What Does the Future Hold for Food? We Have 5 Questions
You may not know her, but Stacy Malkan is fighting for you.
For over 15 years Malkan has worked as a consumer advocate to make the products we buy safer. Through the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which she cofounded, she's helped reduce hazardous chemicals in personal care products like shampoo, deodorant and makeup. Now, in her work as cofounder and co-director of the nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog group U.S. Right to Know, she advocates for transparency and accountability in the food industry to build a healthier food system.
The industries Malkan works to reform are large, powerful and protected, but her dedication and vision are supporting an explosion of consumer interest in healthier products and better food. At this cultural turning point, we sat down with Malkan to ask her about the current state of food—and what the future may hold.
So, what's on your dinner plate today?
Simple foods that work for a toddler! I buy organic as much as possible, especially when it comes to the grain products my child consumes in large quantities. I also try to avoid plastic food containers due to concerns about toxic chemicals leaching. For breakfast we often go with oatmeal, and a typical dinner is baked chicken and a vegetable, usually broccoli or asparagus (the only two vegetables my toddler will eat), or beans and rice, or pizza, which is always the most popular choice in my house.
Food defines us and our cultures in so many ways. Does that make it easier or harder to encourage healthy food production?
One of my favorite weekly activities is the local farmer's market. We try to go every Sunday. They always have a live band and wonderful food that stays fresh for so much longer than produce I buy in the supermarket. So in a very tangible way, food defines my community for me and my community helps encourage healthy food production. But conscious eating gets a lot more difficult when it comes to eating in restaurants and other communal eating situations that rely on mass production of cheap foods, such as school food—although local groups are trying to change that. The community has a huge role to play in supporting healthy food systems and local food production, and we need to step it up.
Where do we stand at this point? Is our food system getting more transparent or are things getting worse?
There are many positive signs. Organic demand is growing across all demographics. The largest group of organic buyers is millennial moms, and most women in that age group haven't even had children yet. Food companies are scrambling to meet the demand for foods free of pesticides and chemical additives. It's a disruptive time for the food industry, and full of possibility for transformation. On the other hand, large food and chemical corporations are pushing back with mighty force—spending hundreds of millions on propaganda and lobbying campaigns—to prop up an unhealthy food production system that depends on GMOs and pesticides and keeps consumers in the dark about what they're eating. So it's also a dangerous time and unfortunately I hear many consumers and reporters parroting industry propaganda without questioning it.
Where do you think the most (or least) progress is being made?
Most progress: consumer demand for healthy food and the rising awareness about the healing power of food are unstoppable trends, and the smart companies are stepping up to meet that demand. Least progress: bad policies that rig the market in favor of chemical-intensive, unsustainable agriculture, and factory farms that are not being challenged with enough power. The good food movement needs to figure out how to become an effective political movement to create a fair playing field.
Speaking of propaganda, what tip would you give people to help them see past fake "experts" like SciBabe?
There's an aggressive, condescending attack style common to the corporate propaganda campaigns to manufacture doubt about science and risk. The message is: "Don't worry your pretty little head and keep buying our chemical food." If people suggest you are ignorant, or try to shame you for raising concerns about our food system or insisting on transparency, ignore them.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
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Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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