Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Saturday, September 30, 2017

An Extraordinary Four-Year Migration

This April 2015 photo shows marine sea slugs from a derelict vessel from Iwate Prefecture, Japan, that washed ashore in Oregon.
This April 2015 photo shows marine sea slugs from a derelict vessel from Iwate Prefecture, Japan, that washed ashore in Oregon. (John W. Chapman/Associated Press)

"It's a bit of what we call ecological roulette."
"We think that earlier tsunamis were contributing mostly, to the ocean, essentially biodegradable material: wood and trees which don't last nearly as long, of course, as does the plastic material."
"The diversity was somewhat jaw-dropping. Mollusks, sea anemones, corals, crabs, just a wide variety of species, really a cross-sectiion of Japanese fauna."
"Most of the species were, in fact, novel and not found in North America or the Hawaiian islands."
"When that first dock arrived, [floating in from Japan post-2011Tsunami] it was just 100 per cent covered with tens of thousands of mussels from Japan, and just draped with kelp."
"How many species started the trip we don't know and how many were lost in the tsunami is hard to know."
James Carlton, marine sciences professor, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Dock Japan tsunami
A Japanese dock covered with marine life from Japan washed up on the Oregon coast. (James Carlton)
"OK, we found something here [she recalls in first encountering the unexpected visitors]. And this isn't from around here, and ... there's some marine life on it."
"It is an international issue," she said. "The ocean definitely showcases that we're all interconnected. There's no boundaries out there with the ocean. We're all in this together."
Karla Robison, environmental and emergency service manager, Ucluelet, British Columbia
 So far there have been no  ewer than a whopping 300 species of fish, mussels and other aqua- creatures discovered to have made their way across the Pacific Ocean taking a trip aboard debris from Japan that washed off the mainland or was whooshed off docking areas as a result of the monumental Japanese tsunami resulting from the powerful 9.1 Richter-scale earthquake that hit the islands in 2011. The flotsam and jetsam may have taken their time, relatively speaking, but for years they've been washing ashore far from their origins.

Researchers have now revealed through a study published in the journal Science, that this mass migration of sea creatures hiking their way along the vast ocean on all manner of vessels and even ocean-bobbing domestic items, represent the longest and largest marine migration ever documented. Scientists have for years collected items washing ashore carrying a wide range of creatures, from beaches in Washington, Oregon, California, British Columbia, Alaska and Hawaii, tracking the sea animals native to Japan.

Now that it has been confirmed that the creatures are far from their natural habitat, concerns have arisen that they will establish themselves as foreign invading species, and possibly eventually succeed in displacing native species. Whether all of the 289 species that have been identified will manage to adjust to their new surroundings and thrive there, eventually making room for themselves at the expense of native creatures, is as yet speculation.
Tsunami Hitchhikers
This June 2012 photo shows Japanese sea stars (Asterias amurensis) on a dock from Misawa, Japan that washed ashore near Newport, Ore. (John W. Chapman/Associated Press)

The very fact that they managed to undertake such a tremendously long voyage over a lengthy period of time is in and of itself fairly astonishing given that researchers estimate that a million creatures made a journey of 7,725 kilometres to cross the Pacific Ocean eventually reaching the West Coast of North America, hundreds of thousands of mussels among them. The previous experience with the invasion of zebra mussels is not one that endears its memory in the opinion of biologists. A repeat would not be a cause for celebration.

Past incidents of marine invasion that been harmful to indigenous farmed shellfish, have caused great disruption and economic losses while eroding the local ecosystem and have caused the spread of disease-carrying species, according to Bella Galil, marine biologist with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, Israel.

No one could have foreseen that boats, docks, buoys and other such constructed objects would be swept out into the Pacific by an immense tsunami. And even if such an untoward event might have been visualized, nothing could have been done to prevent it. Mother nature disposes. But as the mountain of debris drifted its inexorable way toward North America carrying an army of live creatures, some of which multiplied with new generations while in transit, the deed was done.

And aside from the invasion of foreign species along with the anticipation that complications from their presence will most certainly arise as time wears on, there is the additional disturbing fact that most of the debris that carried those same creatures to Western shores are pallets, crates, buoys and boats constructed of plastic.

Just as the live hitchhikers survived their long journey, the plastics that carried them will survive long afterward to clutter up the world's landscape and add to the pervasive and growing heaps of plastic garbage with all the threats to the environment that they entail.
Tsunami Hitchhikers
This undated photo shows researcher John Chapman inspecting a Japanese vessel that washed ashore on Long Beach, Wash. (Russ Lewis/Associated Press)

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Microplastics Effects on Bivalves; Clams, Oysters, Mussels

"We're finding most shellfish have plastic in them."
"Shellfish aquaculture uses a lot of plastic infrastructure."
"I wouldn't be overly concerned about eating shellfish specifically. Microplastics are everywhere."
"The ability of microplastics to absorb and concentrate chemicals that may be eaten by organisms makes them a serious emerging threat to wildlife and natural ecosystems and potentially, human health."
"We are looking at shellfish because they are filter-feeding organisms. They accumulate anything that is in the water and they live on the coast where the most drastic changes are happening, which makes them excellent sentinels of ecosystem health."
Dr. Sarah Dudas, Canada Research Chair in Shellfish Aquaculture Ecosystem,Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia
A larval perch with microplastic in its gut. Vancouver Island University professor Sarah Dudas says the effects of microplastics still aren’t fully understood, but they are believed to have impacts on the reproductive abilities of fish.
A larval perch with microplastic in its gut. Vancouver Island University professor Sarah Dudas says the effects of microplastics still aren’t fully understood, but they are believed to have impacts on the reproductive abilities of fish.
Photo Credit: (Oona Lönnstedt)
"Microplastics are an added factor to plastic pollution. The beading in toothpaste, confetti from parades, the glitter people put on their faces, the sources are endless and the hardest part is educating people about it."
"Since I started the project I’ve been going home and talking to my friends and family about this. I want to get the word out and start them thinking about where the plastic products they buy end up." "Shellfish are resilient so I ask myself, if they are being affected by microplastics then what are the microplastics doing to the more vulnerable organisms in the oceans?"
Maggie Dietterle, university student, research study
In 2016, Dr. Dudas assembled a team of students to help her analyze the contents of thousands of clams and oysters found in the Strait of Georgia. Their study affirms that in consuming clams or oysters, a decided seafood delicacy appreciated by many people for their delicious taste and nutrient utility along with the protein inherent in their constituency, is an unexpected and decidedly un-nutritious element, plastic.

Correct, plastic. The same substance in various forms found contaminating and polluting the earth and the oceans everywhere from the tropics to the Arctic regions of the two poles. On land the presence of plastics represent an existential threat to wildlife, killing many which become trapped, or attempt to ingest it in its various forms, and in the oceans, even whales are known to die from having consumed plastic which their alimentary canals cannot process, and which in any event, provide them with no sustenance.

There are predictions that the rising tide of plastics everywhere on this planet will eventually pose an even steeper threat to the biosphere. Which hasn't yet put a brake on the use of plastics and their ubiquitousness in packing and containerizing, convenience and manufacturing of durable products. Durable indeed; their shelf life might not be long, but their capacity to endure without breaking down in the environment is endless.

According to Dr. Dudas, the research her team has been engaged in finds no differences in the plastics discovered in fish, whether the aqua-creatures are those raised in commercial fish farming or those found in the wild. Her study, as with that of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program, have come up thus far with no solution to the question looking for a definitive answer as to a source.

While it is true that fish aquaculture uses plastic extensively in the manufacture of nets and ropes that with use shed flake fibres, identifying with any degree of accuracy what it is that pollutes fish habitat remains elusive. Other than the generalized fact that plastics in various presentations are not just in garbage landfills, but carelessly strewn about, blown about, everywhere.

The study is being conducted based at the VIU Deep Bay Marine Research Station on Vancouver Island
The study is being conducted based at the VIU Deep Bay Marine Research Station on Vancouver Island © VIU Facebook
The purpose of Dr. Dudas's study is clear enough; to determine the source of the plastics, and if possible prove or disprove a suspicion that fish farms are largely responsible. The suspicion of those who have undertaken these studies is that microfibres shed and pass through filters in domestic washing machines when clothing is being washed, and make their way to water treatment plants and the water supply.

The preliminary results of Dr. Dudas's study indicate the existence of an average of eight microplastic particles resident in each clam or oyster. Despite which, she is of the opinion that though these minuscule specks and strands of plastic are overwhelmingly everywhere, there should be little concern over eating the shellfish containing them. Doubtless, given the presence of plastics everywhere they end up in some invisible form in everything we eat.

Remember the scandal out of China in 2008 when it was discovered that powdered plastic (melamine) had been put in baby formula and other foods which had been adulterated, (even fed to animals and appearing in eggs) with the end result that some babies died because of their intake of formula whose manufacturers used the plastic to have their product appear more wholesome.

Exceedingly fine plastic fibres found inside the body of a Great Lakes fish. Scientists who have reported that the lakes are awash in tiny bits of plastic are raising new alarms about a little-noticed form of the debris turning up in sampling nets: synthetic fibres from garments, cleaning cloths and other consumer products.
Exceedingly fine plastic fibres found inside the body of a Great Lakes fish. Scientists who have reported that the lakes are awash in tiny bits of plastic are raising new alarms about a little-noticed form of the debris turning up in sampling nets: synthetic fibres from garments, cleaning cloths and other consumer products. © Rachel Ricotta/Associated Press

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Nutrition-Depletion Dilemma

"Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising." "We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history -- an injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply."
"What struck me [on the publication of his first paper] is that its application [modelling the relationship between a food source and a grazer] is wider [What about the nutrients people receive?]."
"It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition."
Irakli Loladze, Mathematical Biologist & Quantitative Ecologist, USA , Bryan College of Health Sciences, Lincoln
Loladze found that plants are getting too much carbon dioxide, which is resulting in decreased nutrition in our food supply as a rise in carbohydrates is diluting other nutrients. Getty Images

"Loladze and a handful of other scientists have come to suspect that's not the whole story [breeding practices of yield over nutrition] and that the atmosphere itself may be changing the food we eat."
"To say that it's little known that key crops are getting less nutrition due to rising CO2 is an understatement."
"It is simply not discussed in the agriculture, public health, or nutrition communities. At all."
Helena Bottemiller Evich, Politico
Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is reducing the protein in staple crops like rice, wheat, barley and potatoes, raising unknown risks to human health in the future.
Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is reducing the protein in staple crops like rice, wheat, barley and potatoes, raising unknown risks to human health in the future. | Getty Images

"It’s really interesting, and you’re right, it’s not on many people’s radar."
"We don't know what a minor shift in the carbohydrate ratio in the diet is ultimately going to do [noting that the overall trend toward more starch and carbohydrate consumption has been associated with an increase in diet-related disease like obesity and diabetes]."
"To what degree would a shift in the food system contribute to that? We can't really say.”
Robin Foroutan, integrative medicine nutritionist
These are the scientists whose research leads them to believe that there is evidence to acknowledge that climate change is having its impact on the world's major edible agricultural crops upon which we rely; staples such as coffee, corn, rice, soybeans and wheat. Leading to suspicions that other deleterious effects of a changing climate are also taking place which science simply hasn't yet discovered, all of which alter the quality of the food we eat and depend upon for the vital intake of minerals and vitamins.

According to Dr. Loladze, rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth's atmosphere are impacting agricultural plants, leading to degradation of quality and a decline in their nutritional value. With the increase of CO2 prevalent in the atmosphere, nutrients have given way to sugars, an exchange that devalues the food we eat and leaves us short of critical iron, protein and zinc. Previous research on agricultural yields and quality have demonstrated the declining nutritional value of garden crops.

Less vitamin C, calcium, iron and additional nutrients available for humans when they consume fruits and vegetables; measurements that have been verified since 1950. In 2002 the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution published Dr. Loladze's first research paper on the "junk-food effect" of increasing CO2 resulting in diminishing nutrition to be had from plants. Twelve years later, another paper focusing on the same theme, representing 15 years of research, was published, despite which not much attention is being turned on the issue.

There are, of course, always other explanations. That plant biologists are always looking for new and improved products; that can ship to distant markets without bruising, for example, or strains that are capable of producing better taste (i.e. sweetness) or more pleasing forms of the fruits and vegetables; shoppers are notoriously picky about fruits and vegetables whose shapes are less than perfect. Agricultural practices also come under scrutiny; when one type of crop is planted in the same area year after year certain soil nutrients identified with that crop may be depleted.

If it is indeed climate change that is responsible in large part for diminished vitamins and minerals in our plant food, and not cultivation methods, agricultural science may find a way to compensate, but it represents a dilemma of gigantic proportions. On the other hand, if it is a matter of soil depletion that other scientists seem to point at, the remedy may be far more accessible; rotation of crops, and rest periods for soil identified as diminished in quality from overuse.

There is nothing new about soil depletion. What we think of as primitive societies knew enough to rotate crops. They also renewed the soil by giving it periods of rest from one year to another. And used the method of burning over crop remnants left in the field, and the carbonized remnants enriched the soil, returning it to a state of nutrient replenishment. 
"It would be overkill to say that the carrot you eat today has very little nutrition in it—especially compared to some of the other less healthy foods you likely also eat—but it is true that fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before."
"A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition."
Scientific American
Credit: Martin Poole, Digital Vision/Thinkstock

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Profitability Factor in Obesity

"Everyone here knows that Nestle products are good for you."
"[Look, Muciolon infant cereal's label says it is] packed with calcium and niacin."
Celene de Silva, 29, door-to-door Nestle vendor, Fortaleza, Brazil

"The essence of our program is to reach the poor."
"What makes it work is the personal connection between the vendor and the customer."
Felipe Barbosa, Nestle supervisor

"On one hand, Nestle is a global leader in water and infant formula and a lot of dairy products."
"On the other hand, they are going into the backwoods of Brazil and selling their candy."
Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition, University of North Carolina

"When he was a baby, my son didn't like to eat -- until I started giving him Nestle foods."
"Every time I go to the public health clinic, the line for diabetics is out the door. You'd be hard pressed to find a family here that doesn't have it."
Joana D'arc de Vasconcellos, 53, Nestle vendor, Fortaleza, Brazil

"It's a crisis for our society because we are producing a generation of children with impaired cognitive abilities who will not reach their full potential."
Giuliano Giovanetti, outreach and communications, Center for Nutritional Recovery and Education, Brazil

In 2014, almost 9 percent of children in Brazil were deemed to be obese, representing over a 270 percent increase since 1980, a recent study at the University of Washington revealed. As in North America, parents are busy, and to save time they give their toddlers instant noodles and frozen chicken nuggets, and oh yes, soda to drink instead of the culturally normative rice, beans, salad and grilled meats.

Brazil's traditional eating style has evaporated with the rapid rise of fast food and the wide and eager acceptance of convenience foods.

Nestle had so kindly sponsored a river barge to deliver cartons of milk powder, yogurt, chocolate pudding, cookies and candy to communities in Brazil that are isolated in the Amazon basin. Just because it was difficult for people living in inconvenient places to access convenience foods, avuncular Nestle felt they shouldn't be deprived of the opportunity to treat themselves to the same wonderful grade of food accessible to those living in urban centres.

Nestle no longer operates that river barge delivering tens of thousands of such food preparations. Taken out of service, private boat owners, recognizing a wonderful retail opportunity for themselves have taken up the slack. See what Nestles does for under-served communities? Their initial presence gifts people whose traditional diets are soooo boring with sweet, salty, mouth-watering treats, convincing them they've discovered food heaven; once addicted, private enterprise can take over...

In 2006, the government of Brazil took the initiative to enact food-industry regulations in hopes of curbing obesity and disease with measures included to notify Brazilian consumers through advertising alerts alerting people about quasi foods, and with the intention of installing marketing restrictions to diminish the attraction to highly processed foods and sugary drinks, aiming in particular at products marketed to children.

At public hearings the food industry appeared cooperative. According to health advocates however, corporate lawyers and lobbyists were involved in a multi-pronged campaign to scupper the government's intent. Food industry representatives went so far as to accuse Brazil's health surveillance agency of subverting parental authority; mothers, after all, have the right to determine how and what their children should eat....

Lawsuits were filed by industry groups against the health authority representing chocolate, cocoa and candy companies claiming the proposed regulations would violate constitutional protections of free speech, and that the agency was absent the authority to regulate the food and advertising industries. And then the federal government's premier lawyer, its Attorney General, made common cause with the industry and the regulations were suspended.
Elisângela Ferreira, 36, Luiz da Silva, 42, Lisyane Soares, 39, Cristiane do Nascimento, 34, Carlos Cordeiro, 50, Veronica Cabral, 28, (face hidden), her baby Lidia and daughter Debora, 8, take part in an exercise class for obese people at the nonprofit GRACO on Nov. 17. (Dom Phillips/For The Washington Post)

According to Dirceu Raposo de Mello, a former director of Anvisa, the health surveillance agency for Brazil: "The industry did an end run around the system". Food companies spent $158-million in 2014 as donations to members of the nation's National Congress, according to Transparency International Brazil whose study released last year revealed that over half of the current federal legislators had been favoured with donations from the food industry enabling their election wins.

In 2015 the Supreme Court finally banned such corporate contributions to democracy.

Mrs. da Silva, one of many Nestle's devoted food vendors delivers their comestibles on her sales route to poor households bringing them the packaged foods they have learned to depend upon. One of thousands of such door-to-door vendors whose role in expanding Nestle's reach to a quarter-million homes in far-flung corners of Brazil is herself obese at 100 kilos, with high blood pressure; without doubt owing much to her addiction for fried chicken and Coca-Cola.

She was delivering variety packs of Chandelle pudding, Kit-Kats and Mucilon infant cereal to customers as visibly overweight as she herself, including their children. Nestle representatives claim their products are important in the alleviation of hunger and the provision of vital nutrients, that it has reduced salt, fat and sugar from many of their formulae. "We didn't expect what the impact would be", Sean Westcott, head of food research at Nestle admitted of the obesity-and-disease side effect of processed food becoming more widely available.

Nestle, after all, cannot control peoples' tendency to overeat once they can afford more food. And Nestle has made their products affordable to the poor. In China, South Africa and Latin America. Where food giants lobby governments and attain political influence. Packaged foods sales grew 25 percent worldwide in five years, from 2011 to 2016, said Euromonitor, a market research firm.

% of overweight population
As for sales of carbonated soft drinks, Latin American sales have doubled since 2000, exceeding even sales in North America by 2013, reported the World Health Organization. Fast food has almost kept pace, with 30 percent growth worldwide from 2011 to 2016. So the people living in the slums of Fortaleza are fortunate; without access to a supermarket they have packaged food delivered directly to their door via Mrs. da Silva. Representing a campaign that serves 700,000 "low-income consumers each month", according to Nestle's website.

Good global corporate citizens. Low and falling incomes among Brazil's poor and working-class has actually spurred direct sales. How so? Nestle allows customers a full month to pay for whatever they buy and the saleswomen are very aware of when their clients are scheduled to receive their monthly government subsidy given to low-income households. Though Nestle cites 800 products available through its vendors, Mrs. da Silva points out that her clients for the most part are interested in sugar-sweetened products such as Kit-Kats, Nesle Greek Red Berry and Chandelle Pacoca.

As for Mrs. Vasconcellos, she has diabetes and high blood pressure as well, while her 17-year-old daughter weighs in at over 115 kilos, with hypertension and polycystic ovary syndrome, linked to obesity. Others of her relatives have a variety of ailments associated with poor diets, including her mother, two sisters and her husband. And then there's Elaine Pereira dos Santos, 35, mother to two, 9 and 4 years old, both overweight.

The 9-year-old weighs 62 kilos: "I always thought fatter is better when it comes to babies", so she encouraged him to eat at fast-food outlets. She finally realized something was fundamentally wrong, when her son could no longer run as young boys should. "Unlike cancer or other illnesses, this is a disability you can't see", observed Juliana Dellare Calia, a nutritionist at a Sao Paulo nursery where children are enrolled who have dangerously fatty livers, hypertension -- and poorly nourished toddlers unable to walk properly.

Children play football in the Manguinhos slums in Rio de Janeiro
One in three children in Brazil are overweight because of processed food. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/ReutersRelated image
The fattening of Latin America mirrors a global pattern that has left some 1.5 billion adults overweight. Now, from Mexico to Chile, it's triggering a political response.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Processed Food Industry and the War on Health

"The prevailing story is that this is the best of all possible worlds -- cheap food, widely available."
"If you don't think about it too hard, it makes sense. To put it in stark terms: The diet is killing us."
Anthony Winson, political economics of nutrition, University of Guelph, Ontario

"We're not going to get rid of all factories and go back to growing all grain. It's nonsense. It's not going to work."
"If I ask 100 Brazilian families to stop eating processed food, I have to ask myself: What will they eat? Who will feed them? How much will it cost?"
Mike Gibney, professor emeritus of food and health, University College, Dublin -- Nestle consultant

"What we have is a war between two food systems, a traditional diet of real food once produced by the farmers around you and the producers of ultra-processed food designed to be over-consumed and which in some cases are addictive."
"It's a war, but one food system has disproportionately more power than the other."
Carlos A. Monteiro, professor of nutrition and public health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil 
candy peru
A woman sells candies at a street in Lima, Peru, May 12, 2017.   Reuters

If Professor Gibney -- who in his elder years acts as a consultant to Switzerland-based food processing giant Nestle Foods -- was not in fact in a severely compromised situation with respect to his integrity, his stated empathy for the poor of Brazil might carry some weight. Since he is financially remunerated for his expertise in guiding Nestle in its food processing enterprise, anyone with an ounce of intelligence might set aside his sympathetic comments.

Which, in effect, leave the impression that Nestle and others of its ilk who have converted whole foods to nutrition-poor and calorie-dense substitutes they name as foods -- over-weighted with unwholesome ingredients, including an excess of salt, sugar and fat to give them a palate-pleasing flavour and taste -- care about providing food products for the poor of the world. Or that eating basic staples, traditional and nutritious whole foods are somehow inferior in quality to processed sham foods.

Let alone the claims that whole foods that comprise the basic building blocks of a sound diet are more expensive than highly factory-processed foods transformed into products that bear little actual resemblance to the whole foods that have been used in the process. It is telling that after decades of producing processed foodstuffs for the Western market to capture the attention and buying and eating habits of generations, people who once ate the stuff are now beginning to reject it, partially because public campaigns to inform people of their nutritional deficits are finally getting through.

Just as in the case of tobacco, found to be so horribly injurious to people's health has caused smoking to be recognized as a public health hazard, and cigarette manufacturers have looked elsewhere than in educated Western markets to flog their deadly wares, the processed food industry has veered away from its traditional reliance on Western-based consumers and turned their attention to people living in poverty, elsewhere in the world, vulnerable anew to the attractions inherent in taste-tempting quasi-food.
Image result for multinational processed foods sold in africa, latin america, asia
What's Driving the Worldwide Obesity Epidemic? - Food and Farm ...
Food and Farm Discussion Lab  -- The processed-food impact

Now, Western-style food that has had its nutrition, vitamins and minerals processed out of it, to be replaced by high-fat, -sugar and -salt content is being marketed to people living in the most isolated areas of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Just as women in Third-World countries wanting all the 'advantages' of the West, took to Nestle infant formula and rejected breast feeding thanks to advertising directed toward them, and began to raise undernourished and health-threatened babies by watering down the formula to make it go further, the very same situation now is seen with processed foods.

The multinationals that owe no allegiance to any nation, nor to the concept of humane responsibility to those who consume the valueless products they flog, are fully invested in growing their sales and widening the consuming territory eager for the products they view as integral to their needs as human beings eager for good-tasting food guaranteed to be packed with vital elements required by nature to produce healthy people. Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and General Mills are busy expanding their markets.

And where better to do so than in developing nations? In so doing, unleashing a tide of human ills upon people from Brazil, to Ghana and on to India, convinced that what is being marketed to them is far superior than the whole foods that constitute their traditional diets. Public relations and fierce advertising campaigns gull the gullible. Who want to believe that if they acquire the same kind of goods available to the wealthy West, they too can live well.

Epidemiological studies and reports out of government, along with the studied impressions of nutritionists and health experts globally have revealed the inevitable, that due to all this pressure and misinformation the transformational alteration in foods from whole to processed, its distribution and peoples' beliefs have shifted eating habits and not for the good. According to public health experts, the shift in food production has created an avalanche of human ills from epidemic diabetes presentations and heart disease; these chronic illnesses have resulted by growing rates of obesity.

Areas of the world that not so long ago struggled with inadequate supplies of food, where malnutrition was endemic, now face a new reality; more people are now obese than those who rate as underweight. Despite which the availability of high-calorie, nutrition-deficient food has generated a type of malnutrition where people present as overweight, yet are in very point of fact, undernourished.
  • Traditional long-established food systems and dietary patterns are being displaced in Brazil and in other countries in the South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) by ultra-processed products made by transnational food corporations (“Big Food” and “Big Snack”).
  • This displacement increases the incidence of obesity and of major chronic diseases and affects public health and public goods by undermining culture, meals, the family, community life, local economies, and national identity.
  • The penetration of transnational companies into Brazil has been rapid, but the tradition of shared and family meals remains strong and is likely to provide protection to national and regional food systems.
  • The Brazilian government, under pressure from civil society organizations, has introduced legislation to protect and improve its traditional food system; by contrast, the governments of many industrialized countries have partly ceded their prime duty to protect public health to transnational companies.
  • The experience of countries in the South that still retain traditional food systems provides a rational basis for policies that protect public health.
PLoS Medicine Series on Big Food that examines the activities and influence of the food and beverage industry in the health arena

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Insect Abundance In Steep Decline

"Insect numbers are way down. It's a little under the radar from the public perspective, but it's really high on the radar in terms of research."
Jeff Skevington, entomologist, Agriculture Canada

"It's unfortunately a little bit informal in terms of measurements [bug census]."
"Like, 'How pasted did your windshield get?' is not a normal scientific measurement. But it is something that I think many people have noticed."
"The general trend is something I myself have noticed and thought about on many occasions."
"It's a big deal, right? When you think about this it sounds kind of nuts, but the number of insects splattering on your windshield is a really good indication of just how abundant life is in the environment."
"It's anecdotal, but if it's true there seems to be a lot less life out there than there used to be. And that is not something we should be ignoring."
Jeremy Kerr, ecologist, entomologist, University of Ottawa

"Every spring since 1989, entomologists have set up tents in the meadows and woodlands of the Orbroicher Bruch nature reserve and 87 other areas in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The tents act as insect traps and enable the scientists to calculate how many bugs live in an area over a full summer period. Recently, researchers presented the results of their work to parliamentarians from the German Bundestag, and the findings were alarming: The average biomass of insects caught between May and October has steadily decreased from 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds) per trap in 1989 to just 300 grams (10.6 ounces) in 2014."
"The decline is dramatic and depressing and it affects all kinds of insects, including butterflies, wild bees, and hoverflies,” says Martin Sorg, an entomologist from the Krefeld Entomological Association involved in running the monitoring project."
Fireflies, like these in a forest in the Netherlands, have disappeared from some areas in North America and Europe where they were once abundant. PAUL VAN HOOF/MINDEN PICTURES

Hover flies, often mistaken for bees or wasps, are important pollinators. Their numbers have plummeted in nature reserves in Germany. JEF MEUL/NIS/MINDEN PICTURES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Take Your Choice: Chick Peas (good) or Beef (bad!)

"I can understand -- you have people saying, 'What about the family farm? Well, to be honest, if somebody says that to you, have some sympathy also for the Maritimers. Newfoundlanders had to leave, or think of something else [to replace fishing when cod stocks plummeted]."
"And anybody who says they've got a different answer [than moving to plant-based diets] is, I think, deceiving himself or herself."
"Are these people [from areas of the world where milk and beef are not part of their daily diet] any worse for it in their native situation? No, but when they come to us [emigrate to North America] they get sick."
"The question you should ask is, 'Is the diet they're recommending going to be dangerous?' No, I think it's going to have great benefits."
David Jenkins, nutrition scientist, professor, departments of nutritional sciences and medicine, University of Toronto
"The evidence for saturated fat has been very weak. What we show 'in his team's nutritional study] is going to low levels [of saturated fat] can actually be harmful."
Andrew Mente, McMaster University co-author PURE trial

"So far, Health Canada hasn't revealed what evidence they used to make that statement [suggesting a shift to a high proportion of plant-based foods], so I think we're all wondering."
"I think they really need to state the rationale for the emphasis on plant-based sources of protein, and have us understand how they linked that to diet-related disease."
"It's kind of wide open."
Stephanie Atkinson, professor, department of pediatrics, McMaster University

"Let's just say there is potential for either real or perceived conflict of interest for those sorts of reports [that fibre-rich foods decrease colorectal cancer risk]."
"In reality, in my mind this is not very different than what our existing guidance is. And even there we're recommending people go with meat alternatives."
"We have for a long time been talking about very quite small amounts of animal food in the diet to start with."
"[People would err in assuming] that we are saying, 'Have no dairy, have no meat."
Hasan Hutchinson, director general, office of nutrition policy and promotion, Health Canada
Sources suggest the new Canada food guide could lean more vegan than omnivore, the first major change to the guide in a decade. Karpenkov Denis/Getty images

In Canada's traditional food guide issued by Health Canada, there has always been a strong emphasis on dairy products helping to constitute a healthy and nutritional diet, alongside fruits, vegetables and protein from animal products and legumes. Now preparing to issue an updated food guide around the turn of the year into 2018, the Dairy Farmers of Canada have fixated on the possibility that "milk and alternatives" will be absent in the new guide. A change that Dr. Jenkins, himself a vegan, finds reasons to celebrate.

Animal-rights activists are ecstatic at the prospect of Health Canada's new, improved food guide marginalizing the consumption of meat. Criticism of Health Canada's proposed new changes that were hinted at when it released its "guiding principles" for the reworked food rules are coming from all directions. In its defence, Health Canada assures its critics that it hasn't and will not commit to recommending animal-based products be cut out altogether. But greenhouse-gas emissions and soil and water degradation improvements do play a role.

It will recommend a shift to plant-based foods representing a much higher proportion of the food eaten by Canadians. It will not recommend, it says reassuringly, cutting meat out of one's daily diet altogether; just that it be eaten far less frequently and with a conscious approach. Less red meat (beef, pork, lamb and goat) and replacing saturated fat-containing cream, high fat cheese, butter, etc. To consider replacements such as nuts, seeds, avocados.

Nuts, seeds and avocados can be good sources of omega 3 fatty acids. morisfoto/Getty images

Dr. Mente of McMaster University's Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology trial study found a high intake of fat protected people from early deaths, and he is not enamoured of the approach that Health Canada is preparing for, in issuing its new recommendations; less than 10 percent of saturated fat intake, when Dr. Mente's trial found 35 percent intake to be ideal. That same study also found a moderate intake of fruits, vegetables and legumes was ideal, not the emphasis that Health Canada is placing on increasing that intake.

Health Canada's Hasan Hutchinson pointed to evidence that dietary patterns such as those modelled after the Mediterranean diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and fish and less red meat; refined grains and sugars to be linked with lower risks of cardiovascular disease. And according to Dr. Jenkins, who is also a scientist at St. Michael's Hospital, those few studies that have been carried out in nutrition support moving to an increased reliance on plant-based diets.

He points to the controlled research of the 2013 PREDIMED study reporting that supplementing the Mediterranean diet with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts had the result of a 30 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, in comparison with the results of a low-fat diet. A finding that the more recent study under the aegis of McMaster University contradicted.

Confused yet?

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Humanizing Computers

"[AI has the potential to] free humanity from repetitive mental drudgery."
"Life is shockingly short. [With an estimated 27,000 days from birth to death] I don't want to waste that many days."
"It seemed really amazing that you could write a few lines of code and have it [a computer 'neural network'] learn to do interesting things."
"I wish we knew how children [or even a pet dog] learns. None of us today know how to get computers to learn with the speed and flexibility of a child."
Andrew Ng, artificial intelligence specialist, Palo Alto, California   

"Several different people suggested using GPUs [to formulate an AI neural network]."
"[However, closely following the work by Andrew Ng, the 41-year-old computer scientist] was what convinced me [to use his technique]."
Geoffrey Hinton, computer scientist, University of Toronto
The team at University of Toronto led by computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton made use of a neural network to enable them to win the ImageNet competition in 2012, a prestigious AI award. Hinton credits following Andrew Ng's work and identifying it as a platform from which his own research could be usefully based with his success. Credit overall, however, can be given to Mr. Ng for the rise of artificial intelligence as the wave of the future.

Without leaning on marketing, 100,000 people signed up for Mr. Ng's "Machine Learning" course leading Stanford's online learning program in 2011. The online-learning startup Coursera was co-founded another year on. And now Mr. Ng is preparing to launch, producing AI-training courses.  Mr. Ng still teaches at Stanford University and at the same time finds the opportunity to work within private industry.

He has led teams that now are capable of creating self-learning computer programs, touching hundreds of millions of people, inclusive of touch-screen keyboards that predict what the users may want to say next. He trained computers to recognize cats in YouTube videos without first informing them what cats were, as a way to lead the machines to learn, unsupervised. He adopted graphics chips meant for video games to artificial intelligence, revolutionizing the field.

Close to two million people globally have taken part in Ng's online course on machine learning to fulfill his focus on teaching the coming generation of AI specialists how to teach machines. He never downplays the difficulties involved in understanding the concepts behind his vision. By the age of six, Ng had learned coding from his father, a medical doctor with a mind to program a computer to use data to diagnose patients.

By age 16 Andrew had written a program to calculate trigonometric functions such as 'sine and cosine' with the use of a 'neural network', the core computing engine of artificial intelligence taking its cue from the human brain. Once he had graduated high school in Singapore, he gained experience at Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Berkeley, finally taking up academic residence as a professor of computer sciences at Stanford University where he taught robotic helicopters aerobatics.

One of Ng's doctoral students, himself now a computer scientist at Berkeley, recalls having once crashed a costly helicopter drone, only to see his supervisor Ng minimize its impact: "Andrew was always like, 'If these things are too simple, everybody else could do them." So Andrew Ng continued to do pioneering AI work that no one else could do; finding a new way to supercharge neural networks with chips used in video-game machines.

Whereas previously computer scientists had relied on general-purpose processors such as Intel chips that operate many PCs, it's recognized that those chips are able to handle a few computing tasks simultaneously at high speed, while neural networks perform more expeditiously if they can run thousands of calculations simultaneously, a task suited to a different chip class, GPUs; graphics processing units.

When Ng's Stanford team began publishing papers on their technique using Nividia's GPUs for general use beyond videos a year later, it was to point out that they had succeeded in speeding up machine learning by up to 70 times with this new technique. Typically, Ng initiates a program, brings it to its conclusion, and when it's up and running leaves it to others he has trained to take it forward.

"Then you go, 'Great. It's thriving with or without me", he says.

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An example from the new Deep Learning specialization on Coursera -- Coursera webpage

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Business As Usual

"There could have been ways to have more green space and more green infrastructure over the years, and it just didn't work that way, because it was fast and furious."
"It's been known for years how to do it. It just costs the developers more money to do it that way."
"And so the building just went rampant, and there weren't many controls. It was like the Wild West, and you just built housing subdivision after housing subdivision up close to the bayous, up close to the channels."
Dr. Phil Bedient, professor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering , Rice University, Houston

"If you put the kind of super-strict planning shackles on Houston, that would be the way to kill it."
"Why would you live in a hot, humid, flat space if it was expensive?"
Joel Kotkin, urban theorist

"Houston will accept anybody who's got hustle -- it respects energy more than any place."
"Houston is a very resilient city, and it will overcome."
Larry McMurtry, Texas writer
Matt Finn reports from Houston
Bright Cove, Houston,

In other words, it will be business as usual for Houston now that the inconvenience of a massive flooding event thanks to a one-in-a-500-years hurricane has come and passed. Of course, equally inconvenient is the fact that environmentalists warn that these unique and deadly hurricanes are on track to become more common, more numerous, and places like Houston that faced up to nature's wrath, with most of its natural surroundings devised by nature to protect the geography from flooding have been severely compromised by gung-ho building.

The city itself was the brainchild of speculators in real estate from New York. And since Houston was chosen as a site for a city that would evolve to an energy powerhouse in the 1830s, homes and businesses have routinely flooded. Attempts to drain the swampy land failed to protect its residents, the floods just kept coming in, one after another. In Houston's first one hundred years of existence it has coped with no fewer than 16 major floods. But none of that kept Houston from becoming a flourishing metropolis, the centre of the petroleum industry in the United States.

It was from Houston that the U.S. Space Agency first sent humankind to visit the moon. It is where the world's largest medical center has been established. No fewer than 145 languages are spoken in the city, as a teeming melting pot model of humanity on display, live and energetic and bursting with pride. Of course on the way to achieving all of this, as the city's population grew so did its need to push nature around, to claim for human habitation and corporate business areas intended by nature to absorb extravagant amounts of water from storms to protect the mainland.

Without the municipal authority agreeing that there was no need to regulate the environment, much less to place restraints through onerous building code regulations that would slow down industry, development and the growing population base requiring places to live, the result has been that it isn't dreadfully expensive to afford a  house in Houston. Because homes were developed on the cheap, on the very wetlands and prairies that were meant to remain as the natural sponges nature had intended them to be.

The irony cannot be escaped that it is the industry that made Houston the power house it is, that has been identified as the major contributor to the pollution that threatens to incite those overwhelmingly dangerous storms. Houston itself is the unlikeliest of natural environments to host a growing mega-city of aggressive enterprise. Throughout its inner geography it is burdened with the presence of slow-moving bayous where clay soils fail to absorb excess water. During Hurricane Harvey close to 1,400 millimeters of rain fell; while the average annual rainfall in Houston registers about 1,200 millimeters.
Rosenberg Police Department -- Twitter

The city had decided it would control stormwater by directing the runoff to the Gulf of Mexico, and to that end two key bayous were channeled by conversion to concrete culverts, and a third one widened. Houston must have felt it had accomplished its due diligence in a massive engineering network of 1,400 channels totalling 4,000 kilometers, built for storm runoff to be directed out of the city and funnelled down to the sea. Thus assured, city planners felt free to allow building to run rampant.

Then came the realization that such large rainfalls couldn't, after all, be  handled by the system devised, since green space that might have absorbed all that extra water falling during a big storm had been paved with parking lots, houses, churches and malls. An initiative undertaken in 2010 to improve roads and renew the drainage system represented a major financing effort necessitating new taxes. Raising taxes is singularly unpopular anywhere, particularly when it is paired with a recommendation that homeowners living in flood plains return the land to green space through government buy-outs.

The result of which, concerns many planners; that with stricter regulations on building codes the momentum that has always inspired Houston to grow as it wished, and unregulated, will result in houses no longer being as affordable, and thus attractive to lure people to live and work in Houston, in its signature industry.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Alerts and Reactions

"There are some pretty bizarre theories out there, such as the idea that fluoride is being used to sedate the population."
"I worry that this study -- which the authors note should be replicated, and they call for further analysis and research -- will be presented as definitive. It is not."
Tim Caulfield, health policy researcher, University of Alberta

"[In Mexico], not many people drink tap water. [Intake of fluorides takes place through fluoridation of salt.]"
"[Still], the urinary fluoride levels of these [Mexican] women were definitely not sky high."
"There still may be a level of fluoride exposure among both pregnant women and everybody else that can still preserve the beneficial effects on tooth decay, while avoiding any effects on intelligence [in the developing fetus]." 
"This is a very rigorous epidemiology study. You just can't deny it. It's directly related to whether fluoride is a risk for the neurodevelopment of children. So, to say it has no relevance to the folks in the U.S. seems disingenuous."
Dr. Howard Hu, principal investigator, dean, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Toronto

"[The study's findings] are not applicable [to the United States] because it's not known how the subjects of the study ingested the fluoride -- whether through salt, water or both -- no conclusions can be drawn regarding the effects of community water fluoridation in the U.S."
American Dental Association statement

U of T research

Since fluoridation of the public potable water supply became a staple health intervention many decades ago when research showed that fluoride was hugely effective in protecting against dental caries, there have been reactions from the public, claiming that general fluoridation had deleterious effects, and some municipalities, sensitive to public criticism, have taken steps to reverse the procedure, no longer fluoridating the water supply in their jurisdictions.

Across Canada most cities remain devoted to fluoridation; Ottawa, Edmonton and Toronto, for example. In other cities, such as Calgary, Waterloo and Windsor, fluoridation is no longer used in those municipalities' systems. Opponents of fluoridation allow their imaginations to run amok, claiming among other things that fluoridation is responsible for an proliferation of heart disease, cancer, birth defects, kidney problems, goiters, ulcers, anemia and spontaneous abortions.

"However, these associations are not supported by the scientific literature", researchers from the University of Guelph concluded in a 2014 evidence review under the imprimatur of the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. Now, however, with the publication of the first study of its kind and size to explore the issue of fluoride exposure and its effects on stages of brain development by researchers from the University of Toronto, the issue has been brought back to life.

Data from 287 mother-child pairs in Mexico City were analyzed by the Toronto researchers from 1994 to 2005 when pregnant women were recruited for a study that took in their children as well at ages six to twelve. Levels of fluoride in urine were examined to find how children were seen to score on intelligence and neurocognitive function tests at age four and then once more between ages six and twelve. For every 0.5 milligrams-per-litre increase in mother's urinary fluoride levels beyond 0.8 mg/l, children scored 2.5 to three points lower on IQ tests.

That the children's own urinary fluoride levels measured at the times of testing, appeared not to register a significant effect, appeared to suggest that whatever effect fluoride could have on brain development occurred while in the womb. Most fluoride exposure in both Canada and the United States results from drinking water being fluoridated in the prevention of cavities, as well as fluoride manufactured right into toothpaste.

There were adjustments made in reaching conclusions based on association, inclusive of the baby's weight at birth, whether the mother smoked, intelligence quotient, socioeconomic conditions, and possible exposure to lead. The Mexican study verified that the mothers on average had 0.90 milligrams-per-litre of fluoride in their urine, a number considered to represent the "general range of exposures" comparable to other populations.

On the other hand, a 2012-2013 survey taken in Canada pointed out mean urinary fluoride levels were roughly 0.43 milligrams-per-litre, representing about 50 percent of the Mexican levels. The Toronto research team took pains to emphasize that their findings, while important, require confirmation in similar studies of other populations. According to Dr. Hu, direct comparisons with women in the United States or Canada face difficulties, reflecting the fact that there have been no large population studies of maternal urinary fluoride loads.
In Canada and the U.S., most fluoride exposure comes from the fluoridation of drinking water to prevent cavities, and fluoride in toothpaste and other dental products.  Getty Images

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Steer Clear!

"Occasionally, floating ant masses are encountered even indoors in flooded structures."
"Cuffed gloves, rain gear, and rubber boots help prevent the ants from reaching the skin. If they do, they will bite and sting. Remove them imme­diately by rubbing them off. If submerged, ants will cling to the skin and even a high-pressure water spray may not dislodge them. However, a spray made of diluted biodegradable dish­washing liquid may help immobilize and drown them."
Texas A&M Agrilife Extension specialist Paul Nester
Al Key/The Denton Record-Chronicle via AP

"If the water rises, they kind of all grab a hold of each other, and they can do this for several days, until they reach higher ground."
"If one of those rafts comes in contact with you, or you try to break it apart, it will likely disperse and crawl up you."
Clemson University entomologist, Tim Davis

A swarm of fire ants cling to a chain link fence and floating debris Tuesday Sept. 7, 2004 in Lithia, Fla., after the Alafia river overflowed her banks when the remnents of Hurricane Francis pass through the area on Monday. Many of the residents attempting to leave their flooded homes were stung by the ants.
Waiting out the water. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
"They spread out and hook their legs and feet together so they can form a tangled mass."
The fire ant rafts in the Houston area do pose “a definite threat [to anyone in the water],”
"If you’re walking around water and one of these rafts bumps onto you, chances are [the ants] are going to crawl up on you. You’re drier than they are."
"They’re just really unpleasant creatures."
Justin Schmidt, entomologist, University of Arizona

"You protect yourself by avoiding them, not by messing with them. They don't come to attack you. They're just passively floating along. It's a matter of being just intelligent and evasive."
"You won't feel anything for a minute. What they are doing is mustering."
"You might feel tickling, and then suddenly they are latching on so they can drag that stinger in."
"Once one of them stings it lets off a pheromone, and that makes everybody sting at once. It is like you are stepping into fire."
Larry Gilbert, professor, integrated biology, University of Texas,Austin
Houston residents had more to put up with than just the severe flooding that resulted when Hurricane Harvey struck and transformed highways into rivers, flooded homes and commercial buildings and generally made life pretty miserable. The city, originally built on a floodplain, has suffered an ongoing series of floods and will continue to, partly because nature's balance in the creation of absorptive wetlands have been paved over and partly because its proximity to the ocean invites these floods during times of natural stressors like hurricanes.

Not only were fish swimming about where they normally are never seen, including in people's homes, but alligators too made their presence known along the newly-created 'rivers' of floodwaters. On the other hand, strange mounds and floating rafts were also to be seen in the floodwaters, a deep rust-coloured mass, and curious to behold, comprised of thousands of fire ants, clinging together in a bid for self-preservation that overtakes the little beasts when threatening conditions arise and their primitive collective memory kicks in.

Once their underground tunnel infrastructure became flooded, they gathered and linked claws, clinging in massive rafts and balls, floating, spinning in the current of floodwaters. Nature has bestowed a waterproofed armor on their bodies to repel water and as they drifted in their teeming clumps they helped, as The Houston Chronicle wrote, create a "river full of nightmares", as in: if the alligators won't get you, the fireants might. "Those bites itch for days", wrote a medical writer for The Chronicle, of his experience of stepping on a mass of fire ants that "tore my left ankle/foot up".

Originating in South America, the fireants adapted in the wetlands of Brazil to survival in wetland floodplains there. Once they moved into the United States they adapted there too, in the southeastern region. First aid, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, takes the use of an epinephrine pen or antihistamines, since those who are allergic to insect bites stand the risk of lethal reactions. Disturbed, the ants are aggressive, attaching by their jaws to humans then injecting a venom that burns and develops fluid-filled pustules.

Subjected to long periods of disturbance such as the floods in Houston, an ant cluster reacts in fluid movements; if a small object is dropped into a mound of the insects the group simply reforms around the object, carrying it along with them. Their consistency can be wobbly resembling jelly, or it can flow like thick syrup. Connecting with the legs they create a springy network, repelling liquid. "They weave into a waterproof fabric", described David Hu, whose specialty is the study of fireants at Georgia Tech.

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