A potpourri of pieces on science, health, technology and the environment
Friday, May 19, 2006
Not so delightful for the fish
It seems that Sunny Delight, which always seemed innocuous when I was growing up, is not doing so well these days.
In addition to its recently slumping sales caused by negative media attention — the Children's Food Awards deemed the drink "largely thickened, artificially sweetened, expensive water" — an article in today's Daily Mail reports that 8,000 liters of the drink's concentrates were accidently spilled into tributaries of the Parrett river in Somerset, England, on Wednesday after a tank broke at a nearby Gerber plant. The spill caused the water to turn bright yellow, and soon afterwards, dozens of dead fish were found floating on the surface. The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled the spill a category one incident, the worst kind. I'm guessing this isn't going to help sales.
Organic foods from your supermarket may comply with the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, but are you really buying what you think you're buying?
Many people "go organic" because they want to buy family-farmed, locally-operated produce. But as Steven Shapinpoints out in the New Yorker, most organic food sold in grocery stores is anything but. Earthbound Farm, a major organic produce supplier for Whole Foods, has projected revenues for 2006 of more than $450 million, and farms more than 26,000 acres. Doesn't sound so quaint anymore, does it.
What's more, one calorie of arugula grown on the West Coast costs 57 calories of fossil fuel to get to the other side of the country. "The growing of arugula is indeed organic, but almost everything else is late-capitalist business as usual," Shapin writes, going on to say that "'Organic,' then, isn't necessarily 'local,' and neither 'organic' nor 'local' is necessarily 'sustainable.'"
In an article in Mother Jones magazine, Michael Pollan chronicles those who go one step further, buying straight from their local farms. It's an interesting (and for most of us, foreign) concept — and while it requires more immediate effort and money than buying from Whole Foods, farmer Joel Salatin tells Pollan that food purchased from farms is, in the long run, cheaper. "Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illness, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water — of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer than make cheap food seem cheap," Salatin says.
There is, in Salatin's opinion, little difference between selling to Wal-Mart and selling to Whole Foods; selling directly to consumers, however, pulls the community together, brings back "pastoral values" and gives customers the satisfaction of knowing exactly what they're feeding their families.
Of course, even if we should buy locally farmed food, many of us won't bother (especially those of us who can hardly find our way to Queens, let alone rural farms). But Pollan argues that if we do, the movement could gain momentum fast. "Already the desire on the part of consumers to put something different in their bodies has created a $14 billion market in organic food in the United States," he writes, and this marketplace was built with no help from the government.
So a successful local food economy, Pollan says, really depends on the evolution of a new kind of eater — one who enjoys finding, preparing, and preserving food. This sounds wonderful, and I can just picture my future children spreading slices of farm bread with locally-farmed strawberry jam. But the whole scene does seem a little unrealistic. Right? Maybe not: Pollan argues that the promise of global capitalism ultimately depends on faith, too — faith that the destruction of certain things we value today will "achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future date." Maybe, then, we should consider sacrificing a little convenience today for a more soul-fulfilling — and gastronomically fulfifilling — tomorrow?
Dolphins may call each other names, according to scientists who studied a group of wild bottlenose dolphins for over 30 years.
It has long been suspected that dolphins have a "language" and recognize each other individually — their brains are almost as large and complex as those of humans. And according to this article in today's Sunday Times, research has finally shown that they do.
The scientists, who were from St. Andrew's University in Scotland, studied the social interactions of a group of dolphins and recorded the "signature whistles" they made when greeting one another. When the dolphins listened to synthetic recordings resembling the whistles of various dolphins, they reacted strongly to those of their family members and other associates, but did not react to the whistles of dolphins they didn't know.
These findings come on the heels of controversial research published last week suggesting that starling birds may share certain language characteristics with humans too. You can read Carl Zimmer's article on the subject here.
The top image shows sand dunes in Africa's Namib Desert, and the bottom reveals similar dunes on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, in a photo taken last October by NASA's Cassini probe. According to this article in National Geographic, Titan's dunes came as somewhat of a surprise: Because solar energy drives wind and Titan gets one thousandth as much solar heat as Earth, no one expected to see evidence of such strong currents. So where'd they come from? Scientists think that Saturn's gravity creates tidal winds that do the job.
Is there validity to the idea that your mind can cure you? The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an offshoot of the National Institutes of Health, says yes: There is "considerable evidence" that mind-body interactions can "have positive effects on psychological functioning and quality of life."
Check out today's New York Timesarticle on the subject, which profiles holistic doctor Carl T. Javert, an obstetrician at Cornell University Medical College who died in 1981. Javert, who believed that ailments were often psychosomatically induced by emotional stress, helped pregnant women manage problems and stresses in order to avoid miscarriages and other complications.
I am a freelance science journalist based in New York City -- in other words, I live in the most expensive city in the world without a steady income. I have written for publications including Seed, The Scientist, the Boston Globe, Wired and Scientific American. Check out my website at http://www.melindawenner.com.