Mindfulness, finance theory and food security

This week we had quite an active debate on the discussion boards for both the food security lesson by Dr. Sarah Gurr and the weekly feedback video. Professor Tim Lenton answered some of the same questions we tackled on his blog to add another perspective to the debate and suggested I give these three questions a try since I am a Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture student.

How would you incentivise a move away from high meat consumption towards a more sustainable vegetarian diet?

I would encourage schools to teach new generations about where food comes from, all of it, including meat. Chicken nuggets do not grow on trees and this education is the foundation for being mindful about where food comes from. The meat industry thrives on creating a gap between product and process, on detaching the consumer from what it really took to deliver those sausages and fish fingers because often, consumers are repelled by the reality behind mass produced meat.

Through mindfulness that gap can be closed and it can steer consumers away from fast food meat and increase demand for animal protein produced under improved standards. A culture of quality over quantity where meat is eaten sparingly because consumers understand the real costs of animal protein and rely mainly on plant based proteins.

Whenever you sit down to eat, ask yourself where your food comes from and what is the full story behind your plate. If after being mindful you have positive feelings towards your meal, then please by all means dig in and enjoy. Otherwise, consider exploring plant based protein options. Featured in the picture is Connie Vergara Williams who was kind enough to let me step into her farm and explore sustainable farming practices at her organic farm Finca Cuatro Vientos in Sopó, Colombia (September 2014).

How can we go about moving away from monocultures and the risks associated with pathogens wiping out entire crops?

As an industrial engineer whenever I read the word ‘risk’, the following graph comes to mind:

Finance theory 101 – risk vs. return or in this case, risk vs. yield.

The Green Revolution is the upper right end of the graph, a high risk, high return approach where we chose to concentrate our efforts on high yielding monocultures:

High risk, high yield. The U.S and their seemingly endless Midwestern corn fields.

The lower left part of the graph is low risk, low return, polycultures where lots of plants are grown but the total yield is low:

Low risk, low yield. This lovely family farm in Colombia grows different plants in the same bed. It’s not commercially oriented but the yields are enough so that the family that lives here gets to eat fresh vegetables every day. Special thanks to Connie Vergara Williams, featured in the picture, for allowing me to learn firsthand about the sustainable farming practices she employs at Finca Cuatro Vientos in Sopó, Colombia (September 2014).

Most of the world lives in densely populated cities and this rural-to-urban trend is projected to increase so family farms and even urban agriculture are not enough to meet the nutrient requirements of our future population. However, these farming practices do play an important role in our future food security as part of a  bigger diversification strategy. What do I mean with diversification? Keep reading.

Is there a place for GM crops in the future?

How then do we reduce risk and keep monocultures? Diversification.

We are in the left top corner: little variety, high risk. If we want to reduce risk, we need to move towards the right part of the curve. GM is a tool to reintroduce genetic variability in our monocultures and reduce the total risk of our global food supply.

By increasing the amount of varieties we grow, we can reduce risk. I left this question for the end because it builds from the previous answer. Assuming that GM crops are safe for human consumption based on the lack of evidence suggesting that genetically modified crops have adverse effects on human health, GM is a tool to reintroduce the variability that will help us diversify our food supply and reduce risk.

I had lots of fun writing this post and I hope you had fun reading it too. See you next week to talk about mitigation and adaptation.


Not a definite answer

I don’t know what it is about staring out the window of a train, bus or plane that gets you thinking. The scenery becomes hypnotic and after a few minutes you start itching for a pen and something to write on because you’ve come up with worthwhile ideas – or at least that’s what it feels like.

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Climate over time

I convinced my not-so-humble friend, Julien, to sign up for the MOOC and last week he kept saying, “who actually takes this course? I learned all of this in high school!” Well, I ran into him on Monday morning and he confessed that he had attempted the quiz without going through the material and to no one’s surprise he didn’t do so well.

“Things got challenging!” he said. You don’t say.

But that’s what’s exciting about this week. How can two ten-minute videos condense so many theories and tools scientists use to develop an evidence-based timeline of the Earth’s past climate? My learning process for this week was definitely not linear so stay with me and we’ll try to untangle a couple of important questions together.

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How healthy is your ocean?

The category Cool Initiatives is a space where I like to briefly summarise and highlight projects and programmes in agriculture that work towards increasing food security and that I find cool. It’s important to say, cool for me means many things. From implementation of important theories, such as participative action research, to the use of novel tools to support old traditions, cool can mean different things but in each post I make sure I highlight why is the theme in question: “cool”.

In this week’s feedback video I asked professor Tim Lenton if ocean acidification was uneven since warmer oceans absorb less carbon dioxide than cooler oceans. I asked that because I’m from Colombia, a country very close to the equator with warm coasts on the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean and I was wondering how vulnerable is Colombian marine life.

Well, I found something very interesting! It’s called the Ocean Health Index and what I plan to do in this post is describe what it is in the most straightforward way possible and then discuss the score for Colombia.

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A very unscientific explanation of how shells are formed

Ever since I’ve started working for this MOOC, I can’t help but see it everywhere. Walking around the Tate Britain this past weekend I came across these six shelfs of shells – carbon cycle anyone?

In between some funny letters and a video of a man without pants, Damien Hirst – Forms Without Life (1991) at the Tate Britain. Last week’s reflection finished with this question: How do certain organisms form shells by grabbing carbon from the ocean and layering it onto their backs?
This curiosity comes from previous weeks when it was mentioned that certain organisms make skeletons and shells that they use during their lives and when they die *sad face*, these structures sink to the deep ocean floor and with time and pressure become part of what today we buurrrrrn relentlessly: fossil fuels.
Well, the process by which organisms form minerals is called biomineralization. If you are familiar with the specialised language of this discipline, then go ahead and read this paper and skip to the last bit of this post (Questions for upcoming weeks and other stuff),  if you’re not and you want to get a brief overview, here is my digest about how this magical (biochemical) process works.
There are two types of biomineralization processes:
• Biologically induced: comes from the interaction of biological activity and the environment.
• Biologically controlled: the organism controls the creation of the biomineral.

Shells correspond to the second type of biomineralization, as do our teeth and bones. We make biominerals too!
This type of biominerals are characterized for having complex morphologies, controlled aggregation and texture, preferential crystallographic orientation, well defined structures and compositions and high levels of spacial organisation. I think we can tell all this from just looking at them, dreamy and full of math.

Biominerals are made from, well, both mineral and organic components. 50% of biominerals contain calcium with calcium carbonate as the most abundant compound. Carbon dioxide near seawater breaks down into carbon and sea organisms like molluscs and fish turn some of it into calcium carbonate (CaCO3).
How do shells grow? An answer by a non-artist & non-conchologist:
Shells contain 2% protein and the rest of the material precipitated (or layered) is a mix of different biominerals, I came across this very useful metaphor to understand the role of protein in building shells: the steel and concrete analogy. Protein works as steel forming the matrix and the mineral acts as the concrete that will be poured onto this matrix. Shells have 3 layers, the top layer is called periostracum and is made from a protein called conchiolin. The layer closest to the mantle is also known as nacre, the iridescent substance made from crystal aragonite platelets which disperse light and make it so beautiful. Mantle tissue inside the shell secretes the mineral and protein from the inside out – the oldest layer is on the outermost part of the shell and youngest layer is closest to the mantle tissue. Questions for upcoming weeks and other stuff
So, some questions have been answered. However, calcium carbonate is alkaline (pH 9.91) and since carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater lowering carbonate ion concentration, a.k.a. ocean acidification, what’s the relationship between this and all the living systems in the ocean that produce and use calcium carbonate?
Week 5 I look forward to you.
In the mean time, let me finish this post by saying that I share the same sentiment as fellow blogger Penny Insole who said that she didn’t find this week’s content as challenging as week 2. Me too! Everything was pretty straightforward, except the bit about how Antarctica loses mass and how its ice melts.
I’d like to add that I found some of the resources useful because my dissertation (still cold as Snowball Earth) involves climate change and trying to link it to the recent coffee rust outbreak in the American continent, particularly in Colombia. Coffee rust is a fungus that needs free moisture to germinate and guess what I found on the extreme events tool? Well, well, well, if it isn’t an extreme rain and flood event in 2011 in Colombia related to La Niña. Heavy rainfall and floods related to La Niña in 2011 – this is an awesome clue. Anyway, statistics will tell if there is a true relationship between this extreme rainfall event and the devastating coffee rust outbreak. I’ll definitely talk more about my dissertation in September when it’s done.
If you enjoy climate tools like this, why not check out the great climate analogues tool.
See you next week and I’m always happy to read your blogs too so please link to them in the comment section below. Josh, another MOOC assistant, is blogging to create a glossary of key terms, check out his blog here. Thank you for reading.


Climate Change MOOC

Welcome to this page dedicated to the University of Exeter’s Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions MOOC on Future Learn! I’m happy that you’ve decided to take your online learning experience further by dedicating a bit more time each week to pausing and making sense of the material in your own way. I will be joining you of course – as each week progresses you will be able to click on the links below:

Week 1: Driving out misinformation with blankets, feedback loops and albedos

Week 2: Climate over time

Week 3: A very unscientific explanation of how shells are formed

Week 4: Not a definite answer

Week 5: How healthy is your ocean?

Week 6: Mindfulness, finance theory and food security

Week 7: The zero emissions communities of Gandhi, Fidel, Thatcher and Chomsky

Week 8: Putting in the (patch)work