Stories tagged food

You've probably heard that we (the Earth's 7 billion humans) are headed towards a global population of 9,000,000,000 (billion!) people. And because you're smart, you've probably wondered how we're going to feed the extra 2 billion future folk.

When we're not great at feeding the current population...

  • About 1 billion people are hungry
  • About 1 billion people are overweight

... it's hard to imagine throwing another 2 billion human beings in the mix is going to make the whole situation much better.

Thankfully, a bunch of smart peeps are looking into a solution to the world's food problem, including this guy Jon Foley and his team. They argue that there isn't one silver bullet solution. Instead, they're looking for the "silver buckshot" solutionS. Neat idea, right?

Check out this TEDxTC video of Jon sharing his thoughts on the matter:

Aug
17
2011

LOL
LOLCourtesy dan mogford
Can you believe it’s been almost two whole years since you had your last Science Buzz Extravaganza?!

What a bleak two years those were, eh? In that time you’ve probably been married and impregnated, and then birthed a really boring baby. What did you name it? “Dullton”? “Cloudface”? “Eeyore”? Or could you not even think of a name, because everything has just seemed so boring and pointless?

You know what? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve just been so preoccupied in the last couple years, what with the economy being so bad and all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep my horseracing operation financially feasible. But I think I’ve finally figured it out—whenever one of my horses looses a race, I have to stop setting them free in the woods. Or, if I really need to get that loser out of my sight, I’ve got to at least sell it to a glue factory or restaurant. (Sure, get all self-righteous. You’ve clearly never eaten horsemeat, or stuck two pieces of paper together with horseglue. Unparalleled experiences.)

So the Extravaganza is back! At least as a limited edition. I was so excited to do it, I couldn’t even wait for the usual Friday post. And so a Wednesday Extravaganza it is! A Food Extravaganza! A Foodstravaganza!

You may be aware that the Science Museum will soon be opening an exhibit called Future Earth, which explores how the many billions of us humans will get by in the coming decades. You might also be aware that food is going to be a big deal in our future (there will be more of us, and we’ll be eating more stuff that takes more resources to produce), and so, as both a Future Earth worker bee and a consumer of food, a couple of stories caught my eye this week.

Story the first: humans of the 20th century weren’t the first to screw themselves over with agriculture.

Whoops! A little background information: agriculture isn’t screwing us over—it’s keeping us from starving. However, in our effort to keep ourselves from starving (a noble goal!) we’ve converted about 40% of the land surface of the Earth into cropland and pastureland, and not all of that is sustainable. I don’t mean that in the “cute animals have nowhere to live” way, I mean it in the “we weren’t always careful, and have caused tremendous environmental degradation” way. When farming practices allow topsoil to be stripped of nutrients, or erode too extensively, or contaminate water sources, it’s bad news. But at least we aren’t the first people to have done it. According to some recent archaeological work, ancient Peruvians were up to the same tricks. By looking at the ancient trash pits and the buried plant remains in the desolate-looking Ica region of Peru, archaeologists found that the area’s residents originally survived by gathering shellfish and the like from the coast, but eventually transitioned to an intensive agricultural lifestyle—that is, they cleared a lot of land, and grew a lot of food. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, and chillis for hundreds of years, and all was well. Until it wasn’t. It looks like they cleared too much of the natural plant life, and flooding, erosion, and nutrient depletion became problems (the natural trees and shrubs fixed nitrogen nutrients in the soil and held dirt and moisture in place in a way that the crops couldn’t.) The whole area went to pot, and the locals had to go back to eating snails, mussels and sea urchins again. Aw, nuts.

So what could they have done? For that matter, what can we do, if it looks like our conventional food sources can’t sustain a human population which will rapidly exceed 7 billion?

That brings me to my next story! Oh, good!

You know what everybody likes? Animal protein, also known as “meat.” The problem there is that animal protein requires animals to produce it, and not all animals make it very efficiently—a cow, for instance, eats about 30 pounds of cow feed to produce each pound of steak. There are more efficient creatures out there, but we don’t usually eat them: bugs.

Naturally, we’ve talked about bug eating on Science Buzz already. But that focused more on bug eating (or entomophagy) as a concept). An article I read this weekend examines bug eating in practice, and it’s pretty wild.

While the story does talk about some straight up bug recipes (e.g. “mealworm fried rice”), it also looks at a company in the Netherlands that’s already raising and processing insects just for their protein. The advantages of farm-raised bugs are that you get a pretty generic, healthy product (it sounds sort of like … hotdog filling, or something, but without all the fat) from animals that require less food and produce a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases created by normal livestock. However, efficiently separating the bug meat from the rest of the bug parts is a challenge, as is processing it without having it turn funky. Apparently, in the mysterious world of bug meat, funkiness is very much a possibility. But, really, when are we ever totally free of the threat of funkiness?

In any case, I’d like it if your takeaway message of this extravaganza was this: You should eat bugs, and like them, or you will be forced to eat bugs (and you probably won’t like them). Amiright?

If you can’t handle a takeaway message with that much raw power, try digesting this one instead: producing food has some serious challenges, so it behooves us to be innovative and foresightful with regards to our food sources.

Rendered insect meat!

May
18
2011

Boom!
Boom!Courtesy sfllaw
Word on the street is that the world may be ending on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly when—I’m not keyed into the ins and outs of religious fear mongering enough to make an exact calculation—so I can’t tell you if you should cancel your lunch date, or if you’ve got until midnight to continue doing whatever it is you do. Jigsaw puzzles? Hard drugs? Far be it from me to judge.

And, you know, normally I’d dismiss this as an organization’s or individual’s effort to gain attention through a frightening claim that has no basis in reality, but … watermelons are freaking exploding in China!

Whatever holy scripture this May 21st thing was extrapolated from, I guarantee there’s a passage in there along the lines of, “And in the east, melons shall burst on the vine. Their shells will rupture, and tiny seeds shall fly forth. Juice will be everywhere.” I mean, it would fit, right? This is the sort of thing that always happens before the end of the world! How am I going to explain this to my cat?!

Now, some folks—I’ll call them unbelievers—insist that the exploding melons actually aren’t bursting from anxiety over the imminent end of everything they care about. Instead, they say that they’re bursting because of a lazy farming technique, where a chemical called forchlorfenuron has been over applied. Forchlorfer… whatever, causes increased cell division in fruit, and is sprayed on watermelons and their ilk to get bigger, faster growing fruit. The resulting watermelons can be oddly shaped, and don’t taste all that great, but they’re supposed to be harmless to humans. And, apparently, they can explode.

Now, generally we keep an open mind regarding fertilizers and high-yield farming techniques around here, but this is a good example of the hazards of wily-nily application of chemicals to farms. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this isn’t a symptom of the apocalypse.) If there’s no significant nutritional gain, it seems kind of crazy. And if this chemical is causing explosion in the crop it’s supposed to help, it makes one wonder what its effect will be when it’s absorbed in the soil or washed off the fields (and into other vegetation). And there’s the question of whether farmers should be allowed to do this. And what the market conditions are that make them want to/need to use chemicals like forchlorfenuron. And if there’s a benefit to using it in any situations.

But that’s all probably very complicated, and should only be considered by people who don’t believe that the world is on its way out. Me? I’m not even going to brush my teeth before Saturday.

Apr
22
2011

Meat: Is it your good friend, or old enemy? Tell us.
Meat: Is it your good friend, or old enemy? Tell us.Courtesy Another Pint Please...
Ok, Buzzketeers, buckle up for some meaty issues, juicy discussion, and humorless punnery. But first:

Do you eat meat?

Let me say off the bat that this isn’t a judgment thing. Yeah, I am judging you, but only on your grammar, clothing, height, gait, pets, personal odor, and birthday.

But not on your diet. So there will be no bloodthirsty carnivore or milquetoast vegetarian talk here. Y’all can have that out on your own time.

This is more of what I like to call an entirely unscientific poll about meat, the future, and your deepest secrets. (Depending on what you consider secret.)

When you get to the end, you can see what everyone else voted.

Tell us, do you eat meat? (click here for the poll)

Or jump right to the results.

Or go ahead and discuss this stuff.

Apr
06
2011

My friend Rebecca has been rumored to throw a fine “But Does it Taste Good?” party, wherein she and others seek out cookbooks from days of yore (Velveeta Nutburgers anyone?)Velveeta "Cheese": Springboard for the culinary arts.
Velveeta "Cheese": Springboard for the culinary arts.Courtesy PeRshGo
and test out seemingly horrific recipes that have no other possibility than somehow tasting good because they’re 1) tested and considered good enough to be printed in a book; and 2) the product of combined ingredients so repugnant that only a kitchen savant would ever consider putting such nasty, curdle-prone things together to get something so freakishly magnificent.

So when I read this article, Building a 'Nano-Brick' Wall Around Fresh Food, and envisioned several-weeks-old produce in the desert, I wondered: 1) But does it taste good? (the food; not the packaging), and 2) But does it biodegrade? (the packaging; not the food).

Now, let it be known to the universe: I hate plastic. I know, I know it’s been so helpful to our lives on so many levels – and yes, I do use it – but honestly, one viewing of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (you know, that that great trash mass twice the size of Texas floating out in the Pacific Ocean?), and it’s likely you, too, will clamor for any kind of plastic alternative whenever possible. So when I read about potential awesomeness like this new nano-clay-based packaging, I can’t help but get a little excited. Albatross Chick: This Laysan Albatross chick has been accidentally fed plastic by its parents and died as a result.
Albatross Chick: This Laysan Albatross chick has been accidentally fed plastic by its parents and died as a result.Courtesy Duncan Wright

And then my little shoulder-side Nano Skeptic poofs into existence and starts asking more questions. Questions that are beyond my ability to scientifically answer. You see, the creators tout this stuff as being a veritable fortress against the evils of oxygen - chastity belt inside a Safe Room inside a maximum-security prison, if you will. So if it’s that strong, that secure against oxygen, does that mean it’s less likely to biodegrade? Are we potentially replacing plastic with something even worse? Are we providing a much-needed, valuable service to those who are hungry (YAY!) to the long-term detriment of the planet (BOO!)? Does the benefit outweigh the risk?

And honestly, it’s questions like these that make me want to chuck it all and go live in a treehouse for the rest of my days.

Mar
03
2011

Just a few of your billions of hungry friends
Just a few of your billions of hungry friendsCourtesy SchuminWeb
Buckle up, because this is a long post. But it’s about your second favorite thing: food. If you’re the impatient type, skip to the end for the bullet points.

(The number one thing is Hollywood gossip, duh. Go on and act like it’s not.)

So … imagine you and six of your friends standing in a room together. I know some of you don’t have six friends (Facebook doesn’t count), but for the sake of science pretend that you do. And I don’t know why you all are just standing around in a room. Trying to prove a point, I guess.

Imagine you and six of your friends are standing in a room together. Now, imagine one hundred times that number of people. Now imagine one hundred times that number. And one hundred times that number. And a thousand times that number.

That’s seven billion people, all just sort of standing around a room, and that’s about the number of people we have on the planet today.

And the thing is, all seven billion of y’all eat like Garfield. (Garfield, for all of you foreign Buzzketeers, was the 20th president of the United States, and he loved lasagna.) Seven billion people, eating, eating, eating. That’s you.

Obviously y’all have to eat, so we put a lot of effort into producing food. Right now, humans have used up about 40% of the planet’s land surface, and the vast majority of that is dedicated to agriculture (i.e., food production). In fact, if you were to take all the crop-growing land in the world and lump it together, it would be the size of South America. And if you were to take all of the pastureland (land for raising animals) in the world and lump it together, it would be the size Africa!
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.
The land we use: Green areas are used for growing crops, brown areas are used for raising animals.Courtesy IonE

That is obviously a lot of land. The transformation of that land from its natural state into agricultural land may be responsible for about a third of all the carbon dioxide mankind has released into the atmosphere. And each year agriculture is responsible for more than 20% of all the new greenhouse gas emissions. And the whole process takes 3,500 cubic kilometers of water, and hundreds of millions of tons of non-renewable fertilizers, and lots of people don’t have enough food …

But we’re pretty much doing it. It’s not pretty, but we’re feeding the planet.

Here’s the punch: there’s a lot more people coming soon, and not much more food. By 2050, there will very probably be about 9 billion people on the planet. How are we going to feed 2 billion more people than are alive today? While there is a lot unused land out there, very little of it is arable. That means that we’ve already used up almost all of the land that’s good for growing food.

Oh, shoot.

What we need to do is produce more food with just the land we’re already using. Fortunately, scientists are working on ways to do this.

I’m going to get the first one out of the way right now, because you aren’t going to like it …

Eat less meat. Eat a lot less meat.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.
A handy meat conversion chart!: Keep one in your wallet, or tattooed on your forearm.Courtesy IonE

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you that meat is delicious and manly (or womanly), but we eat a lot of meat, and raising meat animals is a really inefficient way to get food. To get lots of meat, and to get the animals to grow quickly, we feed them grains that we farm. But to get just one pound of beef (not one pound of cow; one pound of beef) we have to feed a cow about 30 pounds of grain. Say what you will about meat being calorically more dense, it doesn’t have 30 times the nutritional value of grain.
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?
How much of what we grow gets eaten?: Crops grown in the blue areas are mostly eaten by people. But in the yellow and red areas, the crops are mostly used as animal feed. Say what?Courtesy IonE

If you look at the maps that compare the volume of crops we grow to the volume of crops we actually eat, you find that places like North America and Europe actually use most of their crops for something besides directly eating—mostly because we’re feeding them to animals (and using them for biofuel feedstock).

Leaving alone the amount of water animals need, and the pollution they can cause, eating meat doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So there you go. I told you that you wouldn’t like it. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one causing the problem—the rest of the world, as it gets wealthier, wants to eat as much meat as you, and so unsustainable meat production is on the rise for just about anyone who can afford it.

Ok, here’s the next idea:

Cut it all down, and turn the planet into one big ol’ farm.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.
You can barely hear the chainsaws: ...over the sound of the baby animals crying. Seriously, though, as awesome as that would be, it's probably an awful idea.Courtesy Jami Dwyer

We aren’t going to be growing crops in the arctic any time soon, but there are areas we could take advantage of still. Like the tropical forests. We could bulldoze those suckers down, and use the land for crops.

This, of course, is a horrible solution, and I snuck it in here just to bother you. Even if you don’t prioritize the biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests, or the ways of life of the people who live in them, tropical forests play a huge role in keeping the planet a livable place. So we should table that one for a while, unless you really, really want to bulldoze the rainforests.

And then there’s this idea:

Grow more food on the land we’re already using.

Of course! Why didn’t we think of this before?!

Well, we did think of this before, about 60 years ago. Back in the middle of the 20th century, populations in developing countries were exploding, much faster than food production was increasing. Trouble was on the horizon.

And then … Norman Borlaug came along. Of course, lots and lots of people helped deal with the food crisis, but Borlaug was at the center of what became known as the Green Revolution. He worked to build up irrigation infrastructure (to water crops), distribute synthetic fertilizers (mostly nitrogen chemically extracted from the atmosphere), and develop high-yield crop varieties that would produce much more food than traditional crops, when given enough fertilizer and water.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.
The man they call Borlaug: On the left. The other guy is just some hanger-on, I guess.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Now, some folks point out that the Green Revolution had plenty of environmental and social drawbacks, but the fact remains that it also kept millions upon millions of people from starving. And Borlaug himself said that while it was “a change in the right direction, it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.”

The change in the right direction part is what scientists are working on now.

Researchers at organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) are figuring out implement the sorts of things Borlaug worked on more fully, and more efficiently.

By combining satellite data with what can be observed on the ground, IonE is determining exactly where crops are growing, how much each place is growing.
This is how much corn we grow right now
This is how much corn we grow right nowCourtesy IonE
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.
This is how much corn we could grow: If we grew corn everywhere.Courtesy IonE
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.
This is how much more corn we could grow: If we focus on the areas where we already grow corn. The green areas are growing almost as much as possible, but the yellow areas could grow a lot more. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Central America could grow a lot more food with the right resources.Courtesy IonE

They can then compare this information with estimates of how much each place could grow, given the right conditions. The difference is called a “yield gap.” What it will take to close the yield gap, and get area place growing as much as possible, differs from place to place. But IonE is trying to figure that out too—some places need more water, and some need more nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium fertilizers.

Knowing how much of a particular resource a place needs, and what the food payoff will be when it receives those resources is a big step in working up to feeding nine billion people. It’s not the last step, not by a long shot, but it provides an excellent map of where future efforts would be best invested.

Aaaaannnnd … the bullet point version for you osos perezosos out there:

  • In a few decades, there will be about 9 billion people on the planet.
  • There’s not enough food for 9 billion people.
  • There’s not really enough land available to grow enough food for 9 billion people.
  • We can get more food out of the land we’re already using.
  • Scientists are trying to figure out which areas have the potential to grow more food, and what it will take to get them to do it.
  • Doing this will be difficult, but probably not impossible.
Jan
13
2011

Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?
Fried insect pupae: You have to admit, they look a little bit delicious, right?Courtesy Steven G. Johnson
If you're as big a fan of Science Buzz as I am, you might remember us saying that eating bugs can be a bad idea.

(I doubt you are as big Science Buzz fans as I am, though. Do you have a large, Party of Five-style poster of Liza, bryan kennedy, Artifactor, mdr, Thor, and Gene hanging in your room? Didn't think so.)

Anyway, despite what we might have said, it turns out that eating bugs may in fact be a good idea. But it's a good idea that's never gonna happen. (When I say "never," I mean "not in my lifetime, so as far as I'm concerned, 'never.'")

See, there are lots of folks who eat bugs (it's called entomophagy). And it's not all Fear Factor-style disgustingness—the insects are often cooked and flavored, and, you know, I'm sure they're fine. Like Corn Nuts.

But there are a lots more people who get their protein from eating larger animals, like cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys and stuff. And for a long time some people ate cows and pigs, and some people ate insects, and the world spun along just fine.

Then, not too long ago, people started to realize something: raising enough cows and pigs and things to feed billions of people has a tremendous negative impact on the environment. You have to feed each animal many times its weight in plants before it grows to full size, and all the while its pooping, peeing, and farting. And before you start complaining about how you're too young to read "pooping, peeing, and farting," let me say two things. 1) The alternative was to write "defecating, urinating, and flatulating," and you are too young to read that; and 2) animal poop, pee, and farts have a huge environmental impact.

When animal waste leaks into water sources, it can make them unhealthy to drink, and toxic to live in (if you're the sort of organism that lives in the water. And the various gases (like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide) emitted by animals and their waste are a major source of global warming.

So there. It turns out that those of us who eat meat are straining the environment quite a bit.

But what about all those edible bugs? How do they fit in?

Well, a group of scientists from the Netherlands just published a report on that very thing. They compared the emissions of common meat animals to those of a variety of insects, and found that the world would probably be better off if we raised and ate bugs instead of cows and pigs.

See, insects are able to turn the food they eat into protein much more efficiently than cows and pigs, because insects' metabolisms don't constantly burn fuel to maintain a regular body temperature (like the metabolisms of cows, pigs and people do). In the end, for the amount of mass they build, insects produce less greenhouse gases than pigs, and way less than cows. The insects' production of ammonia (a source of water pollution) was also much less than cows and pigs. The long and the short of the research is that if we were to have farms raising delicious mealworms, house crickets, and locusts, we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

But I don't have high hopes for any of that; it's hard to imagine seeing insect-based food items on the shelves any time soon. Here's hoping though, right?

Oct
15
2010

Tasty fish & tomatoes
Tasty fish & tomatoesCourtesy Robert and Mihaela Vicol
Fish and tomatoes compete for resources.

Yep, they do, and that resource is water.

The authors of a new report out in this week's issue of the journal Science are reminding folks of that fact.

John Sabo, a biologist at Arizona State University and lead author of the report told NSF News that "Humans may need to make hard decisions about how to allocate water so that we grow the right food, but still leave enough in rivers to sustain fish populations."

His comments stem from the report's findings that human actions--agricultural irrigation, dam construction, and the collective activities that lead to climate change--alter the natural variability of river flows and in the process shorten river food chains, particularly eliminating top predators like many large-bodied fish.
A now dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja/Sonoran Desert near the Sea of Cortez
A now dry Colorado River delta branches into the Baja/Sonoran Desert near the Sea of CortezCourtesy Pete McBride

"Floods and droughts shorten the food chain, but they do it in different ways," Sabo explained. "Floods simplify the food web by taking out some of the intermediate players so the big fish begin to eat lower on the chain," Sabo said. "With droughts, it's completely different: droughts eliminate the top predator altogether because many fish can't tolerate the low oxygen and high temperatures that result when a stream starts drying out."

Sabo and co-authors--Jacques Finlay, from the University of Minnesota, Theodore Kennedy from the U.S. Geological Survey Southwest Biological Science Center, and David Post from Yale University--suggest that the fate of large-bodied fishes should be more carefully factored into the management of water use, especially as growing human populations and climate change affect water availability.

According to Sabo, "The question becomes: can you have fish and tomatoes on the same table?"

The Role of Discharge Variation in Scaling of Drainage Area and Food Chain Length in Rivers
John L. Sabo, Jacques. C. Finlay, Theodore Kennedy, and David M. Post (14 October 2010)
Science [DOI: 10.1126/science.1196005]

[It's Blog Action Day 2010, and this year's theme is water.]

Oct
07
2010

In the movie Jurassic Park, a tale of genetic engineering gone bad, scientists arrive on an island to find that an all-female population of resurrected dinosaurs may have found a way to breed. The following conversation ensues:

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?

Dr. Ian Malcom: No, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.Atlantic salmon
Atlantic salmonCourtesy Dan Taylor

As we find out later in the movie, the dinosaurs have indeed been breeding.

Salmon farmers tell us that a proposed population of genetically modified "super salmon" will be composed entirely of sterile females, making it impossible for them to mate, should they escape to the wild. Some consumers are fighting FDA approval of the fish as food and say consumers should be alerted to the fact that they are purchasing the genetically engineered fish (by way of labeling.)

Advocates of the super salmon claim the meat from the new super salmon is indistinguishable from that of their natural cousins. However, critics fear that the new “frankinfish” may pose danger to both consumers and to the environment.

Super salmon are Atlantic salmon that have had a gene (DNA) for a growth hormone normally made by Chinook salmon inserted into their genetic map. In addition, scientists have put some DNA from another ocean fish, called a pout, in front of the growth hormone gene to keep the fish’s body pumping out growth hormone all of the time.

They don’t get bigger than natural salmon, but they grow much faster. This creates a potential threat to wild salmon, should the modified salmon escape from fish farms. (They would potentially out-compete and out-breed their natural counterparts in the wild.)

Despite claims that super salmon will all be sterile females, one article I read mentioned that "a small percentage might be able to breed. They would be bred in confined pools where the potential for escape would be low.” Another stated that the FDA says that up to 5% of the eggs may be fertile.

Genetic engineering has resulted in many products that make people’s lives better, but we have to be aware of the danger it poses. Microbes, plants and animals can swap DNA and genetically modified organisms are already finding ways to invade the natural world.

Life finds a way, whether we want it to or not. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Sep
29
2010

Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.
Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.Courtesy Paranoid
Check this out, my little ducks: Scientists have genetically modified corn, so that it produces a deadly toxin. And that toxin is now appearing in waterways across the country.

O.M.G.

But you should also check this out, my little chickpeas: That toxin (called “BT toxin”) is also naturally produced by the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which is already found sort of all over the place, including on leaves of plants. Also, all evidence indicates that while the toxin is deadly to certain insect species, it is utterly harmless to vertebrates (including people). Which is good, because most of the corn planted in this country has been engineered to produce the toxin in its leaves and stems,a nd that’s the way it’s been for years. And that may be good itself, because the bug killing toxin the plants produce can allow farmers to use a lot less synthetic, broad-spectrum pesticides (broad spectrum pesticides kill off lots of different bugs, instead of a specific few).

And consider this, my little Turkish delights: Those manufactured pesticides definitely run off fields into ground and surface water. See? So it seems like pointing out that the chemicals produced by the plants themselves also find their way into the water is a little bit of a “well, duh,” situation.

But science doesn’t run on “duhs,” my little Faberge eggs, it runs on empirically confirming or disproving explanations and ideas, whether or not they initially seem obvious. Because the toxin was contained in the leaves and stalks of the plants, it seemed less likely to get washed away in the same way sprayed-on pesticides usually are. But it got washed away nonetheless.

It got washed away, my little candy apples, but not in the same way—the toxin was present in streams 6 months after harvest, inside the floating detritus from cornfields. That is, the toxin was inside the bits of leaves and stems that had washed off cornfields, and into streams.

That doesn’t mean that the BT toxin is harmless, my little floral prints, but nor does it mean that it’s necessarily harmful. BT toxin appears to be a pretty environmentally safe pesticide on land, but that doesn’t say much about effects it could have in an aquatic ecosystem. It could be that the presence of BT toxin in the water is still much safer than the alternative (chemical pesticides), or it could be that it will have far reaching effects—Corn Belt streams end up in the Mississippi and Missouri River basins, and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico, after all.

So, my little rabbits’ feet, we should try not to be all, “well, duh,” or to get too freaked out about the whole situation. Before that happens, scientists will have to figure out what environmental effects the BT toxin has, and how those compare to other pesticide run-off, and how each might balance against our need for crops that haven’t been eaten by bugs.

Scientific American’s brief article on the presence of BT toxin in streams also brings up the issue of no-till farming. Scraps from corn fields ending up in streams is very common, apparently, but the SA article suggests that no-till farming might be increasing the amount of that kind of organic matter that end up in the water. No-till farming is a method of farming where the soil isn’t regularly plowed or turned over, and scraps from crops (crop residue) are left on the field after harvesting to increase soil quality. No-till can increase the amount of water in the soil and decrease erosion, but the remaining crop residue might end up in nearby streams to a greater extent.

If this is the case, my little supernovas, it makes me wonder if the crop residue from no-till fields is worse for the water than soil washed off of tilled fields (and whatever washed away with that soil).

I also wonder what becomes of the toxins in BT-producing crops when the crop residue is not left on the field. Because, of course, that stuff doesn’t just disappear. Crop residue can be burned on the field, or processed into ethanol fuel, burned in a power plant to generate electricity, or maybe dumped into the ocean. So, my little chitterlings, even without bringing our thirst for fuel and electricity into the mix, what happens to BT toxin in those scenarios? Probably nothing, for the most part, but, again, we don’t want to invest too much time in saying “duh.”

It’s all very complicated. But you knew that already, didn’t you, my little safety goggles?