. (2009) Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. Worth Publishers. New York, NY, U.S.A.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Sketchy Fact #104: This is your Brain on Ice Cream

Brain freeze is an evolutionary reflex to protect you from damaging your brain. It is known to science as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Try saying that with a mouthful of ice cream.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Hot and Heavy – The Truth about Diamonds

Humans are brilliant animals. Over the eons, we have used our ingenuity and problem solving to craft a civilization that, as imperfect as it can be, does a pretty effective job of keeping us out of the food chain. However, clever as we may be, we have a few weaknesses. Chief among them are greed, the ability to be manipulated, and an inexplicable fondness for shiny things. The perfect symbol of these primeval flaws is the modern diamond engagement ring. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, scientifically speaking, diamonds are impressive things. They are made from the same single ingredient as coal: carbon; but we proudly put one in jewelry, while we are content to throw the other in the fire.

A common misconception about diamonds is that they form from coal as the Earth does its thing by applying heat and pressure. In fact, if coal has ever had anything to do with diamonds, it has been incidental and insignificant, and has produced some pretty lousy diamonds. If you need proof, consider that most natural diamonds on Earth are between 1 and 4 billion years old, while coal (which formed from dead plants before bacteria evolved to have the ability to digest wood) has only been around for about 500 million years.

So if coal isn’t the culprit, where do diamonds come from? It turns out there are several answers:

Deep Source Eruptions – Most diamonds form in the layer of semi-molten rock that the Earth’s crust floats around on. We call this the mantle, and it is not a place you want to find yourself in. The section of the mantle where diamonds generally form is around 150 km (90 miles) below the surface, so for starters it would be hard to get out of. Second, it is hot, around 1,050 C (2,000 F). To make matters worse, the pressure is about 725,000 pounds per square inch

While this would really, really suck for any human without a magical ship from a crappy sci-fi movie, it is quite a swell place for diamonds to form. Carbon dioxide, trapped in the mantle when the Earth first formed, undergoes a “redox reaction” due to the extreme conditions. The carbon oxidizes (rusts, in its own weird way) and gains electrons. When the pressure is suddenly reduced very rapidly – say, when a weak section of Earth’s crust drifts over top of it – the molten rock erupts to the surface, the carbon condenses, and forms diamonds. This process is responsible for all the commercial diamonds in the world.

Subduction – Diamonds can also form as the Earth’s tectonic plates bump and grind. As dense oceanic plates grind underneath lighter continental plates, the resulting heat and pressure can produce diamonds. This process could involve coal as a carbon course, but it is more likely that the material comes from limestone and other rocks.

Impact Sites – Being underneath an asteroid as it impacts the Earth is one of the few places you could find yourself that would be worse than the mantle, but, if you can run away in time and get back before anyone else, you could score big. The heat and pressure from the impact has the ability to metamorphosize carbon and produce diamonds. The catch is that the biggest ones you are likely to find, thanks to the keen smashing ability of objects from space, would be in the 1 mm range. That would make for a pretty insulting engagement ring.

Space – Diamonds can also form in space as objects smash into each other at high speed. The process is basically the same as it is at impact sites on Earth. Except in space, no one can hear your fiancée shriek with delight… well, maybe David Bowie.

The curious thing about diamonds is that, as much as we value them, they aren’t at all rare. Since 1870, when massive diamond deposits were discovered in Kimberley, South Africa, the world has basically had all the diamonds we could want. In fact, last week a team of chemists at John Hopkins University reported that the complex “redox reaction” that forms diamonds could be produced by water under the right conditions. Given the amount of water on Earth, there is probably a shocking amount of diamond mines just waiting to be discovered.

The only reason diamonds are expensive is because of that pesky manipulation and greed we started the article with. After the diamond rush of 1870, a company that came to be called DeBeers bought up all the diamond producing mines in existence and began to sharply limit the supply to keep prices high. They coupled that with a 20th century ad campaign that tried to convince us all that the only way to show someone you love them enough to marry them is to put a shiny hunk of carbon on their finger.
Dropping 3 month’s salary (cue the hysterical laughing) on a ring seems a lot less special when you realize there is basically an infinite supply of replicates in some rich guy’s vault.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Sketchy Fact #103: Explosive Childhood Discoveries

In 2012, ten-year-old Clara Lazen discovered an entirely new molecule (Tetranitratoxycarbon) using atomic modeling toys in her Grade 5 science class.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Hungry are the Damned: Will bacon give you cancer?

It has been a rough week for bacon. On October 26, 2015, in a move that proves they really don’t care what you think of them, the World Health Organization released a report that, once and for all, labelled processed meat as carcinogenic. That means that many western childhood staples like bologna, salami, and bacon are now known causes of cancer.

After review of more than 800 studies that examined the link between meat consumption and cancer risk, the WHO concluded that there is clear and convincing evidence that the more processed meat you eat, the greater your risk of developing colon cancer. Red meat in general (beef and pork) faired only slightly better with researchers concluding that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In bureaucracy-speak, processed meat is now labeled a Group 1 carcinogen and red meat a Group 2a carcinogen. Other Group 1 substances include tobacco, mustard gas, and asbestos. Other members of Group 2a include UV light and some chemicals commonly used by hairdressers. In short, you might be able to eat an organic, ethically raised steak without feeling too guilty, but if you fry up some bacon you are taking your life into your own hands.

The world responded predictably. Representatives from agricultural and meat-producing groups were quick to point out that wood dust is also a Group 1 carcinogen, and basically called the conclusions ridiculous and reckless. Environmental and animal welfare groups called the study a wake-up call for the world. Most people looked alarmed for a minute, then began rationalizing their favourite foods so they wouldn’t have to give them up. Some people even got indignant about it, with #freebacon taking over social media.

You really can’t blame people for being mistrusting, angry, or confused. It is hard to keep up with the news as it is without concluding that everything you love will lead to an early grave. A sober look at the numbers paints a slightly different picture…

While the WHO concludes that eating 50 grams of processed meat each day will increase your risk of colon cancer by roughly 18%, your overall risk of developing the disease is about 4.24% (42.4 cases per 100,000 men and women). Including the 18% jump, eating processed meat every day will bring your overall probability in at around 5%. The risk increases as you age. It is greater for men than for women. It is greater if your family has a history of colon cancer. But 5% is a nice round number to start from.

That number is low enough to turn off most people’s alarm bells. Estimates suggest that 34,000 cancer deaths each year could be attributable to processed meat consumption, compared to 600,000 at the hands of tobacco. Put another way, 21% of all colon cancer cases are caused by processed meats, while 86% of lung cancers are the result of smoking.

What it comes down to is what you consider an acceptable risk and what you are willing to lose. Life is a game of trade-offs and it is up to each of us to make our own choices. A 5% risk of colon cancer seems small, but if I handed you a die with 20 sides and told you that you would get cancer if you rolled a 1, then would you want to play the game? What if the game tasted good… like really, really delicious?

Earlier this year, I lost my dad because of complications brought on by colon cancer, so this issue hits a little closer to home for me than for most, but it at least bears consideration. Lifestyle changes are extremely tough to make, especially if you are trying to give up something you grew up with and with which you have a lot of great memories associated, like many people have with food. But, in the end, a long, healthy life of fun with family and friends won’t be made worse by opting for fruit or an extra slice of toast to put next to your eggs. The WHO has stated the facts; it’s up to each of us to take them or leave them.