organic and traditional farming, a choice between two evils.

Image by Photoeverywhere.co.uk (CC BY)

In this post I’ll ask you to choose between two evils. Do you want organic grown food or do you want your food from the traditional industrialized farm? Although some make organic food out to be the only way forward there are some significant downsides to it as well.

First the problems with the more traditional farms. They use a lot of pesticides, artificial manure and other chemicals to increase the yield of their crop and promote growth. Large area’s of land become a monoculture with only one race of plants. Hurting biodiversity and putting our food sources at risk of diseases.

On the other hand we have the organic farms. They are free of pesticides use natural manure and rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. The downside is that the yield per acre is lower. You simply need more space to feed the same amount of people. And there are some indications that this gets worse as more farmers turn to organic farming because pesticides from other fields can’t contaminate the organic fields and indirectly protect the fields of organic farms. We already cut down a lot of tropical rainforests in favour of the food production. If we were to turn to organic food as a solution for the masses we might as well say goodbye to the rainforests now.

The problems are worse in both industries when we take into account the animal farming. In the traditional farms animals don’t have a lot of room and the number of animals kept in one place promotes disease. To maximize production growth hormones are added to an already high calorie diet. To make sure animals aren’t getting sick they use loads of antibiotics. This decreases effectiveness of antibiotics in general and brings with it the very real danger of antibiotics becoming useless. Resistant bacteria are already creating major problems in hospitals around the world.

In the organic farm animals get more room, get a more natural feed and take a longer time to grow. Though this is great for the animals it also means that you need a larger farm for fewer animals. And since the feed is organic as well you get a compound effect of space required needed to get a same amount of meat. Also the impact on the climate per animal is higher due to their more natural diet. Though there is a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) this is made up by an increase in the amount of methane (CH4) and laughing gas (N2O) they produce which are more powerful greenhouse gasses and therefore have a greater net impact on the environment.

The biggest trouble with meat industry is the enormous amount of resources it requires. To produce a kilo of beef you need 9 kilograms of food and 15.000 litres of water (20 pounds and 4000 gallons respectively). The difference between these is negligible between both industries. They just require huge spaces of land to be sacrificed to produce the meat we eat. Though pork and chicken have better returns it still is a huge demand on the fresh water supply and the food chain.

The best thing would be if we would eat less meat. And some initiatives like the meat-free Thursday could have a major impact if widely adopted. The trouble is that we don’t want to eat less meat, on the contrary as more people can afford it the consumption will only increase. This is because we are programmed to eat meat and like it because meat used to be scarce. Also eating meat is a status symbol, it signifies you are wealthy enough to eat a more expensive type of food. If that is not bad enough there is a psychological phenomenon at work. The not in my backyard phenomenon. Most people think we should eat less meat as a whole at least if it doesn’t affect us personally. When it threatens to affect us personally we will resist the change.

So if the standard farm isn’t good and the organic industry isn’t a good alternative what should we do then? We’ll combine the best of both worlds. You see this in greenhouses. They reduced the number of pesticides needed to grow tomato’s and paprikas to almost zero in the Netherlands by using insects to fight pests that can destroy the crop while they can still use artificial manure to increase the yield of the harvest. This can be implemented relatively easily around the world. In the meat industry test are ongoing to see if antibiotic use can be lowered by adding garlic to the diet because it has antibiotic properties. Results so far are optimistic.

A solution for our meat problem could be insects. They require relatively little water and food to grow when compared to chickens for instance, let alone pigs or cows. Insects have also been eaten traditionally around the world as a source of protein. The trouble is that as people get wealthier they start to favour meat too insects. In the Western World it is even worse as the eating of insects is considered unacceptable. A solution could be grounding it up into burgers and rebranding it.  The eating of imitation crab became acceptable when we started calling it surimi. By grounding it we don’t need to be reminded of the origin which is a plus for most consumers who rather don’t like to be reminded that their beef came from a cow either.

Another solution could be the use of algae as a basis for the animal feed. In contrast to soy and corn it can be grown anywhere provided you can get water there and it is highly nutritious. Algae can be fed using the manure from the animals in effect recycling the waste. At the moment algae farms cannot compete with soy just yet though, being a factor ten more expensive. This will be overcome when it is produced on a larger scale or when crops start to fail more often due to more extreme weather patterns as a consequence of global warming.

A last solution, still far off is just growing the meat we need. When we eat beef we mostly eat muscle tissue with a bit of fat. The rest, organs, bones and less desired meat cuts, are pretty much waste products. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only grow the bits we need? This is exactly what researchers are trying to do. Only grow muscle tissue in large vats and eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste products. It will be years before we actually get to this stage however. Currently it costs an enormous amount of money to grow a small piece of meat which isn’t even tasty either. When we do however, we will see new types of meat hitting the shelves. Fancy a roast of lion perhaps?

Robot workforce: Education and purpose

Image by woodleywonderworks (CC BY)

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In these articles I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. Today the fourth story out of five.

In 1979 Pink Floyd sang the legendary words “We don’t need no education.” These words might have been prophetic. When there is no more work we will not need the traditional education system any more since it is geared towards preparing you for a job. It is naïve to think there won’t be any education whatsoever however. Humans are naturally inquisitive and in a stimulating environment we want to learn. The basic premise of education will change however. From an education system which centres on what we as a society expect from students we will get an education system which centres on individual qualities and interests.

By a society driven education system I don’t mean individual tastes and preferences have no place in the current education system. Of course you can choose if you want an alpha beta or gamma education and later on you choose your own profession. But accept for those choices society expects a certain standard from you. We expect a basic understanding of math, writing, geography, history etc. and based on what level education you have and what profession you choose we expect certain skills to be more advanced and at least at a minimal professional level.

In an education focussed on the individual there are no minimal requirements. In theory if someone  would not want to learn anything he/she would not have to. But as stated we are naturally inquisitive and want to learn and therefore we will. Schools which focus on individual preferences from children already exist. A good example is the democratic school for instance where kids are free to explore any topic they want as long as they are at school. If a kid wants to fish for half a year straight it can and it will learn anything and everything that has to do with fishing on its own. Teachers are present but don’t teach in the traditional sense. They help the children to find what they are looking for but will not steer them in a certain direction.

Reading and writing skills will come more naturally. Let’s take the kid which wants to learn about fishing. If it wants to get better it will need to read a book about fish. It will teach itself to read with the help of teachers so it can get better at fishing. You will see the child will read much quicker then other kids who are more traditionally schooled because it is interested in the subject matter in stead of having to begin with some abstract uninteresting words. If the kids get certain skills at a professional level is up to them. In our society that could be a problem because if they don’t get there they need welfare benefits and cost money. In the neo communist society it isn’t a problem since nobody needs to work anyway.

After we ‘graduate’ from school we will need to find a purpose in life. Nowadays many people find purpose in their work, caring for the kids etc. But without jobs, the household being cleaned by a robot maid and a robot nanny for the kids we will have to find new purposes in life. We will become an adventure and hobby driven society.  The entertainment industry will boom and we will travel like we have never travelled before. We will try and find purpose in our hobbies trying to be best at whatever we like. Who knows, some might actually become scientists out of hobby. Our primary care will be to be happy. The irony will be that the pressure to be happy will actually cause depression for some people. Those who fail to have a purpose in life will die unhappy, often too soon. Problems with drug abuse and other addictions will become greater.

A story about forgetfulness, numbers and associations

Think about a Beatles song. Got it? Now think of a song from Queen and then Meat Loaf. I’m pretty sure the ones you didn’t think about were: Boys, Keep Yourself Alive and For Crying Out Loud. More likely the songs you thought about were Hey Jude, Bohemian Rhapsody and Paradise By The Dashboard light (based on their place in the Dutch 2012 Top 2000). Chances are you haven’t even heard about the first trio  or you forgot about them a long time ago.

This post is about music (if you haven’t guessed that already). Music nowadays is under attack by pretty much anyone who isn’t from the current generation (and even by some from the current generation). We like to think that music from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was better. I however am not that sure. We will have to wait at least 20 years before we can even think about determining if music was better back then.

The trouble is when we think of music from bygone eras is that we think of the best songs, the biggest hits, the ones that stuck. The music that wasn’t as good, as I have demonstrated above, we forget about. Music nowadays doesn’t seem as good just because we haven’t had time to filter out the bad songs yet, the one day flies. When listening to MTV (they sometimes actually still show music videos) you’ll get a wide array of music, some of which will make it and some of which we’ll forget about, even if it sold a gazillion copies today.

Another thing you have to keep in your mind is that when talking about bands like The Beatles, Queen, Elvis, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones is that their career spans decades (and some are still going). In this time they produced many albums and dozens of songs. Artists who came up in recent years don’t have that career yet. They may have an album or two and a dozen songs or so but it will take time to get as many songs as the aforementioned bands have (and many never will.) Simple truth is that if you write a million songs chances are that at least one will be (very) good.

Last thing I need to talk about is the association you have with music. As many have said before me: music is emotion. When you think about music from bygone eras you usually think about music from your youth. This music has a strong emotional attachment for you because your youth is filled with lots of happy memories (usually). Our youth is filled with firsts (first day of school, first crush, first kiss etc.), and firsts are the things we remember most. Firsts are our accomplishments, our success and thus we associate our youth with excitement and happiness. When we grow up the number of firsts dwindles fast (simply because you cannot experience a first kiss for a second time) and so we remember less from it and our association might become less happy with it.

Now some will say that they listen to music from the 70’s and 80’s even though they are a child from the 90’s and that the argument above is irrelevant. We’ll I’m guessing that your parents listen to this music and thus it is music from your youth. And even if that is not the case, not everybody conforms to the majority of course.

All those forces are at play when you think about music from bygone eras so that it seems music back then was better. Just keep that in mind next time you listen to today’s music. I also like to say I do not want to talk down aforementioned bands. Music that survived this long just has got to be good and I’m thankful I can still listen to it today (and still do). This story is about perspective, not about talking trash.