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BlueFood: A New Era for Food Safety

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Perhaps one of the only times people in the U.S. consciously think about restaurant food safety is upon reading "Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness" on the menu. But what about perceived safety? If a restaurant looks clean, it's easier to assume it serves healthy food. If it looks unkempt, a consumer may want to know what's going on in the kitchen.

Jumping across the globe, food safety in India, while mandated, is not effectively enforced. Yet research suggests that people in India are willing to pay around 25% more for food that keeps them healthy and able to earn an income. There is need for a helping hand in government enforcement, vendor education and auditing as well as communication with consumers. Enter BlueFood.

BlueFood is a food safety consulting and certification business that received a startup grant from Acara, an IonE program designed to launch social businesses. It is currently in its market research/pilot phase and has gone through some strategic changes in the last two months.

The company targets mobile street vendors and permanent storefront restaurants in Lajpat Nagar market in South Delhi. Through a series of education, audits and close communication, vendors can become certified with a BlueFood logo. The team hopes the logo will become a recognized, trusted brand signifying food safety to customers. The safety measures attained by certification also mean the vendors will be at less risk of  shut down by government food-safety workers.

The pilot program in Lajpat Nagar is about halfway complete. So far the vendors are utilizing visible safety gear, such as gloves and filtered water. The consumer response to these results and others will determine if the company will begin a full launch in January 2013.

While Blue Food's main focus is food safety, there are undoubtedly positive environmental impacts as well. The education in safe food handling is currently resulting in less food waste; this in turn will likely result in a smaller carbon footprint for these vendors. In addition, the team is talking about encouraging vendors to use more carbon-neutral fuels (instead of biomass like wood) and beginning a possible secondary initiative about sustainable eating. In time, BlueFood may change the street food culture of Delhi and spread further into the urban world, protecting millions more.


Future Earth Exhibit Tells a Better Story

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Hats off to the Science Museum of Minnesota for its latest exhibit, Future Earth: Science on a Sphere. Future Earth is the latest brainchild of an increasingly productive partnership between the Science Museum of Minnesota and researchers at the University of Minnesota. Representing the University are IonE's Jon Foley, Global Landscapes Initiative Team, and resident fellow David Tilman.

Not just a place to unleash the kids on a rainy afternoon, the Science Museum has something to offer everyone. The Future Earth exhibit explores how humans now have a larger effect on the Earth than natural processes. I expected the exhibit to coddle the audience, offering simplistic environmental platitudes that "every little bit counts." While this is true, of course, it overlooks the harsh realities of limited resources, limited political will and limited time to create meaningful change. The truth is some bits count a lot more than others. If agricultural activities emit more greenhouse gases than any other human activity - more than transportation, energy or manufacturing - do we really believe that getting everyone to change the type of light bulbs they use will solve the climate crisis? Such feel-good efforts have become excuses for complacency and distract us from strategically approaching the environmental crisis.

My fears were unjustified. I found Future Earth to be a thoughtful, skilled construction that succeeds where too many in academia fail: effectively communicating complex choices to the nonscientific public. Future Earth delivers, and then raises the bar for the rest of us.  Technology is integrated seamlessly into the live presentations. The presenter controls the "Science on a Sphere" globe with a Wii remote and is able to display information on the 3-D surface. The presentation's scope includes temperature variations in different portions of the Earth, the globe at night, and even social media connections. Arguably a bit of a gimmick, the exhibit uses it to spectacular effect when presenting global changes in land use and makes the live presentation and short film memorable crowd-pleasers.  Outside of the presentation, visitors can play energy pinball, feel the temperature of the Earth without an atmosphere, and see how ocean acidity changes with increased levels of carbon dioxide.

Students will recognize iClickers from some of their classes, which enable instant, in-class quizzes and opinion polls. Though their application in classes can sometimes be hit or miss, I found the iClickers a terrific asset during the presentation. If only they were so much fun in biochemistry! Public responses are even retained for an ongoing study by the Science Museum.

Multiple-choice questions on energy and agriculture appear innocuous enough, but fly in the face of the conventional wisdom surrounding urban agriculture and foodie-environmentalism. Organic-buying, farmer's-market-loving locavores may have to reconsider their choices when confronted with the relative environmental costs of these choices. Are you an Energy Expert? I learned I am emphatically not. This is one of the highlights of the exhibit - it challenges our assumptions and reveals the gaps in what we thought we knew. One leaves surprised, challenged, and even unsettled by an exercise that takes less than 10 minutes.

Future Earth sugar-coats nothing, but also does not succumb to doom and gloom prognostications. This is a delicate balance to strike when the familiar frameworks of industry, energy and agriculture lend themselves so readily to black-and-white interpretations. Future Earth offers a nuanced understanding that demands more from visitors and delivers more in kind. It presents facts in an accessible format, then asks provocative, straightforward questions. The answers aren't easy, but what emerges is a message of individual empowerment, hope, and, perhaps most remarkably, urgency and personal responsibility.

This is what research can look like when brought before the public. One can't help thinking that if we all did a better job at this, the sustainability discourse might look quite different. Future Earth leaves a lasting impression and offers a model for others trying to mobilize the public and decision makers around environmental issues. Counteracting inertia may be the toughest battle out there. We could all learn to do it a little better.

I encourage you to see the exhibit, have fun, and soak up what science you can. But perhaps also take a lesson in what interactive learning and public outreach really look like from some of the people who are doing it best.

博 士 后 的 侵 略

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mountainss.jpgBY BRIAN E ROBINSON

  • 4 - IonE postdocs
  • 400 - meters of solid elevation gain covered with rice terraces
  • 70 - kilometers of karst landscape biked
  • 20 - million people in Beijing
  • 30 - sticks of assorted savory-spicy grilled xiaokao consumed
  • 8 - micro-brewed beers sampled in a traditional Beijing neighborhood hutong

And that sums up the two weeks IonE postdoctoral fellows Brian Robinson, Jill Baumgartner, Kate Brauman and Stephen Hawley spent this summer in China.

Last spring Jill and I traveled to Beijing to collaborate with some of China's leading researchers on ecosystem services and rural energy technologies, respectively. Capitalizing on the opportunity to visit places where they have free travel guides (and dear friends!), Kate and Stephen first took in Hterrace.pngong Kong for a few days and then met Jill and me in Guangxi Province, home to China's famed karst landscape and some of the most amazing rice terraces one could ever imagine. Two themes ran throughout our travels: water's influence on the landscape and food.

Our first stop was the "Dragon's Back" rice terraces in northwestern Guangxi Province. This area is mountainous with narrow valleys, but water consistently flows from seemingly hidden forested watersheds above. Over time the villages in this area have transformed the mountainsides into a dizzying stack of rice terraces, with intricate but low-tech water engineering. For example, extended diversions bring water to the back side of its original drainage basin, bamboo pipes extend water to the tops of otherwise waterless hills and a complicated drainage network keeps water flushing and circulating rice paddies at just the right times. This impressive infrastructure was built over long time scales, and much ongoing effort is put forth to maintain the terraces. The view of these "thousand layers of heaven" from above was breathtaking - for me, a rare example of aterrace2.png human-modified landscape that still exhibits profound natural beauty.

Water was also the main architect of the next unique landscape where we spent some time - a sleepy village outside the tourist town of Yangshuo, also in Guangxi. Here the shores of the Li river and its tributaries boast one of the most iconic images of China's natural beauty. These mountains formed over time from water eating away at soft limestone, leaving one of the most famous examples of a karst landscape in the world, characterized by sinking streams, odd crater-like depressions between mountains, and mountains that rise unexpectedly from flat, silty soils. The valleys were best explored on bicycle, and on karst.pngbicycle it was best to explore the valley on off-the-beaten-path farm roads. After living and working in China on and off for the past 12 years, this is one of the most memorable places I have been.

Back in Beijing, Kate and Stephen took in some of the city sites, but I think most our days - in fact, I think whole series of days - were planned around meals (as most good travel itineraries are). On the list were Beijing specialties, namely roasted duck and dumplings, and journeys into China's regional cuisines, of which Beijing has plenty to offer. I have a personal penchant for Sichuan food, so we sought out the hotel owned by the Sichuan Provincial Government - figuring their restaurant would know how to do things right. Indeed, they did.

In Beijing we are also reminded of the role of water on the landscape. Beijing gets two-thirds of its residential water from groundwater sources; in addition to facing a plummeting water table, the city is also starting to experience land subsistence (sinking) in some parts. This puts special value on more renewable surface water reservoirs, which is the subject of some of my research here with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In China blog installment #2, to follow in a few weeks, I'll talk about the challenges that face the Miyun Reservoir and emerging trends in China's approach to solve some of these problems.

Photos courtesy of Brian Robinson; Chinese translation for "Invasion of the Postdocs" courtesy of Ryan Loomis

A Box-Shaped Thought Bubble

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200px-Thought_bubble.svg.pngWhy does "think outside the box" both scare and excite us? Maybe we like overcoming challenges. Maybe we're scared our creativity will not stretch far enough. But what if today's long-held ideas became what is outside the box, and the inside was filled with new norms and ways of thought?

For Frances Moore Lappé, this new box seems a reachable reality. Her newest book, EcoMind, brings to life a world that replaces negative mindsets often found in the modern environmental movement with positive alternatives conducive to meaningful progress. The greatest part: This positively progressing world already exists in many places; we just need help seeing it.

In EcoMind, Lappé explores seven "Thought Traps" we fall into. Oftentimes it is understandable that we should think in such a way. But when Lappé shows us what a great, solution-based world these Thought Traps impede us from reaching, the Thought Leaps become worth pursuing.

For example, Thought Trap 4 says, "Humans are greedy, selfish, competitive materialists. We have to overcome these aspects of ourselves if we hope to survive." Lappé responds to this with ample evidence for the following premises:

  • Humans have six hardwired traits: cooperation, empathy, fairness, efficacy, meaning, imagination and creativity.
  • We have to "get real" in order to use these traits for good. We must admit that these traits come with the capability to be tremendously cruel.
  • When we accept that we are both good and bad, this question emerges: "Which social rules and norms have proven to bring out the worst in humans, and which have shown to bring forth the best while protecting us from the worst?"
  • Three conditions jump out that historically deprive us of our best and bring out our worst: extreme power inequalities, secrecy and scapegoating.
  • We can move away from the aforementioned conditions by moving to dispersed power, transparency and mutual accountability.
From these follow Thought Leap 4: "Sure, we can be selfish, fixated on material gain, and narrowly competitive... We've also evolved deep capacities for cooperation, empathy, fairness, efficacy, meaning, and creativity. We can't change human nature, but that's OK. We can change the norms and rules of our societies to keep negative human potential in check and to elicit these power, positive qualities we most need now."

The six other Thought Leaps (presented by Lappé in a similar manner as Thought Leap 4) are also gateways to positive ecological change. To paraphrase:

  • Call growth what it is: wasteful and destructive. Focus on genuine progress and eliminate "growth vs. no growth" from the ideas of resilience, ecological vitality and happiness.
  • Consumerism is actually a symptom of being denied choice. The association between shopping and enjoying luxury is not always necessary. We can instead have stimulating lives that align with nature.
  • Planetary limits don't need to limit us in every way. An effective, environmentally sound goal does not focus on more or less. Focus on quality (such as health, ease or creativity) so our real needs are satisfied.
  • Humans like rules that develop our sense of belonging and structure. We work best when everyone feels involved in the rule-making process.
  • Humans, like all life, evolved in nature. The connection with nature isn't lost, it just needs rediscovery.
  • No, it's not too late. "It is not too late for life." Centralized power does not lead to the good of the whole. We can help life thrive by ensuring everyone's voice is empowered because many want to be involved in helping the planet.

Embracing the Thought Leaps as the new norm changes the box - switching the outside for the inside - leaving us and nature as aligned, coexisting partners.

To learn more about Lappé and her work or to order EcoMind, visit this website.

Thought bubble image courtesy of MithrandirMage via Wikimedia Commons


Cultivating Solutions: Agriculture in the New Normal

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How can we grow enough food to feed 9 billion people while protecting the ecological integrity of our planet? IonE director Jon Foley and four other global food experts had some hopeful thoughts to share at Aspen Environment Forum 2012: Living in the New Normal, held recently at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colo. Panelists (from left) were Foley; World Wildlife Fund senior VP for market transformation Jason Clay; former U.S. secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman; and World Resources Institute senior fellow Chris Reij. National Geographic executive editor Dennis Dimick (right) moderated the conversation.

Foley began by sharing a five-step plan for boosting global food production while reducing environmental impact. Among the other points panel members made:

  • Innovations are going to happen where local meets global through social media.
  • We need to measure parameters like waste and calorie production if we are to better manage them.
  • It's important to celebrate successes such as the greening of the Sahel and then scale them up.
  • Government will be key to success in global food produciton.
  • Much of the opportunity for progress lies not in new technology but in dissemination of new practices.
View the video of the panel discussion above. Then check out the AEF website for videos of other AEF panel presentations on energy, communication, biodiversity and more. Good stuff.

Greasing the Oil Jam

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On Friday (29 June 2012), Science told the world how a collaboration of scientists created something uniquely un-abstract. A group of engineers at the Unanosheets.jpgniversity of Minnesota, along with other international scientists, used nanosheets at 90-degree angles in catalyzing oil; almost like curtains attached between bars of scaffolding. 

But what for? All the gas we use once needed a catalyst to be turned from oil into useable gasoline. During the traditional refining process, oil molecules clog their filters and it takes a significant amount of time for oil to reach the catalyst. However, this 90-degree design allows for speedy access to the catalyst. The economic impacts of this could trickle down as far a lowering the price of gasoline and other related products, such as plastics. Furthermore, the method can potentially be applied to other refining processes for biofuels and natural gas, to name a few.

While the project was made possible by a multiple funding sources, some of its funding came from IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. Needless to say, efficiency is a surefire way of greening most processes and these scientists found efficiency for a basic chemical we rely on every day: oil.

See their abstract in Science or the press release.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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This page is an archive of entries from July 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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