Archive for the ‘Hunger’ Category


Hundred of miles about Earth, orbiting satellites are becoming a bold new weapon in the age-old fight against drought, disease and death.

By Ariel Sabar
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE

In early October, after the main rainy season, Ethiopia’s central Rift Valley is a study in green. Fields of wheat and barley lie like shimmering quilts over the highland ridges. Across the valley floor below, beneath low-flying clouds, farmers wade through fields of African cereal, plucking weeds and primping the land for harvest

It is hard to look at such lushness and equate Ethiopia with famine. The f-word, as some people call it, as though the mere mention were a curse, has haunted the country since hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians died three decades ago in the crisis that inspired Live Aid, “We Are the World” and other spectacles of Western charity. The word was on no one’s lips this year. Almost as soon as I’d landed in Addis Ababa, people told me that 2014 had been a relatively good year for Ethiopia’s 70 million subsistence farmers.

But Gabriel Senay wasn’t so sure. A scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, he’d designed a system that uses NASA satellites to detect unusual spikes in land temperature. These anomalies can signal crop failure, and Senay’s algorithms were now plotting these hot zones along a strip of the Rift Valley normally thought of as a breadbasket. Was something amiss? Something aid workers hadn’t noticed?

Senay had come to Ethiopia to find out—to “ground-truth” his years of painstaking research. At the top of a long list of people eager for results were officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who had made a substantial investment in his work. The United States is the largest donor of food aid to the world, splitting $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion a year among some 60 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Ethiopia usually gets the biggest slice, but it’s a large pie, and to make sure aid gets to the neediest, USAID spends $25 million a year on scientific forecasts of where hunger will strike next.

Senay’s innovations, some officials felt, had the potential to take those forecasts to a new level, by spotting the faintest first footsteps of famine almost anywhere in the world. And the earlier officials heard those footsteps, the faster they would be able to mobilize forces against one of humanity’s oldest and cruelest scourges.

In the paved and wired developed world, it’s hard to imagine a food emergency staying secret for long. But in countries with bad roads, spotty phone service and shaky political regimes, isolated food shortfalls can metastasize into full-blown humanitarian crises before the world notices. That was in many ways the case in Ethiopia in 1984, when the failure of rains in the northern highlands was aggravated by a guerrilla war along what is now the Eritrean border.

Senay, who grew up in Ethiopian farm country, the youngest of 11 children, was then an undergraduate at the country’s leading agricultural college. But the famine had felt remote even to him. The victims were hundreds of miles to the north, and there was little talk of it on campus. Students could eat injera—the sour pancake that is a staple of Ethiopian meals—just once a week, but Senay recalls no other hardships. His parents were similarly spared; the drought had somehow skipped over their rainy plateau.

That you could live in one part of a country and be oblivious to mass starvation in another: Senay would think about that a lot later.

The Great Rift Valley splits Ethiopia into nearly equal parts, running in a ragged diagonal from the wastelands of the Danakil Depression in the northeast to the crocodile haunts of Lake Turkana in the southwest. About midway along its length, a few hours’ drive south of Addis, it bisects a verdant highland of cereal fields.

Senay, who is 49, sat in the front seat of our Land Cruiser, wearing a baseball cap lettered, in cursive, “Life is Good.” Behind us were two other vehicles, shuttling half a dozen American and Ethiopian scientists excited enough by Senay’s research to want to see its potential firsthand. We caravanned through the gritty city of Adama and over the Awash River, weaving through cavalcades of donkeys and sheep.

Up along the green slopes of the Arsi highlands, Senay looked over his strangely hued maps. The pages were stippled with red and orange dots, each a square kilometer, where satellites 438 miles overhead had sensed a kind of fever on the land.

From the back seat, Curt Reynolds, a burly crop analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, who advises USAID (and is not known to sugar-coat his opinions), asked whether recent rains had cooled those fevers, making some of Senay’s assessments moot. “There are still pixels that are really hurting,” Senay insisted.

We turned off the main road, jouncing along a muddy track to a local agricultural bureau. Huseen Muhammad Galatoo, a grave-looking man who was the bureau’s lead agronomist, led us into a musty office. A faded poster on one wall said, “Coffee: Ethiopia’s Gift to the World.”

Galatoo told us that several Arsi districts were facing their worst year in decades. A failure of the spring belg rains and a late start to the summer kiremt rains had left some 76,000 animals dead and 271,000 people—10 percent of the local population—in need of emergency food aid.

“Previously, the livestock used to survive somehow,” Galatoo said, through an interpreter. “But now there is literally nothing on the ground.”

In the face of such doleful news, Senay wasn’t in the mood for self-congratulation. But the truth was, he’d nailed it. He’d shown that satellites could spot crop failure—and its effects on livestock and people—as never before, at unprecedented scale and sensitivity. “The [current] early warning system didn’t fully capture this,” Alemu Asfaw, an Ethiopian economist who helps USAID forecast food crises, said in the car afterwards, shaking his head. “There had been reports of erratic rainfall. But no one expected it to be that bad.” No one, that is, but Senay, whose work, Reynolds said, could be “a game changer for us.”

Satellites have come a long way since Russia’s Sputnik 1—a beachball-size sphere with four chopstick-like radio antennas—entered orbit, and history, in 1957. Today, some 1,200 artificial satellites orbit Earth. Most are still in traditional lines of work: bouncing phone calls and television signals across the globe, beaming GPS coordinates, monitoring weather, spying. A smaller number watch over the planet’s wide-angle afflictions, like deforestation, melting glaciers and urban sprawl. But only recently have scientists sicced satellites on harder-to-detect, but no less perilous threats to people’s basic needs and rights.

Senay is on the leading edge of this effort, focusing on hunger and disease—ills whose solutions once seemed resolutely earthbound. Nomads searching for water, villagers battling malaria, farmers aching for rain: When they look to the heavens for help, Senay wants satellites looking back.

He was born in the northwest Ethiopian town of Dangila, in a house without electricity or plumbing. To cross the local river with his family’s 30 cattle, little Gabriel clung to the tail of an ox, which towed him to the grazing lands on the other side. High marks in school—and a father who demanded achievement, who called Gabriel “doctor” while the boy was still in diapers—propelled him to Ethiopia’s Haramaya University and then to the West, for graduate studies in hydrology and agricultural engineering.

Not long after earning a PhD at Ohio State University, he landed a job that felt more like a mission—turning American satellites into defenders of Africa’s downtrodden. His office, in the South Dakota countryside 18 miles northeast of Sioux Falls, is home to the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, a low building, ringed by rows of tinted windows, looking a bit like a spaceship that emergency-landed in some hapless farmer’s corn and soybean spread. Run by the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s where the planet gets a daily diagnostic exam. Giant antennas and parabolic dishes ingest thousands of satellite images a day, keeping an eye on the pulse of the planet’s waters, the pigment of its land and the musculature of its mountains.

Senay was soon living the American dream, with a wife, two kids and mini­van in a Midwestern suburb. But satellites were his bridge home, closing the distance between here and there, now and then. “I came to know more about Ethiopia in South Dakota when looking at it from satellites than I did growing up,” he told me. As torrents of data flow through his calamity-spotting algorithms, he says, “I imagine the poor farmer in Ethiopia. I imagine a guy struggling to farm who never got a chance to get educated, and that kind of gives me energy and some bravery.”

His goal from the outset was to turn satellites into high-tech divining rods, capable of finding water—and mapping its effects—across Africa. Among scientists who study water’s whereabouts, Senay became a kind of rock star. Though nominally a bureaucrat in a remote outpost of a federal agency, he published in academic journals, taught graduate-level university courses and gave talks in places as far-flung as Jordan and Sri Lanka. Before long, people were calling from all over, wanting his algorithms for their own problems. Could he look at whether irrigation in Afghanistan’s river basins was returning to normal after years of drought and war? What about worrisome levels of groundwater extraction in America’s Pacific Northwest? Was he free for the National Water Census?

He’d started small. A man he met on a trip to Ethiopia told him that 5,200 people had died of malaria in three months in a single district in the Amhara region. Senay wondered if satellites could help. He requested malaria case data from clinics across Amhara and then compared them with satellite readings of rainfall, land greenness and ground moisture—all factors in where malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed. And there it was, almost like magic: With satellites, he could predict the location, timing and severity of malaria outbreaks up to three months in advance. “For prevention, early warning is very important for us,” Abere Mihretie, who leads an anti-malaria group in Amhara, told me. With $2.8 million from the National Institutes of Health, Senay and Michael Wimberly, an ecologist at South Dakota State University, built a website that gives Amhara officials enough early warning to order bed nets and medicines and to take preventive steps such as draining standing water and counseling villagers. Mihretie expects the system—which will go live this year—to be a lifesaver, reducing malaria cases by 50 to 70 percent.

Senay had his next epiphany on a work trip to Tanzania in 2005. By the side of the road one day, he noticed cattle crowding a badly degraded water hole. It stirred memories of childhood, when he’d watched cows scour riverbeds for trickles of water. The weakest got stuck in the mud, and Senay and his friends would pull them out. “These were the cows we grew up with, who gave us milk,” he says. “You felt sorry.”

Senay geo-tagged the hole in Tanzania, and began reading about violent conflict among nomadic clans over access to water. One reason for the conflicts, he learned, was that nomads were often unaware of other, nearby holes that weren’t as heavily used and perhaps just as full of water.

Back in South Dakota, Senay found he could see, via satellite, the particular Tanzania hole he’d visited. What’s more, it gave off a distinct “spectral signature,” or light pattern, which he could then use to identify other water holes clear across the African Sahel, from Somalia to Mali. With information about topography, rainfall estimates, temperature, wind speed and humidity, Senay was then able to gauge how full each hole was.

Senay and Jay Angerer, a rangeland ecologist at Texas A&M University, soon won a $1 million grant from NASA to launch a monitoring system. Hosted on a U.S. Geological Survey website, it tracks some 230 water holes across Africa’s Sahel, giving each a daily rating of “good,” “watch,” “alert” or “near dry.” To get word to herders, the system relies on people like Sintayehu Alemayehu, of the aid group Mercy Corps. Alemayehu and his staff meet with nomadic clans at village markets to relay a pair of satellite forecasts—one for water-hole levels, another for pasture conditions. But such liaisons may soon go the way of the switchboard operator. Angerer is seeking funding for a mobile app that would draw on a phone’s GPS to lead herders to water. “Sort of like Yelp,” he told me.

Senay was becoming a savant of the data workaround, of the idea that good enough is sometimes better than perfect. Doppler radar, weather balloons, dense grids of electronic rain gauges simply don’t exist in much of the developing world. Like some MacGyver of the outback, Senay was proving an “exceptionally good detective” in finding serviceable replacements for laboratory-grade data, says Andrew Ward, a prominent hydrologist who was Senay’s dissertation adviser at Ohio State. In remote parts of the world, Ward says, even good-enough data can go a long way toward “helping solve big important issues.”

And no issue was more important to Senay than his homeland’s precarious food supply.

Ethiopia’s poverty rate is falling, and a new generation of leaders has built effective programs to feed the hungry in lean years. But other things have been slower to change: 85 percent of Ethiopians work the land as farmers or herders, most at the subsistence level, and less than 1 percent of agricultural land is irrigated. That leaves Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, at the mercy of the region’s notoriously fickle rains. No country receives more global food aid.

Famine appears in Ethiopia’s historical record as early as the ninth century and recurs with an almost tidal regularity. The 1973 famine, which killed tens of thousands, led to the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rise of an insurgent Marxist government known as the Derg. The 1984 famine helped topple the Derg.

Famine often has multiple causes: drought, pestilence, economies overdependent on agriculture, antiquated farming methods, geographic isolation, political repression, war. But there was a growing sense in the latter decades of the 20th century that science could play a role in anticipating—and heading off—its worst iterations. The United Nations started a basic early-warning program in the mid-1970s, but only after the 1980s Ethiopian crisis was a more rigorously scientific program born: USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

Previously, “a lot of our information used to be from Catholic priests in, like, some little mission in the middle of Mali, and they’d say, ‘My people are starving,’ and you’d kind of go, ‘Based on what?’” Gary Eilerts, a veteran FEWS NET official, told me. Missionaries and local charities could glimpse conditions outside their windows, but had little grasp of the broader severity and scope of suffering. Local political leaders had a clearer picture, but weren’t always keen to share it with the West, and when they did, the West didn’t always trust them.

The United States needed hard, objective data, and FEWS NET was tasked with gathering it. To complement their analyses of food prices and economic trends, FEWS NET scientists did use satellites, to estimate rainfall and monitor land greenness. But then they heard about a guy in small-town South Dakota who looked like he was going one better.

Senay knew that one measure of crop health was the amount of water a field gave off: its rate of “evapotranspiration.” When plants are thriving, water in the soil flows up roots and stems into leaves. Plants convert some of the water to oxygen, in photosynthesis. The rest is “transpired,” or vented, through pores called stomata. In other words, when fields are moist and crops are thriving, they sweat.

Satellites might not be able to see the land sweat, but Senay wondered if they could feel it sweat. That’s because when water in soil or plants evaporates, it cools the land. Conversely, when a lush field takes a tumble—whether from drought, pests or neglect—evapotranspiration declines and the land heats. Once soil dries to the point of hardening and cracking, its temperature is as much as 40 degrees hotter than it was as a well-watered field.

NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites carry infrared sensors that log the temperature of every square kilometer of earth every day. Because those sensors have been active for more than a decade, Senay realized that a well-crafted algorithm could flag plots of land that got suddenly hotter than their historical norm. In farming regions, these hotspots could be bellwethers of trouble for the food supply.

Scientists had studied evapotranspiration with satellites before, but their methods were expensive and time-consuming: Highly paid engineers had to manually interpret each snapshot of land. That’s fine if you’re interested in one tract of land at one point in time.

But what if you wanted every stitch of farmland on earth every day? Senay thought he could get there with a few simplifying assumptions. He knew that when a field was perfectly healthy—and thus at peak sweat—land temperature was a near match for air temperature. Senay also knew that a maximally sick field was a fixed number of degrees hotter than a maximally healthy one, after tweaking for terrain type.

So if he could get air temperature for each square kilometer of earth, he’d know the coldest the land there could be at that time. By adding that fixed number, he’d also know the hottest it could be. All he needed now was ­NASA’s actual reading of land temperature, so he could see where it fell within those theoretical extremes. That ratio told you how sweaty a field was—and thus how healthy.

Senay found good air temperature datasets at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of California, Berkeley. By braiding the data from NASA, NOAA and Berkeley, he could get a computer to make rapid, automated diagnoses of crop conditions anywhere in the world. “It’s data integration at the highest level,” he told me one night, in the lobby of our Addis hotel.

The results might be slightly less precise than the manual method, which factors in extra variables. But the upsides—how much of the world you saw, how fast you saw it, how little it cost—wasn’t lost on his bosses. “Some more academically oriented people reach an impasse: ‘Well, I don’t know that, I can’t assume that, therefore I’ll stop,’” says James Verdin, his project leader at USGS, who was with us in the Rift Valley. “Whereas Gabriel recognizes that the need for an answer is so strong that you need to make your best judgment on what to assume and proceed.” FEWS NET had just one other remote test of crop health: satellites that gauge land greenness. The trouble is that stressed crops can stay green for weeks, before shading brown. Their temperature, on the other hand, ticks up almost immediately. And unlike the green test, which helps only once the growing season is underway, Senay’s could read soil moisture at sowing time.

The Simplified Surface Energy Balance model, as it is called, could thus give officials and aid groups several weeks’ more lead time to act before families would go hungry and livestock would begin to die. Scientists at FEWS NET’s Addis office email their analyses to 320 people across Ethiopia, including government officials, aid workers and university professors.

Biratu Yigezu, acting director general of Ethiopia’s Central Statistical Agency, told me that FEWS NET fills key blanks between the country’s annual door-to-door surveys of farmers. “If there’s a failure during planting stage, or if there’s a problem in the flowering stage, the satellites help, because they’re real time.”

One afternoon in the Rift Valley, we pulled the Land Cruisers alongside fields of slouching corn to speak with a farmer. Tegenu Tolla, who was 35, wore threadbare dress pants with holes at the knees and a soccer jersey bearing the logo of the insurance giant AIG. He lives with his wife and three children on whatever they can grow on their two and a half acre plot.

This year was a bust, Tolla told Senay, who chats with farmers in his native Amharic. “The rains were not there.” So Tolla waited until August, when some rain finally came, and sowed a short-maturing corn with miserly yields. “We will not even be able to get our seeds back,” Tolla said. His cattle had died, and to feed his family, Tolla had been traveling to Adama for day work on construction sites.

We turned onto a lumpy dirt road, into a field where many of the teff stalks had grown just one head instead of the usual six. (Teff is the fine grain used to make injera.) Gazing at the dusty, hard-packed soil, Senay had one word: “desertification.”

The climate here was indeed showing signs of long-term change. Rainfall in the south-central Rift Valley has dropped 15 to 20 percent since the mid-1970s, while the population—the number of mouths to feed—has mushroomed. “If these trends persist,” FEWS NET wrote in a 2012 report, they “could leave millions more Ethiopians exposed to hunger and undernourishment.”

Over the next few days we spiraled down from the highlands into harder-hit maize-growing areas and finally into scrublands north of the Kenyan border, a place of banana plantations and roadside baboons and throngs of cattle, which often marooned our vehicles. At times, the road seemed a province less of autos than of animals and their child handlers. Boys drove battalions of cows and sheep, balanced jerrycans of water on their shoulders and stood atop stick-built platforms in sorghum fields, flailing their arms to scare off crop-devouring queleas, a type of small bird.

Almost everywhere we stopped we found grim alignments between the red and orange dots on Senay’s maps and misery on the ground. Senay was gratified, but in the face of so much suffering, he wanted to do more. Farmers knew their own fields so well that he wondered how to make them players in the early warning system. With a mobile app, he thought, farmers could report on the land beneath their feet: instant ground-truthing that could help scientists sharpen their forecasts.

What farmers lacked was the big picture, and that’s what an app could give back: weather predictions, seasonal forecasts, daily crop prices in nearby markets. Senay already had a name: Satellite Integrated Farm Information, or SIFI. With data straight from farmers, experts in agricultural remote sensing, without ever setting foot on soil, would be a step closer to figuring out exactly how much food farmers could coax from the land.

But soil engulfed us now—it was in our boots, beneath our fingernails—and there was nothing to do but face farmers eye to eye.

“Allah, bless this field,” Senay said to a Muslim man, who’d told us of watching helplessly as drought killed off his corn crop.

“Allah will always bless this field,” the man replied. “We need something more.”

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/predict-famine-before-strikes-180954945/#AH5TUUitTQLjlkuI.99

The leaders of both Iowa and the nation celebrated the legend of Norman Borlaug, Iowa’s native son, at a ceremony today intended to honor the man credited with saving a billion people from starvation.

At the unveiling of a statue of Borlaug in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation praised Borlaug for the impression he and his work left on the world, which they said would inspire numerous others to seek the next breakthrough in agriculture.

“As Norman would remind us, ‘our reward for our labors is not what we take from this planet, but what we give back,’” Democratic U.S Rep. Bruce Braley said.

“Really the tribute the legacy of Norman Borlaug will be the thousands and thousands of people trying to replicate what he did, and that is the next breakthrough,” Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Latham said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley issued a similar sentiment.

“As a farmer myself I’ve seen firsthand how Dr. Borlaug’s innovations have transformed agriculture,” Grassley said. “Dr. Borlaug will continue to inspire generations of scientists and frmers to innovate and lift up those mired by poverty.”

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad called Borlaug a “fitting representative for the state of Iowa.”

“He was a son, a brother, a father, a grandfather, and a cousin whose legacy continues to make his family proud and we are glad to honor his family with this celebration,” Branstad said. “Dr. Borlaug was a farmer, a humanitarian, a scientist, and an educator, and his inspiration lives on in the many organizations, like the World Food Prize, that honor those who feed a growing world population.”

Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution”, “agriculture’s greatest spokesperson” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”. He is one of seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal and was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor.

Borlaug received his B.Sc. Biology 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.

During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations. These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

Later in his life, he helped apply these methods of increasing food production to Asia and Africa.

Borlaug continually advocated increasing crop yields as a means to curb deforestation. The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the “Borlaug hypothesis”, namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high-yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction.

Borlaug’s name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution, against which many criticisms have been mounted over the decades by environmentalists and some nutritionalists. Throughout his years of research, Borlaug’s programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects. Borlaug’s work has been criticized for bringing large-scale monoculture, input-intensive farming techniques to countries that had previously relied on subsistence farming. These farming techniques reap large profits for U.S. agribusiness and agrochemical corporations such as Monsanto Company and have been criticized for widening social inequality in the countries owing to uneven food distribution while forcing a capitalist agenda of U.S. corporations onto countries that had undergone land reform.

Other concerns of his critics and critics of biotechnology in general include: that the construction of roads in populated third-world areas could lead to the destruction of wilderness; the crossing of genetic barriers; the inability of crops to fulfill all nutritional requirements; the decreased biodiversity from planting a small number of varieties; the environmental and economic effects of inorganic fertilizer and pesticides; the amount of herbicide sprayed on fields of herbicide-resistant crops.

Borlaug dismissed most claims of critics, but did take certain concerns seriously. He stated that his work has been “a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia”. Of environmental lobbyists he stated, “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things”.

Could a new sugar substitute actually lower blood sugar and help you lose weight? That’s the tantalizing – but distant – promise of new research presented at the American Chemical Society (ACS) this week.

Agavins, derived from the agave plant that’s used to make tequila, were found in mouse studies to trigger insulin production and lower blood sugar, as well as help obese mice lose weight.

Unlike sucrose, glucose, and fructose, agavins aren’t absorbed by the body, so they can’t elevate blood glucose, according to research by Mercedes G. López, a researcher at the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados, Biotechnology and Biochemistry Irapuato, in Guanajuato, Mexico.

And by boosting the level of a peptide called GLP-1 (short for glucagon-like peptide-1), which triggers the body’s production of insulin, agavins aid the body’s natural blood sugar control. Also, because agavins are type of fiber, they can make people feel fuller and reduce appetite, López’s research shows.

“We believe that agavins have a great potential as light sweeteners since they are sugars, highly soluble, have a low glycemic index, and a neutral taste, but most important, they are not metabolized by humans,” read the study abstract. “This puts agavins in a tremendous position for their consumption by obese and diabetic people.”

The caveat: The research was conducted in mice, and more study is necessary before we’ll know whether agavins are effective and safe in humans. In other words, we’re a long way from agavins appearing on grocery store shelves.

That said, with almost 26 millions of Americans living with diabetes and another 2 million diagnosed each year, a sweetener that lowered blood sugar levels rather than raised them would be quite a useful discovery. Not to mention the potential for a sugar substitute with the potential to help people lose weight.

In the study, titled “Agavins as Potential Novel Sweeteners for Obese and Diabetic People”, López added agavins to the water of mice who were fed a standard diet, weighing them and monitoring blood sugar levels every week. The majority of the mice given the agavin-supplemented water had lower blood glucose levels, ate less, and lost weight compared with other mice whose water was supplemented with glucose, sucrose, fructose, agave syrup, and aspartame.

Unlike other types of fructose, Agavins are fructans, which are long-chain fructoses that the body can’t use, so they are not absorbed into the bloodstream to raise blood sugar. And despite the similarity in the name, agavins are not to be confused with agave nectar or agave syrup, natural sweeteners that are increasingly popular sugar substitutes. In these products the fructans are broken down into fructose, which does raise blood sugar – and add calories.

López has been studying fructans for some time, and has published previous studies showing that they have protective prebiotic effects in the digestive tract and contribute to weight loss in obese mice.

A 2012 study by another team of researchers published in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that fructans boosted levels of the beneficial probiotics lactobacillus and bifidus. And like many types of fiber, agavins also lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.

But the news isn’t all good; a 2011 literature review of human studies of the relationship between fructans (not agavins specifically) and blood sugar found that of 13 randomized studies of fructans, only three documented positive results. It remains to be seen whether – as López argues – agavins are distinct from other fructans in their action.

The downside: Agavins are don’t taste as sweet as other forms of sugar such as sucrose, fructose and glucose. And not everyone can tolerate them; like other types of fiber they have the potential to cause digestive problems.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2014/03/17/new-sweetener-from-the-tequila-plant-may-aid-diabetes-weight-loss/

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Green food may mean party time in America, where St. Patrick’s Day has long been an excuse to break out the food dye. But in Ireland, where the Irish celebrate their patron saint on March 17, green food has bitter connotations that recall the nation’s darkest chapter, says historian Christine Kinealy.

The reason, Kinealy explains, is the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which forced so many Irish to flee mass starvation in their homeland in search of better times in America and elsewhere. Those who stayed behind turned to desperate measures.

“People were so deprived of food that they resorted to eating grass,” Kinealy tells The Salt. “In Irish folk memory, they talk about people’s mouths being green as they died.”

At least 1 million Irish died in the span of six years, says Kinealy, the founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Which is why, for an Irishwoman like Kinealy, who hails from Dublin and County Mayo, the sight of green-tinged edibles intended as a joyous nod to Irish history can be jolting, she says.

“Before I came to America, I’d never seen a green bagel,” she says. “For Irish-Americans, they think of dyeing food green, they think everything is happy. But really, in terms of the famine, this is very sad imagery.”

Of course, Americans have long embraced St. Patrick’s Day traditions that might bemuse the folks back in Ireland, where festivities are a lot more subdued, Kinealy notes.

For instance, St. Paddy’s Day Parades? Those originated here in the late 1700s. (George Washington was known to give his Irish soldiers the day off so they could join the celebrations, she says.)

And that quintessential dish of the holiday, corned beef — it may be delicious, but it’s most definitely not Irish.

As Smithsonian.com noted last year, in Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal, kept more for their milk than their meat — which was only consumed once an animal’s milking days were over. In the Irish diet, meat meant pork. It wasn’t until Britain conquered most of Ireland that Irish “corned beef” came into existence — to satisfy the beef-loving English.

“Ironically, the ones producing the corned beef, the Irish people, could not afford beef or corned beef for themselves,” Smithsonian notes.

Funny enough, the Irish didn’t learn to love corned beef until coming to America, where they picked up the taste from their Jewish neighbors in the urban melting pot of New York City.

But these days, even the Irish back in the homeland have come to accept this Irish-American dietary quirk, Kinealy says. As tourist season revs up and Americans head to the Emerald Isle to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, “a lot of pubs in Ireland will offer corned beef because they know the tourists like it. It’s come full circle.”

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/03/17/290259538/the-dark-history-of-green-food-on-st-patricks-day?ft=1&f=1001

Kitna-desk2-jpg_055221

Before he left the Dallas Cowboys to come home again, Jon Kitna had one request of the two principals who run Lincoln High School:

Give me your worst students.

The other teachers told him to stop. This was last February and it was going to be hard enough to teach three algebra classes in the middle of a semester. He was two months gone from an NFL career that went for 16 years, after all. Yes, this was his old high school, the one where he was a star quarterback in the early 1990s, but didn’t the new football coach understand what he was getting into?

Didn’t he see the numbers? Didn’t he know that four of every five of the students were on free or reduced lunches? That finding a meal was more important than understanding negative integers? Inspiring the best students was going to be difficult enough. Save himself, they advised. Start slow. Make it easy.

Kitna shook his head. Easy wasn’t the point. At 6-foot-4 with a buzz cut and a body built for football, he fills the classroom doorways. He would not be intimidated. And how could they understand this was the only job he ever wanted – that his time in the NFL was a daily preparation for this moment? No, coming home was supposed to be as hard.

And so again he told the principals to have the other math teachers select the students they didn’t want – the ones who didn’t listen, who didn’t try, who didn’t care. He would take them all. The principals nodded. Lists were made, class rolls prepared. The new football coach was handed three dream teams of troublemakers. They wished him luck.

Only something happened in those three algebra classes, something no one could have imagined. The students who didn’t listen suddenly did. Those who never did work turned in assignments. And when the results of the math assessments came in, Kitna’s students were second best in the school. It wasn’t because their teacher was an NFL quarterback. Many of them didn’t have televisions at home. They had little idea who Jon Kitna was. No, this was something else. Something bigger. Something one of those two principals, Pat Erwin, considers in his office one recent day and finally calls: “The Kitna effect.”

He doesn’t have to be here, of course. Sixteen years as an NFL quarterback brought him more than $20 million. It gave him big homes and nice cars. It allowed his wife Jennifer and three children to never need again. When he walked away from the Cowboys after the 2011 season, he could have gone to the golf course or the broadcast booth or even one of those sprawling high schools with a giant stadium in a suburb of Dallas if he only wanted to coach.

“I don’t think that’s what my purpose was,” Kitna says. “This is my challenge. This is what I was meant to do.”

He is sitting at a teacher’s desk in the front of a classroom not long before his Algebra I class. Everything has changed in 20 years. Things seem worse now. There are so many more drugs. The poverty shocks him.

Yet people he knows from the old days say the school was more violent when he was a student. Gangs roamed the halls. He remembers the gangs but many of those kids were also his friends and they shielded him from what they were doing. Perhaps his memories are sanitized. Maybe because he was surrounded by wealth for so long the hardship here is all the more unsettling.

He sat with his team in a pregame study hall one fall day and told the players to close their books. Something was missing. What was it? He could sense they wanted to learn. He could see them working in school. They tried hard at football practice. And yet simple homework assignments went unfinished. Grades that had improved then mysteriously dropped. For every step forward there was a stumble.

“What is the disconnect?” he asked.

For several moments no one said anything. Then slowly the stories spilled out. Terrible stories. Heartbreaking stories. The players told of homes without parents. They said nobody in the house asked to see their homework. They talked of barely existing at all. They said the only place anyone seemed to care was at school. And they told him that even then he was the only one to whom they could relate.

“It was eye-opening,” Kitna says. “It was tearful to hear kids say: ‘My parents when I am doing my homework tell me to stop doing my homework and go sell drugs.’ Or to hear a kid say: ‘I don’t ever eat because I want my mom to eat and only one of us can eat.’ ”

For a moment Kitna is silent.

Then he stops and looks up wistfully.

“All that being said, I’m on a gold mine,” he continues. “This place is a freaking gold mine because these kids are super, uber-talented. Not just athletically. You’ve got kids who can sing and blow the pipes off of things. You see kids who can do acting and drama-type stuff and arts that are just amazing.

“People [in the NFL] said I got credited for being a great leader, they [said] ‘even as a backup people are drawn to you.’ And they’d say ‘why?’ Because I went here. It’s because I went here. I’m thoroughly convinced of that because if you go here you don’t just get to be one kind of person, you have to be able to adapt and intermix yourself into all different kinds of cultures and situations.”

A buzzer sounds. Time for class. The room begins to fill. The kids are laughing. A few say “hello.” One asks what they are going to work on that day. Kitna watches them and smiles. “I’m on a gold mine here,” he says again.

It takes a village to change a culture, and Kitna has filled his coaching staff with friends and associates he has known over the years. This includes former Oregon State player Casey Kjos, a cousin who he raised as a son, and Eric Boles, his teammate at Central Washington University who played briefly in the NFL. Jennifer and his brother’s wife take care of details like making meals for the team during training camp because they figure the players will otherwise not eat. Since the school had little money for things like uniforms and equipment they took over the booster club and website, and set up a 501(c)(3) and began soliciting donations.

To show his seriousness, Kitna spent $150,000 to fill the weight room with equipment as nice as that in any NFL practice facility. He had the walls painted and named it after his old Lincoln teammate and longtime NFL safety Lawyer Milloy. Soon others followed. Carson Palmer, a teammate in Cincinnati, bought two industrial washers for uniforms. Current Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo provided the money for new jerseys. Calvin Johnson, his old receiver in Detroit paid for new equipment as did Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Since the kids didn’t have their own spikes for practice, the Cowboys boxed up dozens of cleats. When Nike took over the NFL uniform contract in the spring, the Seahawks sold their now useless game pants to Lincoln at $1 a pair so the team could have practice uniforms.

Several times, Erwin, the co-principal, has walked into the school on Saturday mornings and found Kitna washing uniforms.

“I think what he is trying to do is see what can happen to kids in a high-poverty area when you put them in a world-class setting,” Erwin says.

But inspiring kids who come from nothing is not as easy as wearing Marshawn Lynch’s pants and Dez Bryant’s old cleats. For every moment of joy comes a day that makes no sense.

Not long after he arrived, Kitna took the football team to Seattle for a series of 7-on-7 drills at the University of Washington. When he sent notes to the parents, only three called to ask about the trip.

Then when the bus returned to Lincoln at 11:30 p.m., Kitna was stunned to discover not one parent or relative had come to meet them. He and the coaches split the players up and drove them home. It was 12:15 a.m. when Kitna dropped off the last of the players in his car. And as the door shut and the player waved good bye, Kitna wept.

“I could never fathom that my son would leave for school at 6:30 a.m. with no money for food and some coach I never met or know is going to take him to the University of Washington for 7-on-7 drills and I don’t even know what that means and then not have any transportation when he gets back,” he says. “That’s when it hit me how hard this was going to be.”

And yet he keeps pushing because this is all he knows to do, walking through the halls with a computer bag over his shoulder, nodding to kids, calling them: “Dude.”

“Jon does everything he has with his whole heart,” says Boles, who is one of his assistants. “I told him: ‘You are responsible to the kids but you are not responsible for them. You can’t control it, Jon.’ But his belief is: If they can make one decision a week or one decision a day that is better than the day before then you are making an impact.”

Or as the other co-principal, Greg Eisnaugle, says as he stands in the hall one day: “He just exudes positivism. He makes the kids feel they are worthy.

Then Eisnaugle pauses.

“Have you met Rayshaun Miller?” he asks.

On the dream team of troublemakers, Rayshaun Miller was a lottery pick. He rolled through his first year and a half at Lincoln tormenting teachers so much that many threw their hands up in frustration. The tales of his arrogance and disrespect filled the main office. Once Erwin found him in the hallway boasting of his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash and how he would tear through opponents on the football field.

“How will we know, Rayshaun?” Erwin said. “You can’t stay eligible.”

But there is also something compelling about Miller. He is bright. While most teenagers find it difficult to connect with adults, he makes eye contact. His handshake is firm. He likes to talk. This is the student Kitna met when he arrived last February, not the one who drove the teachers mad. At the time Miller was failing pretty much everything. Kitna said he would pick him up at his house at 6:30 every morning and drive him to school where they would work on algebra before the students arrived. Later in the day, he was in Kitna’s class, which gave him more than two hours of math daily with the new coach.

His grades soared. The kid who was failing got A’s and B’s. The kid who mocked his teachers waved good morning. When other students fought, he broke them apart. Soon word came to the office of a new, different Rayshaun Miller. And everyone wondered just what had happened.

Miller stands in the weight room after school one day and says: “I got my act together.”

He was born in Sacramento, Calif., and was sent to live with his father in Tacoma when he was 6 to escape the violence of his old neighborhood. He hasn’t seen his mother or brother since. He says he carried the anger over this for a long time. It was Kitna, he says, who told him he couldn’t use his background as a reason for giving up.

“He taught me there is no excuse for not trying,” Miller says.

Then Miller starts to talk about his old self, the one who tried to fail. He tells a story of a time he mocked a student for getting an A in a class. He remembers calling the student “stupid.”

Now, in the weight room, Miller laughs.

“Can you believe that?” he says. “I called someone ‘stupid’ for getting an A.”

Football was a miracle for Kitna. Even he never imagined he’d be in the NFL. It took years to become the starting quarterback at Lincoln. Nobody was waiting with a scholarship when he graduated. His parents helped him pull the money together to go to Central Washington, an NAIA school halfway across the state, where he found himself at the bottom of a long list of quarterbacks. Eventually he became the starter. His senior year, Central won the NAIA national championship, which got him mild acclaim in Washington but did nothing to further his career.

Assuming he was done with football, Kitna finished his teaching degree and began pursuing the dream he and Jennifer talked so much about: teaching and coaching. Lincoln was actually looking for a head football coach. He applied but was turned down.

Then a few days later Dennis Erickson showed up on Central’s campus.

The Seahawks coach at the time was there to give a tryout to his nephew, Jamie Christian, who was one of Central’s receivers. The tryout was a family favor, yet what amazed Erickson was the quarterback whose throws looked like rockets zooming into Christian’s hands. The Seahawks offered Kitna a contract and a spot in their 1996 training camp. He made the practice squad and after the season was placed on the roster of the Barcelona Dragons of the World League. Barcelona won the league title on home turf. Kitna was MVP of the championship game and left the field to chants of “Keeetna! Keeetna! Keeetna!” He was anonymous no more.

He made Seattle’s roster in 1997 and became the team’s starting quarterback in 1998. In 2001 he went to Cincinnati, then to Detroit in 2006 where he threw for 4,000 yards two consecutive seasons, eventually landing in Dallas in 2009.

Yet while this became his football narrative, it was never the story he wanted to tell. Rather the one he repeats, offering to anyone who will listen, is more complicated. It starts with a young college student from Tacoma who understood little about who he was. He went to parties. He drank until he was drunk. He stole. Boles, who speaks to companies about their image, once told a group from 7-Eleven: “You guys can invoice Jon Kitna because he stole so much from you.”
Boles was going through a religious awakening at this time. And he talked to Kitna a lot about what he learned. One night Jennifer, who was Kitna’s girlfriend at the time, came home to find him in bed with another woman. In the midst of the ensuing argument, Boles’ words suddenly made sense. And what came from that night was a different Kitna. The drinking stopped along with the stealing and the partying. His expressions of faith were overt, manifesting itself in T-shirts with slogans like “God Athletic Department” or caps with crosses. His bookshelf filled with spiritual texts.

His purpose became clear. He would teach. He would go back into the cities, to the worst of neighborhoods and he would make children better. He would tell them about choices and respect and responsibility. He was going to change lives.

With Lincoln being a public school, faith is not a part of the lesson plan. Kitna understands this and seems to respect it. After all, he is teaching in a district where students come from all over the world and from a variety of religions. And don’t the lessons he is trying to teach apply to everyone regardless of belief?

“Character is an every day, all the time thing,” Kitna says. “It’s who you really are. It’s not what you turn on and off when you’re around a coach or at home with your parents.”

He has a philosophy that he took from a team chaplain in Detroit. He calls it “the four pillars of manhood,” with each represented by a letter that forms the acronym: “R.E.A.L.” as in: A R.E.A.L. man…

Rejects passivity
Empathizes with others
Accepts responsibility
Leads courageously

And while R.E.A.L. is gender specific and targeted first toward the Lincoln football players, Kitna believes it to be a message that can be embraced by all the students. Who doesn’t need to be reminded to show empathy or courage or take responsibility for mistakes? Virtues are virtues, whether they are taught by a preacher or a math teacher or a football coach.

“Win with grace, lose with dignity,” Kitna says.

He sighs when he hears the complaints about NFL players celebrating touchdowns and sacks – mocking the failures of the opponent on that particular play. If people want to change this, he says, the time to do so isn’t when the players are in the NFL. It’s too late then. You have to reach them when they are teenagers.

And the lessons are harsh. One day this fall Kitna was told of a football player who watched another student draw a derogatory picture of a classmate. The football player had nothing to do with the drawing but he laughed. Kitna had a meeting with the player, the teacher and the student who was the target of the drawing.

“Well you didn’t do anything to help the situation,” Kitna told the player. “You didn’t reject passivity.”

Then he suspended the player for two series in the upcoming game.

Later that week, a group of football players surrounded a group of girl volleyball players from a different school who had come to Lincoln for a match. Two of the players danced suggestively in front of the girls. When Kitna found out about it the next day, he gathered the team together.

“Who was there?” he asked.

Two players raised their hands.

“Who else was there?” he demanded.

Eventually five more players stood before him with hands raised. “You who did it, you are out a half,” Kitna said. “And you who didn’t do anything about it, you are out for two series.”

Months later, now, Kitna shakes his head. Lincoln lost its starting quarterback, a starting defensive lineman, starting center, a starting receiver and a starting linebacker for parts of that next game. The other team returned a punt for a touchdown, perhaps in part because special teams practice was canceled for the meeting about the volleyball incident. The replacement quarterback had a pass intercepted for a touchdown and Lincoln lost. It was a critical defeat in a 5-5 season.

“They got to feel the impact of losing a football game because of the decisions we make,” he says. “But the greater things was [that] the freshmen got to see it. ‘Coach doesn’t play, he really means this.’ ”

In the classroom a projection device turns on, the lights go dim and Kitna stands before his Algebra 1 class with a problem to solve. Behind him, on a screen, is a drawing of a yellow cab with the following question:

“A taxicab company charges a flat fee of $1.85 plus an additional .40 cents per quarter mile. A: Write a formula to find the total cost for cab fare. B: Use this formula to find the cost for one person to travel eight miles.”

The students unpack their bags, pull pencils from holders and take school-owned calculators from felt caddies that hang on the wall but already something is wrong. Kitna can sense it. Then it hits him: Almost none of them have been inside a taxicab. They are staring at him because they don’t understand the question.

Before the first X or fraction or set of parentheses can be scribbled on paper, Kitna must explain taxicabs. He shrugs. Teaching is making him a very patient man. Carefully, he explains the concept of a taxi meter.

He had to give up two of the algebra classes this fall because the demands of building the football program became too much. He replaced them with weight training which gives him more time with the football players. He thinks it’s important that they see him as much as possible.

But there is also a part of him that loves this class. And there are so many stories, like the one of the girl who barely spoke for the first few weeks who is now one of the best students. He can see the recognition. He can feel learning. This makes him happy. For, yes, he is sitting on a gold mine.

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nfl–former-nfl-qb-jon-kitna-finds-%E2%80%98gold-mine%E2%80%99-at-a-school-where-other-teachers-only-saw-problems-194739063.html;_ylt=Ar6kvx3k_zQSjPSgERE96qY5nYcB;_ylu=X3oDMTRqMWdwbDRoBG1pdANMSVNUUyBNaXhlZCBMaXN0IEZQIEV4cGVydHMEcGtnAzIxOTE5NTcxLWE1YjgtM2ExMS04OGY2LTIzNWRmY2ZkMWM0YQRwb3MDMwRzZWMDTWVkaWFCTGlzdE1peGVkTFBDQVRlbXAEdmVyAzAwNDljNzIzLTRhYjQtMTFlMi1hZmJkLTNmOTY0NmQ5Y2ZmNw–;_ylg=X3oDMTFpNzk0NjhtBGludGwDdXMEbGFuZwNlbi11cwRwc3RhaWQDBHBzdGNhdANob21lBHB0A3NlY3Rpb25z;_ylv=3

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

phosphorus

 

Investor Jeremy Grantham of GMO recently published a startlingly depressing outlook for the future of humanity. 

Grantham thinks the number of people on Earth has finally and permanently outstripped the planet’s ability to support us.

Grantham believes that the planet can only sustainably support about 1.5 billion humans, versus the 7 billion on Earth right now (heading to 10-12 billion).

Basically, Grantham thinks most of us are going to starve to death.

Why?

In part because we’re churning through a finite supply of something that is critical to our ability to produce food: Phosphorus.

Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and there is a finite supply of it. The consensus is that we will hit “peak phosphorus” production within a few decades, after which point our phosphorus supply will inexorably decline. As it declines, we will be unable to feed ourselves. And you know the rest.

Of course, ever since Malthus, a steady stream of doomsayers have predicted a ghastly end to the human population explosion–and, so far, they’ve all been wrong.

So why is a man of Grantham’s intelligence adding his voice to this chorus?

And how real is this threat? Are we all going to starve?

Humans have been around for a while. But for most of our existence, our population was small and stable. Then it exploded.

Most of this explosion has come in the past 200 years–just as Malthus predicted. What Malthus did not foresee was the discovery of oil, commercial fertilizer, and other resources, which have (temporarily) supported this population explosion.

Most of this explosion has come in the past 200 years--just as Malthus predicted. What Malthus did not foresee was the discovery of oil, commercial fertilizer, and other resources, which have (temporarily) supported this population explosion.

GMO

For the past 100 years, technology has made these resources cheaper to extract and produce, which has made them ever cheaper. Grantham thinks that trend has now permanently ended.

For the past 100 years, technology has made these resources cheaper to extract and produce, which has made them ever cheaper. Grantham thinks that trend has now permanently ended.

GMO

Take oil, for example. Oil traded at about $16 a barrel for a century. Then, as demand outstripped supply, the “normal” price increased to ~$35 a barrel. Now, Grantham thinks “normal” is about ~$75 a barrel

Take oil, for example. Oil traded at about $16 a barrel for a century. Then, as demand outstripped supply, the "normal" price increased to ~$35 a barrel. Now, Grantham thinks "normal" is about ~$75 a barrel

GMO

Why are oil prices rising? Because oil demand is now growing far faster than oil supply. The world’s oil production has barely increased since the 1970s, while oil usage has exploded.

Why are oil prices rising? Because oil demand is now growing far faster than oil supply. The world's oil production has barely increased since the 1970s, while oil usage has exploded.

GMO

Demand is exceeding supply for other commodities, too. Like metals. Here’s a hundred-year look at the prices of Iron ore.

Demand is exceeding supply for other commodities, too. Like metals. Here's a hundred-year look at the prices of Iron ore.

GMO

But the real problem is food.

Over the past century, the world has produced ever more food from the same (relatively) finite supply of arable land. For example, this chart shows global wheat production in the past 50 years. The blue line is farmland. The yellow line is total wheat production. The pink line is “yield per hectare.” Production is rising because yield is increasing.

Why are crop yields increasing? Fertilizer.

Why are crop yields increasing? Fertilizer.

chuckoutrearseats via Flickr

In the past half-century, we have used an ever-increasing amount of fertilizer. Not just in total, but per acre. This chart, for example, shows the number of tons of fertilizer used per square kilometer of farmland.

In the past half-century, we have used an ever-increasing amount of fertilizer. Not just in total, but per acre. This chart, for example, shows the number of tons of fertilizer used per square kilometer of farmland.

GMO

And this leads us to the first problem. 40 years ago, the average growth rate of crop yields per acre was an impressive 3.5% per year. This was comfortably ahead of the growth rate of global population. In recent years, however, the growth in crop yields per acre has dropped to about 1.5%. That’s dangerously close to the growth of population.

And this leads us to the first problem. 40 years ago, the average growth rate of crop yields per acre was an impressive 3.5% per year. This was comfortably ahead of the growth rate of global population. In recent years, however, the growth in crop yields per acre has dropped to about 1.5%. That's dangerously close to the growth of population.

GMO

That brings us to the second problem. We don’t have an infinite supply of fertilizer.

For most of human history, we used “natural fertilizer” (poop). But then we started making more powerful stuff.

Commercial fertilizer requires, among other ingredients, potassium and phosphorus. There are finite quantities of both. Phosphorus, especially, is in short supply.

Phosphorus (P) is essential for life. Plants absorb it from fertilized soil, and then animals absorb it when they eat plants (and each other). When the plants and animals excrete waste or die, the phosphorus returns to the environment. Eventually, given enough time, it gets compressed into rock at the bottom of the ocean.

Phosphate is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and there is no substitute for it (because plants are partially made from it). This photo shows the difference between corn fertilized with phosphorus (background) and corn without.

Most of the phosphate we use in commercial fertilizer comes from phosphate rock, which was once sediment at the bottom of the ocean. This mine is located in Togo.

In the past ~120 years, we have become completely dependent on phosphate rock for phosphorus used in commercial fertilizer. Before that, our phosphate came from manure.

As the human population grows, and emerging markets get richer and need more food and animal feed, we’re consuming more and more phosphorus (red line).

The amount of phosphate rock we use, therefore, continues to climb.

The trouble is that there isn’t an infinite amount of phosphate rock. Estimates differ on the amount of reserves available in the world, but they’re not unlimited. Some scientists think we have enough to last hundreds of years. Others, however, are far less optimistic.

The consensus of many scientists is that we will hit “peak phosphorus” production in about 2030. After that, phosphorus production is expected to decline.

As phosphorus production drops, crop yields will drop. And then, the concern is, we won’t be able to grow enough food to feed ourselves.

As phosphorus production drops, crop yields will drop. And then, the concern is, we won't be able to grow enough food to feed ourselves.

So is that it? Are we screwed?

Not necessarily. It turns out that our urine and feces contain a lot of phosphorus–which is why they make good fertilizer. If we got serious about recycling our bio-waste, we could reduce our need for phosphate rock.

But although conservation and recycling will help, they won’t fix the problem. Because a huge amount of phosphorus will still be lost to runoff. Phosphate that isn’t consumed by plants leaches out of the soil into rivers and then to the ocean.

So, eventually, the finite supply of usable phosphorus could be a big problem.

Jeremy Grantham, by the way, thinks the finite supply of fertilizer and limits of crop yields are starting to affect food prices. Soybean prices, for example, have jumped in the last 10 years.

So have corn prices.

And wheat prices.

So, why is all this happening now, when the global population has been exploding for two centuries? The answer, in part, is the spectacular growth of China, India, and other massive countries. The resource-usage of these countries is mind-boggling. Here, for example, are Grantham’s estimates of the percentage of world consumption of various resources that are consumed by China alone.

So, why is all this happening now, when the global population has been exploding for two centuries? The answer, in part, is the spectacular growth of China, India, and other massive countries. The resource-usage of these countries is mind-boggling. Here, for example, are Grantham's estimates of the percentage of world consumption of various resources that are consumed by China alone.

GMO

Common sense will tell you that finite resources can’t support infinite growth. And another look at the “growth curve” of human population shows why it might be silly to dismiss Malthus, et al, as “obviously wrong.” (Maybe they were just early).

Common sense will tell you that finite resources can't support infinite growth. And another look at the "growth curve" of human population shows why it might be silly to dismiss Malthus, et al, as "obviously wrong." (Maybe they were just early).

Human population.

Wikipedia

But here’s hoping science and ingenuity help us find a way to fix the problem.

But here's hoping science and ingenuity help us find a way to fix the problem.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/peak-phosphorus-and-food-production-2012-12?op=1#ixzz2E7yHKqnu

 
Thanks to SRW for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Mitsuyuki Ikeda, a researcher from the Environmental Assessment Center in Okayama has developed a new artificial meat burger made of human feces.

Ikeda has gathered sewage mud (which contains human feces) and has developed the artificial meat by adding fecal extracts, soy protein and steak sauce essence. Artificial food coloring to added to it to give it the same look as red meat. It is composed of 63 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrates, 3 percent lipids and 9 percent minerals.

Protein is extracted from the sewage mud first. After the protein is extracted, “reaction enhancer” is added to it and it is then put in a machine called the “exploder” which produces the artificial meat. During the entire process, the bacteria in the sewage mud is rendered harmless as it is killed by heating.

The scientist is hoping that the new type of meat will one day replace real meat, which is more expensive to produce. He claims that the new feces burger is actually healthier than real meat (fecal meat has less fat and hence less calories) and is more environment-friendly (cows supposedly contribute around 18 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions).

Currently, fecal meat costs 10-20 times more than normal meat because of the cost of research, but ultimately Ikeda plans to bring the price down so that people can switch to feacl meat one day.

Ikeda did not say whether his “poop meat” is as tasty as real meat and he has acknowledged that few people would be keen to eat it.

http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/164958/20110617/japanese-scientist-makes-poop-burger-mitsuyuki-ikeda.htm