Investigations

Investigation 4

There’s no denying that global warming is happening. It has been scientifically proven again and again, and it is becoming more necessary than ever to develop strategies to halt the global warming process and reverse it – or at least alleviate the consequences that are being experienced all around the world. For example, in recent news, China has been experiencing hazardous levels of air pollution in the form of smog. In response, a Chinese entrepreneur offered “canned air” in soda cans for five yuan each, in an attempt to show Chinese citizens how the pollution is affecting the country. The pollution is so awful that even NASA satellites could capture photos of the smog from space! That’s not all – the American Embassy in Beijing has reported that the pollution is at levels 25 times greater than the standard established by the World Health Organization. Clearly, something must be done in order to reduce this pollution.

Shanghai Sunset

This picture shows the sunset over the Shanghai skyline. The point at where the sun is isn’t even the actual horizon of the sky — it’s the smog line.

For this investigation, I would like to discuss farming and food production in light of the environment and the earth’s global warming trend. Most importantly, it seems to me that we as humans are too far away from nature. We rely on machines and technologies to produce massive amounts of food for us for the sake of economic efficiency. But what about biological efficiency? The so-called “bio-fuel cycle” involves incredible amounts of fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and other resources in order to produce the meat that we eat.

Crops have also played a huge role in this imbalance. Consider corn, for example. It has invaded the farming industry thanks to its high yields, high caloric content, and genetic engineering. How can this be? Our digestive systems aren’t even meant to digest corn, especially when it’s not processed. This is where the industry is involved: factories and animals are used to process and digest this corn so that we can eat it. In addition to this gross inefficiency, the resources that we use to produce corn are immense and the consequences are dire. In 2010 alone, 9 million tons of fertilizer was used to produce corn, with a cost of 42 million tons of released CO2. Why are we relying on corn to give us a fraction of the energy we use to produce it? Furthermore, have you ever seen the kinds of things that corn is being used to produce? Shoe polish, ink, marshmallows, aspirin, cosmetics… the list goes on.

There is a huge energy imbalance here; we’re putting too much in in order to create a small amount of calories. From a biological standpoint, this is highly inefficient, and this inefficiency has drastic consequences on the world’s environment in addition to our health. Surely, there must be other ways to produce enough food for the world’s population without losing precious resources, sacrificing our environment, and harming our health in the process.

This topic is particularly interesting to me because it can be tied to many physical sciences that I find fascinating, such as biology. How can our cells maximize energy usage to power such complex systems? Surely, there is something we can learn even from our cells in how metabolism works. I think an analogy is relevant here: just as our cells metabolize our food to extract energy, we are metabolizing our environment to extract energy. However, while our cells are building molecules using this energy, we are only destroying more and more of the environment rather than building it back up. Food is critical to our survival, and it is imperative that we take a step back and apply nature’s science in tandem with our own rather than ignore the natural balance of the environment for the sake of profits and business endeavors.  In addition, because the environment is so connected to our health and well-being, it also has a connection to medicine. As an aspiring physician, I want to learn more about the environment in which we live so that I may help my future patients lead healthy lives in an environment where polluted air, bacteria-laced food, and genetically modified food are no longer problems.

With regards to an environmental policy, it is important to combine science as well as economic principles. I understand that the world cannot thrive on free food and that in order to feed the world’s enormous and ever-growing population, food production must be expanded as much as possible. However, what population will there be to feed without the resources to feed them? If we continue at the current rate, what resources will be left in order to keep the world’s population going? The emphasis since the Industrial Revolution has been on industry and economic principles rather than on science. Industry has taken over science completely, and our environment has been pushed aside for the sake of profits. The balance should be shifted so that science and industry are equal. If we use science to further environmentally-friendly means of food production, wouldn’t business profits follow? If we can make food production safer as well as cheaper than how it is produced now, why shouldn’t economies thrive in response? Not only will profits rise, but so will our health. A policy that combines a focus on environmental protection and restoration, sustainability, and technological advancements based on basic biological principles would be in the best interests of both the environment and the industrial world. Such a policy would be difficult to implement, but it is clear that more research is needed in order to come up with solutions for the myriad of issues with current worldwide food production. Political will is also needed – for without legal action, such a policy will never come to fruition. We need to change our methods and seek biological efficiency, not just economic efficiency. This will be difficult mostly because in search of such efficiency, political will and money would probably be the largest obstacles to overcome. However, the effects of such a policy on our health and on our environment cannot be denied. If we truly care for efficiency, then surely we can find a way to maximize environmental resources without having to put the world’s environment and population at risk for a couple calories from a piece of meat from a cow that digests antibiotic-filled, genetically-engineered, unprocessed corn – which we cannot even eat to begin with.

As for activism, I think it would be a waste to rely on advertisements, posters, or pamphlets. I have seen all of these methods turn out to be failures, simply because passersby aren’t interested. Getting in someone’s face isn’t always the best way to convince them about a point of view. The best way to convince someone about something as incontrovertible as the environment’s poor health is to show them the consequences of our treatment towards the environment, just as Beijing citizens are being sold cans of air to show them how ridiculously polluted their city is.

References

Garnaut, J. “Fresh air goes on sale in smog-choked China.” The Sydney Morning Herald. 29 January 2013. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.smh.com.au/world/canned-air-for-sale-in-china-as-blanket-of-smog-returns-20130129-2dht3.html.

Kaufman, F. “Strategies for a Changing Planet: Food.” Popular Science Magazine. 10 July 2012. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-06/fixing-food-equation-warming-world.

Koerth-Baker, M. “Strategies for a Changing Planet: Farming.” Popular Science Magazine. 11 July 2012. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-06/adapting-three-top-crops-hotter-planet.

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