Pint of Science 2018: Food and the Environment

I’m a huge advocate of science communication and love that there are so many public-friendly science related events popping up everywhere at the moment.

Myself and a friend went to a Pint of Science event a couple of days ago, which has become absolutely huge in recent years; it now takes place in 21 countries! Basically, you go to the pub and learn something new. Fantastic! I’ve decided to write a bit about it for anyone who missed the event.

The session I went to was the one most relevant to my PhD project, food and the environment. Here’s a brief overview of the first talk (I’m hoping to find time to write about the others at a later date…if I do, I’ll link to them here!).

The first speaker was Dr. Jude Capper (@bovidiva – fabulous Twitter handle) who is a livestock sustainability consultant. She immediately captivated the audience’s attention  with a shocking stat from a recent study of Americans (thank goodness it wasn’t a study over here or I’d have immigrated!):

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Apologies about the dodgy photos, I was not only drinking but also sat near the back! 

OK, so maybe I’m particularly surprised by this as I’ve studied DNA a bit, but I cannot BELIEVE that this many people don’t realise that all vegetables contain DNA. In fact, most of what we eat contains some form of DNA; it’s the building block of life!

I had a quick ‘Google’ of this and found that this isn’t the only study to find similar results; one study even found that 80% of participants surveyed believe that food containing DNA should be labelled as such. There are numerous other things that need labelling, such as exactly where our food comes from…

Deforestation in Brazil

Dr. Capper then moved on to discuss deforestation of rainforest in Brazil and explained an interesting (scary) reason why locals are often motivated to clear more forest:

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Essentially, in Brazil, clearing the rainforest and farming appears to be one of the only ways to become a land owner. This is clearly a policy that needs to change! I know very little about this and would love to know more about how this works if anyone can tell me more…(please!!).

It was also explained that although rainforest deforestation is still occurring at unsustainable rates, it is actually dramatically lower (in Brazil at least) than it was:

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However, this doesn’t mean it’s OK to deforest rainforest as it takes an extremely long time to regrow; the huge amounts lost between ~1994-2007(ish) will take a horribly long time to recover.

One study of Brazilian rainforest found that certain aspects can return surprisingly quickly – within 65 years, but for the landscape to truly regain its native identity takes a lot longer (up to 4000 years!).

Meat…

We were also shown data from a study on efficiency of feed-use by livestock. This is a topic I’m very interested in as I’m aiming to make my diet as sustainable as possible. Take a look at the following graphs, some of them are quite surprising:

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This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I am slightly reticent to comment about this too much as there are a LOT of other studies on this (many of which I haven’t yet read) and it’s extremely complex.

Furthermore, even if it turns out meat can be produced relatively sustainably, we have to question the ethical side too.

Even if they could hypothetically produce vast amounts of meat with relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and reduced environmental impact, feedlots, in my opinion, are not an option as welfare matters too; I believe that instead of trying to allow the human population to eat meat every day, we should only consume it only as a treat.This seems to me the most likely way to ensure we achieve sustainability, human health, and high animal welfare standards. In order to do this, meat should not be cheap. A pack of bacon for £1 is in no way sustainable (and the animal is likely to have had a rather bleak life).

Food production by-products

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Dr. Capper also pointed out that it is often forgotten that many by-products which would otherwise be wasted are often fed to livestock.

Many of the products vegans eat produce huge amounts of by-products which end up being fed to livestock. For example, Oatly make juice from oats and then discard of the residue. Guess where this waste product goes? To feed pigs!).

I would argue that this is a good thing as it’s better than wasting food, but I’m sure this probably doesn’t meet the ideologies of some vegans who want to play no part in animal production. Interesting!

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Good news for bacon fans!

Lastly, remember one of the latest ‘this food will kill you’ news stories that circulated the media? This time it was bacon.

Dr. Capper kindly debunked that one for us too. Cancer is a terrible thing which should never be trivialised, which makes it all the worse when the media decide to scare-monger the public.

If you still read these atrocious news outlets e.g. Daily Mail/The Sun etc., then it really is worth considering using a more trustworthy source of information (although interestingly even the BBC’s standards have plummeted recently…if anyone has any tips on where to read reliable, unbiased news, please let me know because I have no idea anymore)!

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Of course if consumed in large amounts, bacon is unhealthy, not only for a tiny increase in bowel cancer risk but also for the onset of things like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and it is also unsustainable for the environment.  However, if you do eat meat and you consume it in moderation then it’s pretty unlikely to be what gets you in the end.

Overall, Dr. Capper gave a captivating talk on a few controversial topics and it’s made my ever-growing extra-curricular reading list even more surmountable as I’d definitely like to learn more about livestock feed efficiency.

We also had excellent sessions about chocolate genetic fingerprinting and about solar PV and ecosystem services. If I find time I’ll write about both of these too!

Missed Pint of science?

Don’t worry, it’ll be on again next year! Keep up to date with their activities on their website.

Other public science communication events

Even if you’re not a scientist and just have an interest, all of these upcoming events are well worth looking into:

  1. Soapbox Science (Nationwide)
  2. Festival of Nature (Bristol)
  3. New Scientist Live (London)
  4. Rothamsted Festival of Ideas (London)

 

 

 

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