On Eutrophication

Early in the pandemic shutdown, my family and I visited a local beach in Southern California on a spring night, lured by the possibility of witnessing a widely reported phenomenon known as bioluminescence. The phenomenon occurs when a particular light-emitting algae blooms. We drove to the closest beach and walked along a bluff overlooking the ocean. The water displayed a mystifying glow; blue streaks of light pulsed within the crashing waves along the entire beach.

About a year later, I encountered an article online describing the proliferation of “sea snot” in the coastal waters of Turkey. An image showed a layer of brown sludge around the docks and boats. This “sea snot” was an outbreak of marine microorganisms, mainly phytoplankton, that was growing into a dense layer of mucus-like slime. Scientists were afraid that the marine life underneath was in danger of being choked out. The government called it a “national crisis”.

Around this time, I read another article reporting on a disturbing record number of manatee deaths in Florida primarily from starvation due to a loss of seagrass, their food source. The article explained that this loss of seagrass was due to algal blooms blocking out sunlight in the water column. 

Dots started to connect. Perhaps these events were manifestations of the same underlying cause—signs of an unhealthy ecosystem.

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In ecology, there is a process known as eutrophication. The word is from the Greek “eutrophos” meaning “well-nourished”. Eutrophication is the process in which bodies of water get enriched by excess nutrients over time. Anthropogenic activities have caused this otherwise naturally slow-occurring process to rapidly increase in many areas.

In coasts around the world, water pollution from constant agricultural and urban runoff causes eutrophication. Plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from human activities drain through river systems into the ocean. Combined with warmer sea temperatures due to anthropogenic climate change, the influx of nutrients creates an environment that promotes excessive algae growth. These coastal algal blooms cause harmful effects such as algae-produced toxins, hypoxia, fish kills, ocean acidification, and decreased water transparency.

When algal blooms degrade, oxygen levels can fall below what most marine life can tolerate, forming areas of low biological activity called “dead zones”. According to the IPBES, a UN organization that reports on the state of global biodiversity, there are more than 400 “dead zones” around the world, totalling more than 245,000 square kilometers—an area bigger than the UK. These “dead zones” commonly occur at the mouths of major river systems. One of the largest dead zones in the world lies in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where the bulk of the US’s agricultural runoff in the midwest drains through the Mississippi river system. 

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In the 1850s, large-scale livestock farming and grain production took off in California as farmers adopted new intensive technologies. Cattle ranching expanded to cover millions of acres, and the state soon became one of the largest wheat producers. As a consequence of this rapid intensification of agriculture, the soil degraded due to poor soil management. Years of intensive farming practices and overgrazing led to perfect conditions for soil erosion in California’s semi-arid climate. Massive amounts of soil washed into the ocean.

As a result of the sedimentation, California’s continental shelf biodiversity shifted. Once a rocky seafloor covered in filter feeders such as brachiopods and scallops, the shelf transformed into a mudscape. Detritivores (decomposers) and mobile predators, such as worms and crustaceans, moved in to replace the stationary filter feeders that were once abundant. Without the filter-feeders, the ecosystem’s ability to filter algae from the seawater was dramatically reduced. Today, small patches of California’s earlier shelf ecosystem survives around the offshore islands. 

Around a hundred years after California’s loss of seawater filtering capacity, the world underwent another agricultural transformation: the green revolution of the mid 1900s. Key to this revolution was the increased mass production of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—three macronutrients in synthetic fertilizers. In 1914, German chemist Fritz Haber developed a new high pressure method of extracting nitrogen from the air. This method, called the Haber-Bosch process, enabled the industry to rapidly scale up production of nitrate fertilizers. In 2020, the process produced around 176 million tons of nitrogen-based ammonia globally, most of which was used to fertilize crops. Phosphorus and potassium, which are found in sedimentary mineral deposits, increased in production as well. The revolution in producing these synthetic fertilizers increased crop yields many times over; however, vast amounts of excess fertilizer made its way into coastal ecosystems.

As agriculture boomed, industrialization and growth pushed humans into cities and urban areas. All around the world, cities grew at unprecedented rates. As a result, mass urbanization began to compete with agriculture in its role in eutrophication. Landscaping fertilization, wastewater runoff, industrial discharge, and infrastructure development created new sources of pollutants and sedimentation that entered adjacent coastal marine habitats. 

At the same time, the global sea surface temperature began rising due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1971 and 2010, the temperature increased around 0.11°C per decade. In addition, marine heatwaves increased in duration and intensity. The heat fueled larger and faster growing algal blooms.

Over the past two centuries, human activities have produced conditions ripe for rampant eutrophication along the world’s coasts. Early livestock ranching caused soil erosion and sedimentation that extirpated delicate filter feeder ecosystems on coastal shelves. Then, the flow of synthetic fertilizers and urban runoff, coupled with anthropogenic sea surface warming, enabled algal blooms to proliferate.

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In the ocean, phytoplankton form the foundation of the ocean’s food web and of life on the planet. Drifting along in the tides and currents, these marine plant organisms produce 50 to 80% of the planet’s oxygen, provide food for marine life ranging from mollusks to whales, and may even regulate the planet’s climate by contributing to the formation of clouds. Across the world’s oceans, natural phytoplankton blooms support areas of high productivity. There are over 4000 species of phytoplankton across the entire planet, and a single liter of seawater may contain over a million individual phytoplankton and 100 to 150 different species. 

In Southern California, Lingulodinium polyedra, a dinoflagellate phytoplankton that emits light using a chemical reaction, is responsible for the bioluminescent waves. In Turkey, various microbes and phytoplankton species exude sticky substances made up of polysaccharides. In Florida, numerous species rapidly grow from the nutrient runoff, reducing sunlight in the water column. These unique species represent just a few of the wide diversity of phytoplankton around the world.

We have only begun to discover how complex life on this planet is. Every ecosystem, from the expansive Amazon rainforest to the obscure armadillo gut microbiome, is composed of innumerable species, each performing unique behaviors in complex relationships. Despite the chaos and disorder of millions of individual organisms, these diverse ecosystems achieve a state of equilibrium, or homeostasis, over time. When a sudden alteration in the environment causes one element to get thrown off, the resulting population shifts impact many organisms and may even decrease total biodiversity. 

For example, in the human gut, gut dysbiosis (disruptions to microbial homeostasis) is associated with numerous diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and colorectal cancer. In coastal marine ecosystems, the unexpected influx of pollutants from land causes detrimental effects that reverberate through the food chain from seagrass to manatees, and ultimately, humans.

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As we are increasingly becoming aware of, eutrophication is just one of innumerable changes occurring to coastal regions around the world and to the biosphere at large. All across the planet’s surface, there is a major upheaval of biological life. 

Many scientists today believe we are living in a new geological epoch called the anthropocene, which is marked by significant human impacts on Earth’s geology, biodiversity, and natural systems. 

The average global population of vertebrates such as mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish has declined 68% between 1970 and 2016. A quarter of all plant and animal species that have been studied in detail are now threatened with extinction. International shipping, the wildlife trade, landscaping, and other activities are breaking down the barriers that led to speciation and diversity. Introduced species of animals, plants, fungi, and pathogens now affect practically every ecosystem on Earth. 

Humans have significantly reshaped the geomorphology of Earth’s surface through the building of roads, dams, and other human infrastructure. According to the IPBES, 75% of Earth’s land surface and 66% of the oceans have been significantly altered by human activities. In addition, human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide ppm has risen to 409 ppm, a third higher than in 1960—and significantly higher than at any point in the past hundreds of thousands of years. Methane concentrations have more than doubled since the industrial revolution. The implications of these higher concentrations of greenhouse gases are becoming apparent. These statistics describe just a handful of the innumerable changes that define the anthropocene.

What does all of this mean for life on this planet? And for future generations? 

Without a major change in the way we do things, the natural world, which we depend on, will continue to degrade from the cumulative effects of all our activities. Today, about half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. With rising incomes and a global population projected to grow almost 50% from 7 billion to 10 billion humans by mid-century, agricultural land will have to expand by 3.3 billion hectares if there are no productivity gains. This would mean the complete elimination of the world’s forests and savannas. The effects of anthropogenic eutrophication would be even more severe. Unless humanity undergoes great change, there will be few reasons to believe eutrophication and dead zones will diminish anytime soon. 

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Determined to get one last dive before an incoming storm turned the local waters into a toilet bowl, I ventured out to a nearby beach just as the initial drizzles of rain began. Alone, I dove into the water and past the waves. The visibility was muddled in the choppy waves. Swimming over the seafloor, I looked for signs of marine life. A large majestic bat ray glided along, disappearing through the cloudy water. At some point upon ascending to the surface to take a breath, I noticed an enormous silhouette of a sea creature rising from the depths of the water. Immediately, I felt a rush of fear as this sea animal, far larger than me, rose up underneath. The creature came into view: a giant sea bass, at least five hundred pounds and five feet long. It must have wandered over curiously. And just as it appeared, it was gone. My heart was pounding, and I could hardly believe I just encountered this giant sea dweller for the first time. 

As a regular ocean diver, I have the opportunity to witness the beauty of life in the ocean. However, it depends on the conditions of the water: most importantly, the water visibility. Unfortunately, for large portions of the year, the visibility is under five feet due to eutrophication, sedimentation, and other factors—either an algal bloom occupying the top layers of the sea, loose sediment kicked up by the surge, sewage runoff after a rain, or a combination of these causes. Sometimes it is so low I am unable to see my outstretched arm. Days with excellent visibility are the exception. 

In addition to diving, I forage and collect seafood. In the fall and winter, I hunt for spiny lobsters, clawless crustaceans that hide during the day and wander out after dusk. Recreational divers can catch them, using only their hands. Throughout the year, various seaweeds such as nori, kombu, and wakame can be collected from rocky intertidal zones. In colder months, in which the chances of algal blooms is lower, I can target mollusks such as giant pismo clams, rock scallops, and California mussels. However, as many foragers come to learn, the risk of dangerous toxins, that can accumulate from toxic red tides and algal blooms, persists.

One of these is called Paralytic Shellfish Poison or PSP, a marine biotoxin produced by some species of algae. When shellfish filter the algae, they can accumulate high amounts of the toxin which affects the human nervous system and can paralyze muscles, hence the name “paralytic”. Normally, populations of the algae are too low to cause problems, but blooms can increase the populations to dangerous levels. Another well known toxin, domoic acid, affects numerous species including dungeness crab, a major target species for fisheries in California. A severe domoic acid algal bloom that lasted for several months in the summer of 2015 affected the entire West Coast. As a result, the opening date of the dungeness crab fishery was postponed and area closures were implemented.

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In the past few centuries, we’ve managed to change the physical world at an unprecedented scale to the benefit of some. We’ve revolutionized agriculture to support a population of billions, but neglected the harms it entailed on coastal ecosystems. We’ve experienced a transformation in scientific understanding of the natural world, but only begun to discover the extent that our old-fashioned processes clash with complex biological systems. Today, we face the greatest predicament threatening the survival of over a million species, including us. 

We have seen that the story of human existence has been too often a story of domination and exploitation, of pursuing power and wealth, knowingly or unknowingly at the expense of others: the natural world, animals, and other fellow human beings. And yet it is only us, who are able to change our ways. For if we do not, we will establish ourselves as the greatest failed species in the history of life on this planet. But if we do, we will be the catalyst for the next great transformation of life.

Sources:

History of California Agriculture

https://s.giannini.ucop.edu/uploads/giannini_public/19/41/194166a6-cfde-4013-ae55-3e8df86d44d0/a_history_of_california_agriculture.pdf

California Continental Shelf

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/california-continental-shelf-ecosystem-cows

https://bg.copernicus.org/articles/17/2381/2020/

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2017.0328

Green Revolution

https://mlpp.pressbooks.pub/americanenvironmentalhistory/chapter/chapter-8-green-revolution/

https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/green-ammonia/green-ammonia-policy-briefing.pdf

Sea Surface Temperatures

https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03732-9

Phytoplankton

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ocean-oxygen.html

https://academic.oup.com/plankt/article-abstract/13/5/1093/1588983

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CLAW_hypothesis

Sea Snot

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284430858_Mucilage_event_associated_with_diatoms_and_dinoflagellates_in_Sea_of_Marmara_Turkey

Biodiversity Loss

https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf

https://www.zsl.org/sites/default/files/LPR%202020%20Full%20report.pdf

Projected Agricultural Land Usage

https://research.wri.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/creating-sustainable-food-future_2_5.pdf

Paralytic Shellfish Poison

https://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/Shellfish/RecreationalShellfish/Illnesses/Biotoxins/ParalyticShellfishPoison

Domoic Acid

https://caseagrant.ucsd.edu/project/frequently-asked-questions-domoic-acid-in-california-crabs

On Meat Consumption

In my previous post on animal agriculture, I argued that we should reduce or eliminate consumption of factory farmed animal products on the idea that animals are enduring unacceptable levels of abuse and suffering. In this second post, I want to share some additional reflections I have had on this topic. Two personal stories come to mind. 

The first story features a lobster, and my father. Several years ago, I caught a lobster from the local beach and decided to cook it for dinner with my family—yes, I still eat some seafood; I will explain later. I decided I wanted to dispatch the lobster with a knife before placing it into the steamer pot to minimize suffering. My father objected, perhaps turned off from the thought of the violent act. But I thought it would be better for the lobster. After attempting to kill the lobster, I remember seeing my father exhibit a look of guilt and sorrow.

The second story involves a rat, and a close friend and neighbor. A friend’s mother asked me to dispose of a living rat that was snared by a trap in their backyard. Undaunted by the situation, I went over to help them out. I placed the rat into a bucket, concluding that the easiest method to kill it would be to drown it. As I executed the plan, my friend’s mother was clearly distressed by the experience, and my friend, even more so. He retreated indoors, unable to witness the act. I will never forget the look on his face after I returned inside: a look of horror and trauma, as if he had just witnessed a murder. 

Why did my father and my friend react in the same distressed manner to the death of these creatures, but have no problem consuming factory-farmed meat on a daily basis? I think their reactions show that they are not necessarily hypocrites, but rather individuals reacting consistently with a society unexposed to the truth of what happens in a factory farm. The situation exposes the gap between the reality of intensive animal agriculture and what little knowledge we have as consumers. I believe society possesses an inherent empathy that is not expressed to its full capacity. We do care for the welfare and treatment of animals, even the insignificant ones considered food or pest. It is just that powerful forces of society, industry, and instinctive behavior are preventing us from expressing our true empathetic nature.

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While many ethical vegans attempt to justify not eating intensive farmed animals with dubious biological theories or complicated dialectical reasoning, I think the best reason is the simple, honest one.

The ethical reason why I do not consume factory-farmed animals is because the extent of suffering and cruelty is unacceptable to me. I want others to do the same because I believe the extent of suffering and cruelty would also be unacceptable to most other people if they knew the things I know now. 

Know this simple explanation and you will understand why many plant-based advocates behave the way they do. 

I don’t oppose mainstream ideologies, but I believe there can be an additional ideology that accepts the existence of suffering to a certain extent—that can include the consumption of some animals without causing unreasonable cruelty or exploitation, and always with complete understanding of the life that was taken and the context in which the animal was killed. Rather than “everyone avoid all animal products solely based on one philosophical statement with zero exceptions”, its “use or non-use of specific products are determined each by its own reasons”. This approach accepts that there can be some level of suffering, though far less than there is currently. For example, people should avoid farmed animal products simply because they support unacceptable levels of cruelty and suffering, while oysters and mussels can be ok if done in a sustainable way. Under veganism, palm oil use is debatable, while under this new guideline, palm oil use is flatly avoided due to its environmental impacts. This approach is both broader and more restrictive in a sense that some use of animal products can be acceptable, but can restrict the use of plant products depending on specific reasons.

With this in mind, my present diet can include animals I am willing to kill myself, and if possible, catch. As you already may know, I am obviously against consuming intensive farmed animal products. I am also obliged to continue to educate myself on the food I eat, regardless if it is a plant or animal, and the effect it has on myself, the environment, and all species on this planet. 

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More likely than not, you, the one reading this, have not pondered these questions on meat consumption. And after reading this, you will dismiss these ideas and go on with your day without making any changes to your life. But I implore you that this is a topic worth a deeper look. Take five minutes to look up a video on how a cow is bled to death, or how a pig is rendered unconscious when it gets lowered into a pit of carbon dioxide. Or spend more time and watch Dominion, which I linked in my previous animal agriculture post. These things have been deliberately hidden from us consumers, specifically because the industry knows they will convince many people to stop eating meat.

All animals should have certain rights. For example, a duck should have the right to swim in a pond and fly, as opposed to living its entire life in a dark warehouse without ever seeing a pond. A pig should have the right to roam freely and scavenge for food, as opposed to living its entire life in a dark warehouse between steel bars. Regardless of whether an animal is wild or domesticated, they should have the right to live naturally, free from human caused abuse.

As we look back in history, society is dominated by a majority opinion that is not always good or right. Intensive animal agriculture is one of those topics that warrants serious discussion today. While it is our natural behavior to conform with the majority, it is the collective few who deviate and improve the world. As individuals, we need to be critical and willing to listen to different perspectives. At the end of the day, many of us continue our ways because we fear change. We are afraid of what friends, family members, society will think of us, what we imagine our lives to be like with the absence of meat, how our identity will change. Combined with habit and social acceptance, we remain stubborn in our current ways. 

Not everyone will agree with my ideas, but I hope that this post will get people to think. Any individual change towards a more empathetic world will be deemed a success, not for me, but for the living whole that is all of us.

The Deal with GMOs and Organic Food

The amount of misinformation online regarding GMOs and organic food is alarming. In this post, I will attempt to address those misconceptions.

Before we begin, why should we care about GMOs and organic farming? The increasing concern on GMOs, evident by all the recent media coverage, tells us that this is a topic worth discussing. Perhaps they are harmful, perhaps they aren’t. The answer is never that simple. It is our job to continuously strive for knowledge, always willing to listen to the opposing side and never assuming we have the absolute truth.

To start, let’s gain some insight into the general situation. Why do GMOs and organic farming exist in the first place? The answer lies in the process of human development. Since the transition from gathering and hunting to farming, the human species has relied on a system of growing produce and raising animals. Their entire existence now depends on agriculture, a practice founded on technological change. Farming gradually advanced as humans constantly applied new techniques and processes to improve yield and quality. They used selective breeding to create the fruit and vegetables we know today; and designed better irrigation, growing methods, and tools—while always using natural fertilizers. This system improved steadily for much of human history. It was not until recently in the past few decades, that a boom in technology also accompanied a large transformation in this system.

Conventional agriculture is an unnatural system of farming far removed from what our ancestors relied upon. Demand to produce cheaper crops for processed foods and the advent of genetic engineering has led to the widespread adoption of GMOs, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and more. The question now becomes: are these new features of conventional agriculture bad? And if so, then does that mean we should return to a type of farming more similar to what it was before—otherwise known as organic farming?

Let’s focus on three components of conventional agriculture: GMOs, pesticides, and organic farming. Hopefully we will be able to gain a better understanding of the modern agricultural system, so that we may make more informed decisions about our food, and how that relates to health, society and the environment.

GMOs

To start, what is a GMO? A GMO or genetically modified organism is an organism that has had its genetic material altered in a laboratory setting using genetic engineering. This is not the same as organisms altered solely through selective breeding, which we can all agree, is a low-harm and acceptable activity. In our case, we will only interested in GM crops. That leads us to ask the next questions: what genetically engineered crops are there? And how many of them are produced?

Genetically engineered crops have been modified in order to produce certain desirable traits. We can organize these different traits by their direct intended end users: consumers or producers. Consumer enhanced traits are traits that benefit only the consumer. Producer enhanced traits are traits that are designed to increase the marketability of the crop supply or change the farming process. Let’s discuss each category.

Consumer Enhanced GM Crop

The only crop intentionally modified for the benefit of the consumer is Golden Rice, a rice altered to produce beta carotene. It was created to address vitamin A deficiency in areas of Africa and Asia. However, we should ask ourselves: since when did our fruit and veggies become so lacking in nutrition that we need to genetically modify them to be healthier? I suggest that we reassess the root cause of the problem—hint, it’s not that our produce is lacking in nutrition. 

We should also note that there are no genetically modified traits that specifically increase the yield of the crop, unlike what GMO proponents often state. 

Producer Enhanced GM Crops

The second category, on producer enhanced traits, can be broken into two types. The first consists of crops modified in order to increase marketability. These modifications include increasing or decreasing specific crop qualities. An example of this is the Flavr Savr Tomato, a tomato with delayed softening that failed in the market. Two new additions are non-browning apples and non-bruising potatoes, both of which have been approved recently, but not yet produced. A handful of crops have been modified to have higher production of specific organic compounds for industry use such as increased lysine in maize and oleic acid in soybeans.

The second type, which consists of the vast majority of GMOs, change farming practices. It explains why genetically modified crops have largely come into existence, and that is due to one main purpose: suppression of weeds and pests. These two groups give us the dominant GMO traits: herbicide resistance for weeds and insect resistance for pests. Herbicide resistant GMOs include Roundup Ready and LibertyLink crops. Insect resistant GMOs include BT toxin modified crops. Also in this type are a couple environmental stress and disease resistant crops.

How many GMOs are there?

Contrary to popular belief, while there are around 120 varieties of 30 approved GMO crops, only 10 crops are produced for consumption in the US: corn, soybean, cotton, potato, papaya, squash, canola, alfalfa, apple, and sugar beet—only those 10. Each crop can consist of at least one variety. For example, corn has over 30 approved varieties while sugar beet has one. I suggest that everyone look up the list of approved GMOs worldwide; there aren’t that many. However, let’s not jump to the conclusion that the low number of GMOs translates to low harm or effect.

Now that we have answered, what are GMOs and how many are there?, let’s find out the extent of these GMOs in the fields and in our food. Here are some statistics:

  • In 2015, genetically modified crops were grown in 28 countries on around 180 million hectares, equivalent to 10% of the world’s arable land
  • 92% of corn, 94% of soybean, and 94% of cotton in the US is genetically modified
  • Up to 75% of processed foods in US grocery stores have GM ingredients
Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the United States, 1996-2019

So how are these GM crops used or eaten? It depends on the crop and the country. We do know that the majority of GM corn and soybean goes into animal feed and that a lot of GM crops get turned into hundreds of different ingredients used in processed foods. 

Of course, we cannot forget the Non-GMO Verified Seal created by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit org. The only thing the seal ensures is that there are no GM crop ingredients in a product. It does not mean no pesticides. We also know that only 10 GM crops are produced in the US. So, do not rely on the seal.

Now we can begin to talk about the toxicity or harm they may cause. Are GMOs dangerous? How can they be harmful? Let’s simplify this issue by identifying possible things implicated with GMOs that could be causing harm to people or the ecosystem. 

  1. The gene
  2. Lateral gene transfer
  3. The pesticides

While genetic modification is a legitimate concern, there is not enough evidence as of now to conclude that the addition of the new gene in crops affects the human body. The insertion of genes that would otherwise not naturally occur in an organism could be having an insidious effect on the ecosystem though; we don’t really know yet.

The second concern is lateral gene transfer, which is the transfer of genetic material between organisms, sometimes across species barriers. In fact, this is the primary way antibiotic resistance spreads in bacteria. Again, we don’t know whether lateral gene transfer is occurring and what its effect would be if it is. 

It is the pesticides we spray on the crops that we are most concerned about which leads us to the next section on pesticides.

Pesticides

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are substances used to kill or limit undesired organisms such as weeds, insects, microbes and fungi that might interfere with the growth of the desired crop. The intention is to kill only its target organism. However, as we may have learned, that is very rarely accomplished given the complexity of ecological systems. Non-target organisms are often harmed as well. Are modern synthetic pesticides affecting more than their intended targets, specifically humans? Let’s dig deeper.

Here are some charts to help us understand modern pesticide use:

Pesticide use in U.S. agriculture peaked in 1981 (21 selected crops, 1960 -2008)
Image result for pesticide use

Mass use of synthetic pesticides in the US increased sharply from around the 1950s to the 80s, and leveled off since then. Globally, especially in China, pesticide use has been increasing.

Corn, soybeans, potatoes, and cotton accounted for close to 80 percent of pesticide use on 21 crops in 2008

Corn and soybeans are the most sprayed crops in the US. Notice how some of the crops are not genetically modified.

The four most heavily used pesticide active ingredients in 2008 were herbicides (percent total pounds a.i. applied on 21 selected crops)

Here we have a list of the most used active ingredients in pesticides. Glyphosate is clearly on top at 38%.

According to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, 47 pesticide residues can be found on apples, 53 on blueberries and 1 on avocados. There are too many pesticides to count, nonetheless cover them all, so we will only focus on the most heavily sprayed pesticide, glyphosate, along with two other interesting herbicides and toxins worth talking about.

Glyphosate

Glyphosate or glycine methyl phosphonate is the most widely sprayed herbicide around the world. How does it work? At its most basic function, glyphosate is a demineralizer. It binds and removes minerals, specifically metals such as copper, calcium, magnesium, manganese and many more. It is very powerful at demineralizing. In fact, that was how it was first used and patented—to clean pipes and boilers. 

So how does that have to do with killing weeds? All organisms need metals to form specific metalloproteins, also known as enzymes, in order to function. Glyphosate, a powerful demineralizer, interferes with that process by binding to the metals required in those proteins, thereby inhibiting protein production. Consequently, for all organisms, glyphosate affects numerous metabolic pathways that require metals; it is especially effective in the shikimate pathway, an essential pathway used by microbes, fungi and plants to produce the amino acids, phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan. Plants that are sprayed with this compound quickly succumb to death within a few days. 

With this new purpose, glyphosate was patented as an herbicide, and used as the active ingredient in Roundup. Farmers began using it to kill weeds with extremely high success. Eventually, that led to the creation of Roundup Ready crops, genetically engineered plants designed to be glyphosate tolerant— we briefly introduced it earlier. This allowed further convenience for farmers by enabling direct spraying of crops to kill unwanted weeds. Additionally, because it kills plants so quickly, glyphosate is used for a second purpose; that is, as a crop desiccant. In this case, glyphosate is sprayed on non-GMO crops, especially grains such as oats and wheat, right before harvest to synchronize and speed up the drying process. These crops have the highest amount of glyphosate residues.

An important thing to note is that new evidence is showing that glyphosate can linger in the soil for over a year. It is a water soluble compound, meaning it can travel through the hydrologic cycle throughout the entire ecosystem. It can be found in small amounts in rainwater. This has profound consequences on all life if it is toxic.

Let’s take a step aside before returning to glyphosate. In the ecosystem of life, all animals are simply larger organisms in a sea of microbes: bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites. These microbes are ubiquitous; they live on and inside the bodies of all animals. In fact, the interaction between animals and microbes is immensely complex. We’ve only begun to realize this fact. Microbes play an essential role in the health and function of all living creatures, as science is only beginning to discover.

Image result for microbiome function

In humans, there are more microbes than human cells. The weight of all these microbes can be higher than the weight of the human brain. We call this collection of microbes in the human body, the human microbiome. In the gut where most of them live, they perform a multitude of important functions—not only digestion, but also the production of neurotransmitters used by the brain, immune system function, and many more. Not surprisingly, they are also linked to all chronic diseases. 

Returning to the discussion on glyphosate, what did we learn about it’s special ability? It kills microbes, plants, and fungi. When glyphosate enters the human gut, it damages the system that our bodies rely upon. Glyphosate kills beneficial microbes, destroys the intricate communication between bacteria that regulate the immune system, and injures the protein structures, known as tight junctions, that control the permeability of the gut membrane. This allows toxins and chemicals to leak through causing numerous consequences including autoimmune reactions and leaky blood-brain barriers. 

The recent increase in autoimmune diseases, autism, alzheimer’s/dementia and many more diseases are possibly linked to the widespread use of this pesticide. To illustrate, we have these charts:

Image result for glyphosate and autism

As you can see, the correlation coefficient is .99, which means there is near perfect correlation between glyphosate use and autism. Similarly, a chart showing correlation between glyphosate use and dementia with R-value .99:

Image result for glyphosate and dementia

As you may have heard, the WHO declared glyphosate a “probable carcinogen”. That led California to investigate and also come to the same conclusion. Here are two of many charts plotting glyphosate use and certain cancers. 

As the author of one of the studies, Nancy Swanson, says, 

“Although correlation does not necessarily mean causation, when correlation coefficients of over 0.95 with p-value significance levels less than 0.0001) are calculated for a list of diseases that can be directly linked to glyphosate, via its known biological effects, it would be imprudent to not to consider causation as a plausible explanation.” 

If indeed glyphosate is partly contributing to or causing these cancers as well as a host of other diseases, what could be the reason? Besides the effect of glyphosate in the human gut microbiome, a compelling hypothesis raised by Dr. Stephanie Seneff is that glyphosate may be mistaken as the coding amino acid, glycine, in protein synthesis. Here we can see the similarity in structures; glyphosate is essentially a glycine with extra stuff.

Image result for glycine glyphosate

If glyphosate is mistakenly substituted in place of glycine, then that could render many proteins useless. However, we still need more research before confirming anything. As more studies come out, we will learn more.

Now that we have discussed glyphosate’s specific effect on human health, what is its effect on other animal species? Glyphosate disrupts the base of the food chain by killing the smallest living creatures, leading to consequences for animals that rely on the soil ecosystem—that’s everyone. Besides the ability to damage the microbiomes of all organisms, evidence is showing that it is highly toxic to different species, especially amphibians. We also have the controversial Seralini study that showed mice growing tumors, which you can read and judge yourself, as well as numerous mice studies showing other toxic effects. There has not been a lot of research on other wild species, however. But it would not be unreasonable to argue that the rising use of pesticides could be a contributor to the rapid loss of biodiversity recorded in the past few decades.

As we know, glyphosate, an antimicrobial agent, kills soil species such as microbes and fungi. That releases the carbon and nitrogen used by these species in the form of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, a gas believed to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. Given that so much of the world’s land area is used for growing genetically modified crops sprayed with pesticides, glyphosate can and does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions on top of all the other harmful effects it causes. 

Glyphosate is just one of hundreds of pesticides used today, and while it is true that it is the most highly sprayed herbicide today, that may not be the case in the future. The next generation of herbicides is already here, and not many people know. That herbicide is Liberty, and it comes with its own herbicide tolerant GMOs, LibertyLink crops.

Glufosinate

Glufosinate is the active ingredient in the Liberty herbicide, which was created to combat the increase in glyphosate resistant weeds—I would love to go into more detail on how the weeds gain resistance, but it is too much info for this post. An intention for this new herbicide is to allow rotation between glyphosate and this new chemical, in the hopes of delaying the current rise of glyphosate tolerance in weeds. It can also take the place of glyphosate, in case it gets banned. Glufosinate’s mode of action is similar to glyphosate; it blocks the ability to create amino acids. In this case, it is the amino acid, glutamine, which has numerous important functions, including human fertility. Few studies have been conducted on this compound, so will have to wait.

BT Toxin

BT Toxin is a natural insecticide produced by the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, that targets specific herbivorous insects. It’s mechanism of action is to produce a protein that disrupts the digestive system of the insect. Because it is produced naturally, it is allowed in both organic and conventional farming practices. In organic farming, BT toxin is sprayed selectively in small amounts. On the other hand, BT toxin engineered crops produce higher amounts of BT toxin throughout the entire plant constantly. We should also note that BT toxin crops are also beginning to suffer from increasing insect resistance. 

In regards to toxicity to humans, BT toxin is accepted to be relatively benign. However, in regards to the environment, excessive accumulation of the BT toxin in soil and gene transfer to non-target species are both concerns that need further research.

Organic Farming

Organic farming is a way of farming more similar to what our ancestors used to practice; it is a holistic system designed to be sustainable and harmonious with the environment. There are no GMOs, no synthetic pesticides, and no synthetic fertilizers.

Here are the principles from the Canadian Organic Standards that do a good job describing the goal of organic farming:

  1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity, and promote a sound state of health.
  2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing biological activity within the soil.
  3. Maintain biological diversity within the system.
  4. Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
  5. Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
  6. Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing and handling methods, in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
  7. Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.

In the US, organic certification is managed by the USDA which requires all organic farms to meet strict standards. In addition to the things I described above, organic regulations ban additives such as certain processing aids, fortifying agents, preservatives and many more. The list of approved substances is determined by the USDA program. This table helps explain the label:

Image result for 100% organic, made with organic

Since taste, quality, and nutrition are often brought up in the organic food discussion, let’s go over them briefly.

Taste:

Generally no difference for majority of produce. 

Quality:

Depends. For example, more likely to find bugs in organic produce, but can have a higher chance of being picked at peak ripeness in contrast to non-organic produce. 

Nutrition:

Organic food can be slightly more nutritious in certain compounds, but generally is not significantly more nutritious than conventionally grown food.

These commonly discussed criteria are insufficient by themselves to judge the value of organic farming. We should use more important criteria such as the pesticide use to determine our decisions.

Before we end this section, let’s return back to the discussion on non-GMO. Perhaps now you can see why the non-GMO project verified seal is almost useless in comparison to organic certification. Here is an infographic:

Summary

This post is quite dense, so here are the main points to remember:

  • There are only 10 GMOs being produced in the US currently
  • The vast majority of GM crops are designed to be herbicide or insect resistant
  • Glyphosate, the most widely sprayed herbicide, damages the human microbiome 
  • Don’t rely on non-GMO
  • Buy organic to minimize consumption of pesticides

Closing Thoughts

We should try to solve problems without genetic engineering first due to unintended consequences of the highly disruptive technology. Earth wants to provide for us, we just need to listen.

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genetically_modified_crops

https://time.com/3840073/gmo-food-charts/

http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/default.asp

https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/gm-plants/what-gm-crops-are-currently-being-grown-and-where/

https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/gm-plants/where-are-gm-crops-being-eaten/

http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/43/download/isaaa-brief-43-2011.pdf

https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/311/ge-foods/about-ge-foods

https://www.nongmoproject.org/product-verification/verification-faqs/

https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx

https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2014/june/pesticide-use-peaked-in-1981-then-trended-downward-driven-by-technological-innovations-and-other-factors/

http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=BB

https://www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305318376_Glyphosate_pathways_to_modern_diseases_V_Amino_acid_analogue_of_glycine_in_diverse_proteins

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate

https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/870105v1

https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70046159

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283462716_Genetically_engineered_crops_glyphosate_and_the_deterioration_of_health_in_the_United_States_of_America

https://www.biology.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/facilities-images/Relyea%20286.pdf

https://district.schoolnutritionandfitness.com/lasvirgenesusd/files/Nutrition_Library/Organic_vs.pdf

https://organicfoodcouncil.org/index.php/grow-organic/organic-a-sustainable-farming

The DMT Hypothesis

A hypothesis on DMT’s role in near-death experiences and death.

Having an interest in how psychedelics work and a fascination—and also fear—of the process of dying, I came about an interesting revelation that could change the way we think about death. We live in a society in which death is moved offstage and psychedelics misjudged as forbidden drugs. However, maybe it’s in these two neglected subjects that arise important truths about life.

What is DMT?

In a brief introduction to the substance, DMT or dimethyltryptamine is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in many plants and animals including humans. It happens to be one of the most intense psychedelics that exist. DMT is a main constituent of ayahuasca, an entheogenic brew used ritually by many Amazonian tribes and also used as a recreational drug. The effects can be briefly summarized as extremely intense with high visual hallucination and a sense of bodily dissociation— known as ego death. Users often describe feelings of euphoria, calmness, or fear and anxiety.

What makes DMT especially significant is that it has been detected in multiple parts of the human body, and also in the pineal gland of rats. It is very difficult to measure DMT in the human brain, but many hypothesize that it is also produced there. This raises a dilemma because DMT is categorized as a class I drug. 

DMT trips can vary greatly, but in general they have a basic structure as well as similar elements. In breakthrough amounts, DMT causes ego-death and high amounts of geometric patterns. Right after exhaling the smoke, the user is blasted through a highly geometric space to enter what is commonly described as the DMT hyperspace, a place where random events happen. Occasionally, the user meets entities or beings in this hyperspace. After a few minutes, the user returns back to reality.

Here is a description of a typical DMT trip described by a reddit user.

“And as I finally exhaled I felt my body slowly rise and shoot straight forward at the speed of light. While colors of indescribable neon brightness shot past, complex geometric shapes began to form and I felt my body slowing in space but still moving forward. A landscape began to form, much like our own but with every color in the spectrum intensified, shapes were more jagged like mountains in the distance, and yet everything was connected by a fractal pattern. As I look up I can see a figure towering behind the mountains. It was a calming presence made of circles and sharp lines. I also saw a bright circle in the sky that began to warp everything around it until the sharp geometric lines turned into more organic blobby goop while maintaining it’s neon color and brightness. I felt my consciousness being pulled in. As I moved through the goop, two separate visions of my two nieces appear. One on the left one on the right. The images seemed to move by fast, but I was able to feel each memory individually as if I were reliving them. After that the most I remember is feeling like reality slowly came back to view. Except the fractal pattern from before remained, connecting everything in my view. The experience left me with an overwhelming feeling of connectivity to my family and the world.”

What is a Near-Death Experience (NDE)?

On the other hand, a near-death experience is an occurrence in which someone comes very close to dying, or dies and is brought back to life. The experience is variable but is often associated with an out-of-body feeling, a tunnel, a feeling of acceptance, a life review, spiritual beings or the presence of a bright light.

Here are two examples of near-death experiences taken from reddit. The experience can vary from these two descriptions.

“I was pretty dead after a car accident ( back when you could ride in the back of pickup trucks we were T-boned in an intersection) and I went into the tunnel of light. Chose to come back because I was given a choice. I missed my family, friends and my cats so I came back. I remember the tunnel being a white gold color, very warm friendly and inviting. When I woke up in the street I was bloody, cold and in shock but I knew what had happened a moment before.”

“I remember passing out and having the sensation like I was leaving a dark room and moving outside into the sun. I stopped panicking and this feeling of pure contentment settled over me. I was floating over a garden where all of the plants were giving off light, and I could see a huge amorphous shape above me that was made up of every colour in existence including colours I have never seen before and couldn’t possibly describe. The shape seemed familiar like I was a part of it, and it was beckoning to me and filling me with pure ecstasy and understanding as I looked at it. Then a man who looked an awful lot like Dream from the Sandman comics (which I was obsessed with at the time) walked over to me through the garden and told me that I couldn’t go home yet, that it wasn’t time. I started weeping but I was filled with a feeling of understanding, like I knew that I had to go back despite not wanting to, the man had tears streaming down his face and he took my hand and led me back to my body which was in an ambulance”

Near-death experiences are variable, but there seems to be recurring elements as I mentioned above. A common phenomenon is an out-of-body experience in which the individual leaves his or her body and enters a place of peace often associated with a bright light.

A Comparison

Comparing the two, we see some unmistakable similarities. Both commonly include an out-of-body experience or ego-death, and involve traveling through a space in order to reach a destination. Occasionally, there is an interaction with beings, spiritual or mystical. The long-term effects are also similar. Many participants in DMT trips and people who have experienced an NDE describe greater appreciation and positive outlooks on life. This is a unique experience exclusive to this psychedelic that also happens to be shared with many NDEs. 

The Hypothesis

It is a common belief that DMT may have something to do with near-death experiences. Some believe it is a death hormone. And even a life substance that is released when we’re born and when we die. However, that relationship between DMT and NDEs is still unclear. My hypothesis is that DMT is a compound that is naturally released along with other neurotransmitters during near-death experiences in order to protect the mind during moments of extreme stress. Its purpose is to enable the surviving individual’s mind to function without the painful memory associated with the traumatic event. For humans, the release of DMT in a near-death experience would decrease the amount of trauma or PTSD experienced later on by the survivor. And for many animals, prey animals in particular, this protects their ability to function at their optimal level, given that they face imminent danger and death more frequently.

The out-of-body experience of an NDE functions as a pain separator, so the individual does not directly endure the pain and psychological trauma associated with bodily injury or harm. If it is indeed true that DMT is involved in the NDE, it would help explain why ego-death is so prevalent in DMT trips. 

When you take DMT, it is inducing the same state that an NDE would produce. Except smoked DMT is released in high amounts chaotically through the blood-brain barrier to the entire brain, whereas endogenous DMT is released possibly by the pineal gland in smaller amounts to specific areas of the brain. This might explain the difference between smoked DMT trips and NDEs.

The Significance

Death is beautiful. DMT is a substance shared by many living beings: plants, animals and even humans. DMT likely eases the psyche during moments of trauma or even death. When the mind knows it might not survive, it releases this substance so that we may enter a state of peace. It is not a death hormone, but it happens to be an important element of the dying experience. It is a beautiful thing that even in those crucial moments in which we may not survive, there is life that cares and protects.

Unaddressed Issues on Sustainability

As many of us have begun to recognize, we are destroying the biosphere in which we depend on. While greenhouse gas emissions are getting all the attention, other major ecological issues are being unaddressed. The reality may be that the problem we are facing is far broader than what mainstream media and the general public has come to believe. If this is true, the solution requires much more than just moving toward carbon-neutrality to achieve sustainability on this planet.

When it comes to sustainability, people generally think of the heating effect of greenhouse gases on the climate and how things such as electric automobiles, solar and wind power, coral reefs, and rainforest fires relate to it. Yes, carbon emissions are a large part of the problem, but many other things are arguably just as impactful. Extracting and mining resources hurts the planet. Reducing wildlife populations leads to complex ecosystem changes. Replacing natural habitats with cities and crop fields causes numerous ecological issues. If we choose to formulate a problem solely based on one aspect of a multifaceted problem, we may miss out on crucial issues.

So what should society focus on? Is it to transition to renewable energy, to adopt plant-based diets, to eliminate waste, to limit population growth, to create a circular economy, to reform mass consumerism, to change the way we view our relationship to nature? The path to sustainability may require all of these and more. We need to reformulate how we look at the problem and consider all possibilities in order to achieve real progress. Most importantly, let’s listen to each other with respect and remember that the objective is not only in the end result, but in the journey. I will now discuss several overlooked or controversial topics on sustainability.

Dogs and Cats

Dog and cat ownership can be considered a cherished and essential part of culture around the world. They provide a valuable sense of purpose and connection to many. However, they are significant contributors to the ecological crisis. It is important that we consider all factors related to sustainability, no matter how much we value them. Here are some alarming statistics on pet ownership:

  • Dogs and cats generate about 64 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is about the same as a year’s worth of driving for 13.6 million cars
  • Dogs and cats are responsible for around 25-30% of the total environmental impact of meat consumption in the US
  • If America’s dogs and cats comprised their own separate country, their nation would rank 5th in global meat consumption
  • Domestic cats kill between 1.3-4 billion birds and 6.3-22.3 billion mammals annually
  • Global pet ownership is dramatically increasing, especially in asian countries.

We live in a finite resource ecosystem. If we increase the number of carnivores higher up in the food chain, there must be an increase in lower level prey. That process of producing more prey, otherwise known as animal agriculture, is a very environmentally taxing activity that also has consequences on the no so lucky prey animals. It is a direct cause of major global problems such as methane emissions, deforestation and the water crisis, not to mention a violator of animal welfare. Not many people realize that for every dog or cat that someone chooses to own, several cows, pigs, and chickens must be sacrificed as feed. When we choose to own dogs or cats, other animals and people around the world have to suffer as a result.

Unfortunately, domestic cats are some of the worst invasive predator species on this planet. They decimate local wildlife and have contributed to the extinction of many species around the world. The impact of cat ownership on the environment should not be ignored.

The solution is simple, but can be difficult to acknowledge for some: simply opt out of dog or cat ownership. However, for those who absolutely need to own one, choose a dog over a cat. Since dogs are omnivores, their diet can be covered by mostly plants; cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores. You can also limit the number of pets to one and choose a smaller pet over a larger one. An alternative is to get a herbivorous pet such as a rabbit or hamster. 

Roadkill

Roadkill is another important, but neglected issue that greatly affects biodiversity and wildlife population levels globally. The term was coined in the late 1950s in the US, when the interstate highway system was beginning construction. It’s talked about so little, there isn’t even an action verb for the word.

  • It is estimated that around 1/2 of the American city is dedicated to the car: streets, roads, driveways, parking lots, service stations, automobile businesses, etc
  • Roadkill is one of the largest if not the largest anthropological cause of death for wildlife globally
  • In the US, around 1 million animals, not including bugs are stuck every day
  • According to a study done in Brazil, 1.3 million animals are struck every day or around 1 every 15 seconds. The team documented 165 different species over the duration of the study not including bugs.

Roadkill is a persisting issue that has a profound effect on wildlife. In dense cities, most of the large animals have been struck down already or pushed out. In more rural cities, animals are struck on a daily basis. Individual cases may not seem that impactful, but the accumulation of roadkill over long periods of time has a defined, negative effect on global biodiversity. We have to renew our attention to the unaddressed consequences of our most basic daily actions, such as driving. For society, this means encouraging alternative modes of transportation that cause lower animal mortality and building animal friendly infrastructure in our cities. As individuals, we should drive slower and more carefully, especially around wilderness areas, so we avoid running over our animal friends.

Overpopulation

It is a bad idea to quickly dismiss this topic or to criticize those who bring it up, when population size is directly implicated in humanity’s collective footprint.

The truth is, the world is consuming more and more resources, and one of the reasons for this increase in consumption is that there are simply more people. While the total global population is starting to level off, even decreasing in a few places, the planet is struggling to sustain seven billion people under our current global consumeristic system. Simply put, population matters. A smaller population level will help reduce our environmental load on the planet, help us reach our sustainability goals faster, and perhaps benefit humanity as well. 

Unknown to most, the most effective individual action in reducing emissions is to have fewer children. According to one study, “a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives”. That same study estimated that having one less child reduces an average of almost 60 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year in developed countries. Compare that to a typical passenger car which emits roughly 6 tons per year. It makes sense though. More people means higher demand for resources—at a level earth cannot maintain. 

This is not to say we shouldn’t have children. We just need to be more aware of the environmental effects of having children. I am not arguing for strict population control measures, but instead, encouraging education and voluntary choice in a time of great adversity. Families—especially those in high-consumption countries—should consider having fewer children in order to greatly reduce our ecological and carbon footprints.

Burials

Burials are one of the least environmentally friendly features of modern society. In many developed countries, death and dying are being taken offstage, but perhaps it is time to renew discussion on this topic. Here are some statistics according to the Green Burial Council.

In the US, burials use:

  • 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, almost a quarter of that consisting of formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene (toxic chemicals)
  • 20 million board feet of hardwoods
  • 1.6 million tons of concrete
  • 17,000 tons of copper and bronze
  • 64,500 tons of steel
  • Various metals and chemicals that leach into the environment

Cremation:

  • Uses 3,250 cubic feet of natural gas to maintain a temperature of 1900° F for 2 hours
  • Releases 139 lbs of co2 into the atmosphere (about a 500 mile car trip)
  • Also releases .8 to 5.9 grams of mercury and other byproducts such as nitrogen oxide and dioxins

As you can see, burials are not so environmentally friendly. And this is not even taking into account the enormous environmental cost of cemeteries. We need to rethink the process of burials by replacing traditional burials with green alternatives. Green burials may involve woven basket coffins or simply wrapping the body in a cotton shroud. I encourage everyone to do their own research and consider having a green burial, because if you wait too long, it might be too late.

Closing Thoughts

I talked about four overlooked or neglected topics related to sustainability, but there are numerous other topics. It is up to us individually to continue to educate ourselves and refine our solution to the greatest problem humanity has faced.

Sources

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541/meta

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0181301

http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs-environmental-impact

https://abcbirds.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Loss_et_al._2013-Impacts_Outdoor_Cats.pdf

https://www.thedodo.com/road-kill-every-day-1392772624.html

https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/media_packet.html

Animal Agriculture

It’s time more people face the truth. Intensive factory farming is unethical and unsustainable.

If you eat meat on a regular basis, please watch Dominion to learn how meat is produced.

As an average meat eater in the US, in your lifetime you will pay someone to kill at least:

  • 2400 chickens
  • 70 turkeys
  • 32 pigs
  • 11 cows

Here are some global statistics on three familiar animals:

Cows

  • 1 billion worldwide
  • 300 million slaughtered annually
  • around 6 billion cows slaughtered in past 20 years

Pigs

  • 1 billion worldwide
  • over 1.5 billion killed annually (the average age of a pig when slaughtered is less than 1 year old)
  • around 25 billion pigs slaughtered in past 20 years (Compared to 6 million Jews in the Holocaust)

Chickens

  • 19 billion worldwide
  • over 50 billion killed annually
  • around 1 trillion chickens slaughtered in past 20 years

Slaughter

In most western countries, every animal is slaughtered in this two-step procedure:

Step 1: Rendering Unconscious

  1. Carbon dioxide gas chamber
  2. Electric Stunning
  3. Captive-bolt pistols
  4. Other- sledgehammer, rifle

Step 2: Killing

Throat slit and bled out upside down

In many countries, they skip step 1. 

Under mass factory farming, every life—cow, pig and chicken—is cut short by disease or slaughter. Their lives are treated with contempt and their dead bodies regarded as nothing more than commodities. Instead of living healthy, long lives, they live miserable, short lives—never reaching past childhood. Once natural species with unique roles in the diversity of life, now trapped as mere commodities in a global production system. Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated every ten months to produce milk, and separated from their newborn calves right after birth. They are used for three to four cycles of milk production on average before being slaughtered at less than five years of age. Pigs are forcibly impregnated multiple times a year to produce around twenty piglets per year. They spend their entire lives in small, confined spaces—often too narrow to even turn around. Chickens have the tips of their beaks cut off and are kept in densely crowded sheds or wire cages where disease proliferates and undiscovered corpses putrefy. Animal agriculture is a never-ending cycle of suffering. There is no happiness at any point of the process.

Is eating meat unethical? This is a difficult question to answer, however, a question that every meat eater should ponder given that modern meat comes from lives that endure unimaginable pain and suffering, from their first breaths to their last. Any reasonable human being, if they are willing to look, can see that the amount of suffering and cruelty is appalling. The problem is that society is structured so that there is a lack of appreciation of the lives of animals and understanding of the suffering gone into producing a piece of meat. Most of us have not contemplated the issue of meat production. Companies shield the truth and the majority of us have not bothered to seek it. We have to question the culture that brought us up by educating ourselves on the truth, the one hidden from our view.

Not only is animal agriculture an abuse of the beautiful animals that share our planet, but it is also a leading cause of chronic disease, and a plethora of global problems including climate change and biodiversity loss. Several issues arise from this system:

  1. Land Use Change– Deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, species extinction, land degradation
  2. Livestock Feed– GMOs and pesticides, monoculture, water crisis, water pollution, soil degradation, ocean dead zones, greenhouse gas emissions
  3. Intensive Animal Farming– Animal welfare, antibiotic resistance, methane emissions, animal waste, water pollution
  4. Slaughter– Animal cruelty, human exploitation
  5. Retail– Greenhouse gas emissions, food waste, farm animal diseases, packaging waste
  6. Home– Chronic disease, high healthcare costs

As you can see, animal agriculture has a wide range of detrimental effects. From production to consumption, meat is at the core of many alarming global issues that will only get worse due to increasing demand. The consequences of eating meat far outweigh the benefits to ourselves, the animals, and the environment.

At the end of the day, many people will continue to eat meat for some time to come, but for those of us who are willing to acknowledge and change, we should consider drastically reducing or eliminating our consumption of animal products, especially factory-farmed animal products, and be willing to spread the information.

In an egoistic society grounded on individualism, empathy and love especially towards people or animals considered inferior is a form of weakness. We see this develop repeatedly through history. However, we also have the ability to change. Every human is capable of both unspeakable evil and unconditional love. Let us choose to be more loving to each other and to all animals.

Sources

https://www.upc-online.org/slaughter/92704stats.htm

http://www.veganpeace.com/animal_cruelty/dairy.htm

Click to access chapitre_aw_slaughter.pdf

Click to access D2703.PDF

Click to access the-life-of-dairy-cows.pdf

What is the Healthiest Diet?

Before we begin I’d like to present this question: if right now, you could only choose one diet that will stay with you for the rest of your life, would it be the one you’re on right now?

Why is this important now?

Human health is at a crisis. Life expectancy in the US has dropped for the third year in a row. Many disease rates are at all time highs, and continuing to rise while the US is spending more of its GDP on health care every year. The statistics are alarming.

  • 1:2 Cardiovascular Disease
  • 1:2 Cancer
  • 1:4 Stroke
  • 1:10 Diabetes
  • 40% Obesity
  • 1:5 Mental Illness
  • 1:40 Autism
  • 1:10 Alzheimer’s
  • 1:10 Attention Deficit

While it seems like disease is a natural part of life, especially for Americans, human health does not have to be so plagued by disease as it is now. We can live healthier lives without all the unnecessary suffering.

The purpose of this post is to help me and others gain some insight from the confusing mess of information surrounding health and diet. By no means is the information completely accurate, but I can assure you that it is my best effort at this point in time. At the end of the day, whatever you conclude, hopefully you will learn at least a thing or two. With that said, have an open mind and let us try to uncover the relation between human health and diet.

So to begin, how do we start to tackle such a difficult problem? We can begin by identifying the question we should ask, which would be asking the broadest question possible; this is no easy task. I think we can all agree that the big question is (or at least should be)…

How do we be healthy?

That’s it. It may seem rather straightforward, but surprisingly you may realize that your big question is really how do I lose weight, how do I build muscle, how do I get rid of <insert disease>, or even how do I prove him/her wrong? Anyways, now that we have identified the big question we can break it down by specifically asking the question: 

What diet is the most healthy?

Although the key to health is more than just diet, diet is arguably the single most important factor. We will tackle this one question.

Before we continue, let us define the terms healthy and diet. We will define healthy as maximum lifespan with as few diseases as possible and diet as the food we eat everyday.

How?

Now that we have identified the question, we can begin by asking how? How do we figure out what the best diet is that will enable us to be healthy?

Let us list some methods as to how we can approach this question:

1. Conduct studies comparing the major diets

2. Conduct studies on individual foods or types of food we eat, and identify which ones are more healthy or unhealthy

3. Assume that people at some point in the past were healthier, then try to identify what their diets were

4. Observe who the healthiest people are currently, then find out what their diet is

5. Identify leading causes of death and their relation to different diets

The list goes on, but many methods of thinking follow one of these listed.

Bad Methods

Now just for fun we can make a list of bad methods:

1. Assume X is bad, so reduce X

2. Follow trends

3. Listen to someone whose bottomline is not your health

4. Continue something out of habit

Defaulting to a bad method requires no effort, while using a good method requires thinking. Now let’s delve into each method by identifying their underlying assumptions and discussing each one. Then, I will list some examples and state an interpretation or conclusion.

Method 1

Method: Conduct a study comparing all major diets such as vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, low-carb, lactoovovegetarian, etc

Assumption: This method assumes that it is possible to identify the healthiest diet by comparing the health consequences of different diets

Thoughts: Although this would give us a definitive answer to the question, a large population study like this does not exist as of now due to the enormous amount of funding and time required. However, there have been studies based off smaller groups of people, showing surprisingly consistent results.

Examples

  1. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4191896/
  2. Taiwanese Vegetarians and Omnivores: Dietary Composition, Prevalence of Diabetes and IFG https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3921224/
  3. Epic Oxford Study
  4. China-Cornell-Oxford Study by T. Colin Campbell

Comparison of Vegetarian With Nonvegetarian Dietary Patterns With Respect to All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality

China-Cornell-Oxford Study

Interpretation: No study done on large populations, but studies on smaller populations are pointing out: diets with lower meat consumption are associated with lower mortality risk or disease.

Method 2

Method: Conduct studies on individual foods or types of food we eat, and identify which ones are associated with higher mortality or disease

Assumption: A diet is determined by every food or type of food that composes it, so by conducting studies on each component we can identify the healthiest diet. 

Thoughts: This method takes a more direct approach by analyzing the individual components of a diet. However, an issue is that human food consumption is extremely diverse and variable. Be aware that these studies tend to have high likelihood of a biased funding source. Ex. Egg board funding egg study.

Examples

  1. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19307518
  2. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27479196 (most downloaded article of 2016 in JAMA)
  3. Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption With Cancer Risk https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2707948

Interpretation: Based on the meat and plant studies, meat consumption is associated with higher mortality, while plant protein is associated with lower mortality. Also, there may be an association with organic food consumption with lower cancer risk. However, it is important to read the studies on the other individual foods and categories such as fat, sugar, eggs, and oil before determining the healthiest diet.

Method 3

Method: Assume that people at some point in the past were healthier, then try to identify what their diets were

Assumption: This is actually a bad method, but I included it as one of the main methods because of its wide prevalence. The assumption is that people some time ago lived longer and healthier lives. Therefore, we should eat the foods they ate.

Thoughts: This is not a science based method because we cannot get evidence to support its claim. How do we identify the thousands of different foods they ate, and measure the quantities of each food? How do we get reliable data on their diseases and lifespans?

Examples:

  1. Paleo

Conclusion: While there is some value to its principles such as eating no processed foods, this method is inferior to other methods. It relies on speculation rather than evidence-based science.

Method 4

Method: Observe who the healthiest people are currently, then find out what their diet is

Assumption: By identifying and adopting the diets of existing healthiest groups of people, we will receive the same health benefits 

Thoughts: Similar to method 3, this method assumes that there are healthier people. But unlike method 3, we are able to get data because the population exists. 

Examples

  1. Blue Zones Studies by Dan Buettner https://www.bluezones.com/recipes/food-guidelines/
  2. Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet, and healthy aging: the diet of the world’s longest-lived people and its potential impact on morbidity and life span. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17986602
  3. Centenarians and diet: what they eat in the Western part of Sicily https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3412743/

Conclusion: People living in blue zones and centenarians eat plant based diets.

Method 5

Method: Identify leading causes of death and their relation to different diets

Assumption: Most leading causes of death are associated with poor diet. We can promote healthier and longer lives by addressing those causes with better diet.

Example:

  1. How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger 

Interpretation: A plant-based diet effectively reduces all causes of death related to diet.

Discussion

In this presentation we briefly examined 5 different methods to approach the question: what diet is the healthiest?  We asked this question to better answer the larger question: how do we be healthy? We also listed a few examples to illustrate each method and stated an interpretation or conclusion. 

If our methods are logically correct, then each should hint at the same diet—the healthiest diet. We should also include as many methods and examples as possible in our decision to reduce the possibility that the diet is inaccurate. 

Based on the methods approach and the examples I chose in this post, we can conclude that the healthiest diet is…

A whole food, plant-based diet

However, using additional examples beyond the ones used in this post, I want to mention that the diet can be further improved:

Whole food, organic, plant-based diet, with low sugar and fat

Whole food: The less processed the better (not to be misinterpreted with a raw diet), unrefined carbohydrates 

Organic: Eliminate pesticides and other artificial chemicals

Plant-based: Minimize animal products

Low sugar: Minimize simple sugars, fruit is ok

Low fat: no excessive oil and fat

Whatever stage of life or circumstance you are in, remember that this diet is a diet that we should strive for. Our duty should be to do what is best for our bodies even if it means change. Hold this belief in your mind, and you will realize that change is possible, perhaps even fulfilling. Let fear not determine our decisions.

Why?

Let this be our goal so that we may enjoy life to a ripe old age with our friends, our family, our partners, our parents, and everyone around us— no heart disease, no cancer, no disease.

Sources

For health stats refer to “health” in issues: https://ponadr.blog/health/