Archive for October, 2012

Once More With Feeling

I would like to think that we have come a long way from the days when recycling was one of those weird alternative things that commie leftist drugged out hippies did while the rest of us tossed our unwanted goodies into landfill, like “normal” people. Despite the recycling bin that goes out every bin day, large receptacles in the workplace for paper and cardboard, and the plastic bag recycle bin at the local supermarket I am not so sure we have come as far as we might think.

Take beds. After more than ten years on the one bed we finally decided it was about time to buy a new one before my back ended up sagging more than the mattress. The dilemma was what to do with the old one. Being keen recyclers we decided that it was far too good to toss into landfill and we should be good citizens and recycle it. Not only do the handful of mattress recycle places charge to collect old beds but they don’t travel outside the metropolitan area to pick them up. Fine. We’ll drop it off. Unfortunately one place is over an hour’s drive away and the other place lists no address but a mobile phone number that goes through to message bank. How about someone like the Salvation Army then? Thank God for the Salvos, unless you’re gay of course. So we drove the bed around to the Salvos. They took one look at it, noticed a few cat scratchings on the base and decided that the homeless and destitute couldn’t possibly put up with that and told us to take it away. Obviously sleeping on the concrete or on a piece of cardboard is far preferable to lying on a used bed. I am now going to list it on ebay and we’ll see what happens.

Unfortunately I had a similar experience with my old computer. So called computer recyclers either charged for the privilege or were located so far away that it was hardly worth driving all that way to drop it off. After much searching I finally found someone local who was willing to take it but, had I been a “normal” person, I suspect I would have found it all too hard and have tossed it in the garbage along with the other 100,000 tonnes of electronic rubbish Australians dispose of each year.

While I applaud the mobile phone recycling boxes that have popped up everywhere and a growing awareness about recycling ink cartridges (highlighted in this excellent blog: http://seathechange.wordpress.com/tag/ink-cartridge/) most people will not recycle unless it is made as easy as possible for them. For me this means that some of the exorbitant rates I pay the shire each year should go towards a depot or facility where I can drop off that bed or computer or television. When they reach critical mass the shire can then either deliver it to the specialist recycler or have them come and pick it up. For recycling to work and it must work if we are to move forwards, we have to make it at least as cheap and easy as throwing stuff in the bin or landfill. And those electricity companies and airlines that want us to pay extra to give us “green” power or offset our flight are just trying to making an extra buck by pricking our environmental consciences. If they were really serious about sustainability and their effects on the environment they would make the “green” option cheaper, not more expensive.

I only hope the contents of my recycle bin aren’t just tipped into the landfill along with my rubbish. But my wife tells me I need to be less cynical.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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Do I Hear Banjos?

Zoos spend a lot of time trying to find the right match between males and females, not to pair those individuals that like each other, but to maximise genetic diversity in what is often a very small population. This is important to minimise the effects of any deleterious genes on the population as a whole. Many physical characteristics, behavioural traits and diseases are genetically determined. There is a condition in humans called sickle cell anaemia. Affected people have abnormal red blood cells. To develop the disease the person needs to have received a sickle cell gene from both their father and their mother. If the father carries the gene and has children with one of his relatives, chances are that relative will also carry the gene and so any children will be much more likely to receive both genes and develop the disease. If he had children with someone else those children may carry one of the genes but probably not both and will live and be well. Interestingly people with one sickle cell gene have increased resistance to malaria compared with people that have no sickle cell genes, which is probably why the gene has not disappeared from the human population.

Similar problems can occur in zoo animals once the genetic pool is too small. This can happen naturally in the wild if species pass through severe population bottlenecks, as occurred with cheetahs, or live on islands where there is minimal influx of new genes, such as the Chatham Island robin.  This reduced genetic diversity is why the Tasmanian devil is in so much trouble with its facial tumour. Because they are all so genetically similar if one devil is susceptible to the tumour then they all are. If individuals were more genetically diverse there would be more chance of encountering resistant individuals.

How perverse then is our desire for purebred dogs, cats, cattle, horses, etc. These animals have been created by doing exactly those things that zoos desperately try to avoid: brother/sister matings, father/daughter matings, etc. because misguided breeders are trying desperately to select for certain specific traits they deem important. The trouble is when one trait is selected other traits tend to fall by the wayside. Dairy cattle are selectively bred to produce huge volumes of milk to maximise profits. What they are not selected for is an ability to deliver calves naturally resulting in more and more veterinary interventions. Belgian Blue cattle are selected for an ability to lay down mountains of muscle, so much so that they cannot give birth naturally any more. Every birth needs a caesarean.

This lunacy has reached its pinnacle when it comes to dog breeds. Every breed of dog has its own specific inherited genetic abnormalities caused by this inbreeding. Bulldogs can’t breathe because they have been selected for pushed in faces. Shar Peis develop horrible skin diseases because they have been bred to have insanely wrinkly skin. A large number of Dalmatians are deaf and develop kidney stones. Many Dobermans suffer from a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand’s disease. Up to 25% of Bedlington terriers develop chronic hepatitis because they cannot metabolise copper. The list goes on to the point where it is almost impossible to buy a dog that does not have some form of genetic defect (For a complete list of inherited dog diseases check out http://www.upei.ca/~cidd/intro.htm). Your best chance of getting something reasonably healthy is to stick as closely as possible to the original wolf model. After all this was developed over centuries of natural selection for hardiness, ease of breeding and no genetic problems. If you are a wolf that can’t breathe, gets a skin condition or bleeds to death if someone bites you then you are not going to last long enough to pass that trait on to your offspring.

Unfortunately all these ridiculous dog shows, like Crufts, just perpetuate this sort of nonsense. It seems ironic that, this time, zoos are actually trying to do the right thing by encouraging outbreeding and maximising genetic diversity. It’s a pity that our domestic animal breeders refuse to do the same thing.

Dr. F. Bunny

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To Bee Or Not To Bee

Hear that? Neither do I. That is because the bees of the world could be in a spot of bother. A United Nations Environment Programme report notes bee number declines in Europe and North America (http://www.unep.org/dewa/Portals/67/pdf/Global_Bee_Colony_Disorder_and_Threats_insect_pollinators.pdf). Initially this could be seen to be a good thing, especially by those of us that were stung regularly as kids during the summer months. However, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations of the 100 crop species which provide 90% of the world’s food 71 of these are bee pollinated. In Europe 4000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to bee pollination. In North America honey bees pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruit such as almonds, avocados, cranberries and apples, as well as crops like soybeans. As indicated in my “Economics of Nature” post, we may take these services for granted and assume they incur no cost but in Europe bees are responsible for crops worth between €22.8 and 57 billion. In 2000, the value of crops pollinated by bees was estimated at US$14.6 billion in the USA.

The reasons for this decline are many and varied and include habitat destruction resulting in a reduction in the number of flowering plants, infection with Varroa mites (not found in Australia at present) and other pathogens, and exposure to insecticides and air pollution.

Solutions include habitat conservation and putting more flowering plants into the ground. As well as benefitting your bees this will also help the local bird populations much more than a few handfuls of mouldy seed on a bird feeder will. Farming without insecticides is also likely to be beneficial. If you are really keen you could always establish a hive yourself and listen to Noah Wilson-Rich’s TED talk focussed on establishing urban bee hives (http://www.ted.com/talks/noah_wilson_rich_every_city_needs_healthy_honey_bees.html), which will brilliantly complement the urban vegetable gardens mentioned in my previous post.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

 

 

 

 

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Waste Not, Want Not

Tristram Stuart, winner of the 2011 Sophie Prize (awarded annually for environment and sustainable development), gave a compelling TED talk recently on the global food waste scandal (http://www.ted.com/talks/tristram_stuart_the_global_food_waste_scandal.html?awesm=on.ted.com_eBGP). The answer to feeding the world’s starving millions is not the production of genetically modified crops, or clearing more land, or more efficient and intensive agriculture but decreasing the phenomenal amount of food that is wasted every day. According to Stuart there are one billion malnourished people in the world but the 40 million tonnes of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to feed all of them (http://www.tristramstuart.co.uk/FoodWasteFacts.html). The UK, US and Europe produce nearly twice as much food as is required to feed their populations. UK households waste 25% of all the food they buy (obviously food prices haven’t risen high enough).

Why does this happen? Much of it is due to our obsession with perfection. 20-40% of UK fruit and vegetables are rejected because of minor blemishes or imperfections causing them to fail supermarkets’ cosmetic standards (imposed presumably by consumers). 40-60% of all fish caught in Europe are discarded because they are the wrong size or species. Apparently 24-35% of school lunches end up in the bin (probably because someone included a vegemite sandwich in the mistaken belief that it was food). And what happens to all the bread crusts generated by sandwich bars? They end up feeding the starving thousands, the thousands of birds that congregate at landfill sites. Speaking of the starving thousands Stuart organised a “Feeding the 5000” event in Trafalgar Square in 2009 and 2011, where 5000 members of the public were given a free lunch using oddly shaped fruits and vegetables and other ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted (http://www.feeding5k.org/).

Food wastage is hardly new. I can still remember Europe’s milk lakes and butter mountains generated by subsidies paid to keep inefficient farmers in business. The problem has never been a lack of production but a lack of effective distribution. But who wants to distribute food to people who can’t pay for it?

While supermarkets and restaurants waste an enormous amount of food each day plenty more is thrown out of our household kitchens. We all need to lead by example. My kids are insanely fussy when it comes to spots on bananas or fruit going a bit soft. While they won’t eat it as is they are more than happy to consume it as a banana milkshake. Buy loose fruit and vegetables, not the pre-packaged plastic wrapped stuff. We litter the environment with more than enough plastic as it is. Don’t throw out tonight’s leftovers. Use them for tomorrow’s lunch, or as a base for tomorrow night’s dinner, or freeze the surplus. If you must throw it out toss it into the compost bin and from there onto the vegie garden. If you don’t have a vegie garden, why not? It’s a great way of getting fresh non-pesticide coated vegetables onto the table and teaches kids that food doesn’t come from supermarkets already wrapped in plastic. Pushed for space the Europeans have a long history of communal vegetable gardens. A UK group appears to have taken this to the next level by cultivating vacant land around town and filling the spaces with edible plants (http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/home). There are leeks outside the college, cherry trees in the car park, and a herb garden outside the railway station. The group is run by volunteers and the food is grown for anyone to pick and use.

A lot of your food waste will be eagerly consumed by your chickens, who will return the favour by providing you with a regular supply of fresh eggs, and the neighbourhood ponies will be more than happy to take care of your “not quite right” apples and carrots. It is truly astounding how much human food is poured down the throats of production animals each year. According to the US EPA 80% of the corn, 22% of the wheat and 30 million tons of soybean meal end up as feed for livestock (http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/cropmajor.html). Given how incredibly wasteful meat production is wouldn’t it be more efficient to provide this food directly to people, or at least feed the animals with some of the millions of tons of food that end up in land fill? I am not necessarily advocating that we all become vegetarian but I do think we could put a bit more effort into consuming our over abundant native species, such as kangaroos, that are being culled anyway and have far less of an environmental impact.

It is consumers that have generated the current culture of waste and it is up to us to turn it around.

Dr. F. Bunny

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