Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Club: Fair Coin

The book club is not dead, long live the book club! After a loooong hiatus, John, Hillary and I decided on a new book to review together: Fair Coin by E.C. Myers. 
We originally decided on it after reading this article that promised that the book would be "pure awesome crack" - which seemed to be a pretty good description of a book to go after. 
I have to say that I vacillated between liking it a lot and being rather disappointed by it throughout the reading experience; disappointed not because it was bad, but because it could have been so much more. 
It started out in a clever guise of a young adult magic novel where a troubled teen finds a coin that grants wishes when flipped and starts making changes to his life that (SHOCKINGLY) take unexpected and undesired turns, in a classical "be careful what you wish for" morality-infused story line. This is where I got most annoyed with the protagonist Ephraim: it just seemed so shallow and similar to what I read when I was twelve that I was a little upset with the io9 author which suggested it could be seen as Sci-Fi adult literature as well. 
Hillary does a wonderful job in laying out a female perspective on why Ephraim is unrelatable as a character which I also agree with fully (hint: it has to do with his treatment of women, particularly the girl he likes...) This interpretation also head-on collides with the io9 author's perspective that "a lot of books, dealing with the premise of a young guy who gets an insanely powerful artifact, would try to spin out the plot by having the main character be kind of a selfish jerk, who gets corrupted by all that power and makes things worse and worse until he finally repents. ... Myers, very wisely, avoids that pitfall and makes Ephraim both smarter and more likable than that storyline would allow." I disagree; Ephraim seems aware that his wishes are wrong for the most part, and tries to correct them relatively early in the game, but the fact that he is a thoughtful outsider and not the football-playing jerk makes it even harder to sympathize in a way. This first part, I kept half-identifying but then being thoroughly taken aback by his decisions, always thinking "you know better than that!" 
HOWEVER (spoilers after the jump; suffice it to say that there is a lot more to the story than that and if you like your elements of surprise you will only find out about it when you read it ;)...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

And one becomes two...

Hey friends, 
soo developments, developments happening! After trying out the food policy blogging a little here and deciding that I like it, I made the further decision to migrate those thoughts to a separate forum so people with separate interests can choose what to read: here more personal stories about travels (more Eastern European adventures coming up!), books, experiences (Carnival in Bonn is happening right now and I am due a blog post on that too), and just general inspiration; and things related to my field of studies and interested tidbits about our food system in general over at Food (Policy) For Thought. Please head on over, give the new baby blog a look and follow it as well if it tickles your fancy, but rest assured that I won't vanish from here either - I just updated the template, after all! =P 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Other Inconvenient Truth

Ah man. From now on, anytime anybody asks why I am studying what I am studying, I'll just refer them to Jonathan Foley, who gave a riveting TED talk in 2010 about what he calls "The Other Inconvenient Truth".

Some of his major arguments why agriculture is one of the main challenges of the future: 
  • Already today, 40% of the Earth's surface area is devoted to agriculture. 
  • Of this amount, 16 Mio. square km are used for crops - about the size of South America. 
  • Also, 30 Mio. square km are used for livestock pasture - around the size of Africa. 
  • We are already using 50% of all fresh water reserves - and 70% of that is used for agriculture. 
  • Agriculture is also responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, the greatest overall contributor of all industries. 
  • We need to double agricultural production in the next 40 years to keep up with current consumption levels and population growth - but how are we going to do that without destroying vital ecosystems and depleting top soil, water and nutrient reserves that future generations depend on? 
Riley calls for a new form of agriculture, what he calls "Terraculture" - agriculture for the entire Earth, which combines expertise and knowledge of conventional farmers, environmentalists, organic farmers, animal welfare experts and the like to find ways for a new way forward in collaboration. For more on Riley's views on the perceived efficiency of particularly American agriculture, check out this blog post on Chewswise. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Seed Banks– Deposits for our Future

No, seeds banks are not mainly located in Switzerland, and they were also not involved in the recent financial crisis. Instead, they are an insurance against the loss of agricultural biodiversity – a vital step when we consider the developments in the industrialization of agriculture in the last 100 years. The FAO estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity was lost between 1900 and 2000 – through globalization, the scaling up of retail and specialization in consumer preferences, the introduction and widespread adoption of new varieties that edged out local crops, and other factors. In addition, climatic changes could lead to a loss of up to 22% of the wild varieties of important staple crops such as peanuts, potatoes and beans until 2055. While precise figures are impossible to collect, it is estimated that there were as many as 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago in India, whereas now there only exist a few thousand; in the US, apple varieties decreased from around 5,000 to a couple of hundred.

Why is crop biodiversity important? Well, with each variety, you lose genetic material that has been adapted to the particular local circumstances, and could be vital in the future to adapt crops to more resistance to heat, drought, salinity, pest and diseases – on the flipside, if only one particular variety is planted over an extended region, a single pest or disease can have enormous consequences on the yield and lead to shortages and, in the worst case, famine.

This is why since the 1970s there has been a race to document and preserve crop varieties while they are still used, in particular through the establishment of seed banks. According to the FAO, in 2010 there were 1,750 seed banks worldwide, and around 130 of them hold more than 10,000 accessions. The crown jewel, of course, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was opened in Norway in 2008.

The Vault is located on a Norwegian island near the town of Longyearbyen, one of the most northern habitats in the world. It is constantly maintained at a temperature of –18 degrees Celsius, and due to its location – 160 metres into the permafrost – would probably take two centuries to warm to freezing point in a case of power outage. Plus, its tunnel head has a concave design in order to deflect a missile  strike. It’s supposed to act as a global backup for national and local seed banks, and with good reason – the seed banks of the Philippines, Iraq and Afghanistan have already been destroyed through accidents and/or conflict. The Economist has a fascinating piece on Svalbard if you are interested in more details.

However, part of the preservation of crop diversity is also its constant use and development, for which local initiatives are just as important – as for example the seed library in Basalt, Western Colorado, where a local public library distributes not only books, CDs and DVDs, but also packets of seeds which you return at the end of the harvesting season with the seeds of your own biggest and best fruits and vegetables. According to the American Library Association, there are around a dozen such programs in the US, and they have also spread to the United Kingdom.


Still, the maintenance of our crop diversity will remain a struggle, which in my opinion can only be addressed through the collaboration of individuals, governments and the global community and through the diversification of our food production systems.

For more information, the FAO launched a report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2010 – here is the executive summary.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Let's Talk About Bees

Until recently, when I thought about bees, I would think honey. Or spring meadows. Or I would't think about bees at all. However, this changed when I watched the excellent documentary "More Than Honey" by Markus Imhoof, a Swiss movie director. The movie in equal parts explains the fascinating  social interactions in a beehive, stresses how vital they are to our food system as pollinators, and shows how our relationship to bees has changed. It was truly eyeopening to realize that in industrial fruit, nut and vegetable production (here is a list of all the crops bees pollinate), you also need an industrial scale of beekeeping - or at least, people think it's necessary. It's a part of the food production process you forget only too easily. "More Than Honey" also investigates some of the causes of the recent mysterious deaths of entire bee colonies - which seem to be linked to habitat destruction, the intense stress of being treated as yet another agricultural input with no regard to their social organization, and the widespread use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids. And it gives an ominous look into a possible future without bees in China and answers the question - who would pollinate our food crops otherwise? The movie is extremely well executed, with beautiful images, harrowing comparisons (think Swiss mountain beekeeper and Californian commercial bee-sinessman) and very limited subjective narration - it lets the people and images speak for themselves, which I liked a lot. Watch the trailer below or check out the movie's website for a preview!

Germany and France already banned some pesticides in the neonicotinoid family and recently, the EU Commission decided to recommend banning three poisons as well after more than 2 million people signed a petition in under 36 hours to take action. However, the final vote is still upcoming. 

For more information about the fascinating anatomy and life of bees, Stuff You Should Know just did a podcast on them based on this article