Friday, October 21, 2016

Air pollution kills

Quick hit: Guardian article says that in Africa, air pollution kills more than malnutrition or dirty water.

And then boom, a few days later the NYT writes about UNICEF's claim that 300 million children breathe toxic air, particularly in China and India. Particulate matter contributes to heart failure, asthma, and pneumonia, and cuts children's cognitive functioning.

Worldwide, air pollution kills seven million per year, including 600,000 children: 1 in 10 deaths of children under 5 is attributable to air pollution. Survivors go on to be damaged in ways we are only beginning to understand.

I'm going to a talk tomorrow at the World Bank on how air pollution affects families in Peru. One way they identify is that sick children keep parents home from work. I know, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure that one out, but if you were listing all the impacts of air pollution, would you have come up with that? It wouldn't have been one of the first things I came up with!

The price of water

"How can you say that water should have a price? You can't sell human rights!"

Such was the greeting that UN special rapporteur Catarine du Albuquerque met when she first tried to get civil society to think about how to provide water and sanitation to the people who don't have it. 2.4 billion people (out of 7 billion in the world today) live without a toilet. Just in Latin America, 30 million people lack access to clean water. And you know, it's not going to be free to get sewer systems to all those people! If that can be accomplished with public-private partnerships, then great.

A recent paper showed the importance of publicly provided water by looking at the issue historically: in England, when municipal governments took over water supplies, people living nearby benefited: mortality rates linked to water dropped by 20%. So, does that mean we should keep the private sector out? Not necessarily: first, not everywhere is as good at governance as England, and second, sometimes we need the private sector to come in and take the first steps. In Argentina, privatizing the water supply cut child mortality rates in poor areas by 24%.

As Dr. Zilberman mentioned in his blog entry a few weeks ago (see this blog's entry on Pollan et al.), sometimes different solutions work better in different environments. We shouldn't be too quick to rule any of them out!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Climate change smells bad

However bad a week you have this week, you can at least be glad that you aren't on the North Carolina coast, where Hurricane Matthew made a big mess, including, "carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys.... and incalculable amount of animal waste.... " You see, six or seven weeks ago on September 1st, 2016, NC was home to 9 million hogs. In August, 160 million chickens were either born or slaughtered. Hogs in particular produce huge amounts of waste: in 2012, hogs from Smithfield foods (the largest producer of hogs, headquartered in North Carolina) produced 4.7 billion gallons of waste, most of which is either sprayed on fields (leading an epidemiologist at UNC Chapel Hill to say "The eastern part of North Carolina is covered with shit") or it is kept in huge pits called "lagoons," many of which were flooded by the hurricane.

It's a disgusting situation, for sure, and if climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes on the eastern coast of the US as expected, it's not getting better. At the same time, it's easy to wag a finger and call the corporations greedy for producing so many animals in such a small space. However, believe it or not, a lot of people benefit from this as well. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, which, yes, means that capitalist owners are making bank, but it also means that a lot of people all over the world are benefiting from access to cheap meat. This study in the Journal of Nutrition found that access to animal-source foods in places like Kenya and Mexico helps "growth, cognitive function, activity, pregnancy outcome and morbidity." And let me ask: do you think it's better for the kids if the animals are nearby, or if mom or dad can go pick up a pack of meat at the market? Hint: kids living and playing around lots of animal poop probably aren't as healthy as other kids....

In general I think it's a good idea to do dirty things in places with lots of regulation, so that they can be done as cleanly and as safely as possible. So, in my opinion it makes sense to raise animals in the US for export. One question to ask is whether this giant, industrial model is a good one, and there are pros (such as cheap access to meat) as well as cons of that. Medium size farms seem like a good compromise, but needing more farms means taking up even more space, hiring more people, etc.

However, that certainly doesn't mean that the industry should get a blank check. Some of the articles cited above talk about the lax regulatory environment in North Carolina, and that's a problem that needs to be addressed. People who live in these areas, who are generally poor, are not only putting up with constant disgusting smells in the air but genuine hazards to their health from the farms even when rivers are staying inside their banks. Thanks to Jenny Ifft, who point out this study which found that increasing production means that infant mortality rates in the area go up: the pollution actually kills.

The piece from NatGeo has a nice conclusion, in which a hog farmer argues for more regulation. "Regulations, he says, keep him on his toes: 'We're always busy on a farm. We always have more than we can do. And the first thing we're not going to do is waste management. But if we know that inspector's coming in six months, or unannounced, what are we going to do? We're going to do good waste management.'" That would be a great start.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Climate change

First, I'm excited about this agreement to cut use of climate-damaging chemicals such as HFC's. Sounds like it's real progress.

Second, a student pointed me to this information about a coming movie starring Leo DeCaprio on the subject of climate change.

There are so many great signs of progress in the world today... but something like the popularity of Trump makes the picture so much less clear. The world is a mysterious place.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Pollan, Schlosser, etc.

Agricultural economist David Zilberman (my professor, long ago) has a nice post responding to the series of claims made by journalists over the past 10-15 years. While many of the critiques made in those books ring true, he also has a series of facts that are overlooked in their analyses, including:

1) It's easy to take shots at the nutritional and environmental impacts of mass agriculture and fast food. At the same time, a lot of good is done by cheap grains, cheap meat, and accessible prepared or mostly-prepared meals (like what you see at a supermarket deli). Less time and money spent on food and cooking is a real blessing for the poor.

2) The trend toward organic and small scale production is great for consumers of boutique goods, i.e. those with enough disposable income to afford them. However, these approaches require heavy investments of time and energy by people, removing a burden that was a huge part of society's work output as recently as 100 years ago. Large scale, industrial approaches mean that machines do most of the work rather than people. Further, these small scale approaches require more land: they just aren't as productive. If it takes more land to produce the same amount of food, that creates pressure to devote more land to food production, and that pressure often results in wild lands being converted to agricultural fields. That's not good for the environment. Finally, there are more tradeoffs. For example, no-till cultivation requires the use of more herbicides than traditional methods, but it decreases soil erosion and thereby carbon emissions. Good ends are achieved, but at a cost, and in some cases at least that's a cost worth paying. As Dr. Zilberman says, technology is the key to a good future for rural areas, and being afraid of it or denying its benefits condemns a lot of people to more difficult lives.

3) Finally, the world is complex! What works in one place may not work in another, so there needs to be room for multiple solutions to a given problem once that variation is taken into account. Thus, industrial approaches should give way to artisanal farming in some areas, but perhaps not in others. Issuing blanket condemnations ignores the complexity of the world we live in.

Food for thought?

Some like it hot

This summer was the hottest on record. How do you think that affects demand for natural gas?

You might think that people would do less heating, and maybe even less cooking when it's so hot, but your home use of natural gas is a very small part of total demand for gas. Most gas is burned by electricity-producing plants, and people needed that electricity this past summer to run their AC's.

It took me a little while to get used to looking at business reports like these as interesting and important, but we can learn a lot here! You try: so who benefits from a hot summer?

Friday, October 7, 2016

Hey! Perdue Chicken did something good!

Perdue Chicken processes 13 million chickens per week, and they are announcing that they are no longer using antibiotics as part of their production process. Bravo! What's more, "By the end of September 2017, Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat company by sales, aims to stop using on its chicken farms antibiotics that also are used to treat humans."

This is really, really great news. The overuse of antibiotics, particularly via using them to produce meat, has created bacteria that we can no longer fight effectively. The Pew Antibiotic Resistance Project says, "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans fall sick every year with antibiotic-resistant infections—and 23,000 die."

Real progress!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


The Washington Post has started a new series that's pretty fascinating: it looks at some of the chemicals needed to make lithium batteries, and watches the chemicals' extraction and distribution. It's a pretty sad story so far: both the piece on graphite and the one on cobalt depict some pretty abject damage and victimization of the poor, not to mention the environmental damage.

**Update, December 19th: new post on lithium mining....

It's a long way from I, Pencil!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reservoirs: another source of greenhouse gases

On the one hand, this isn't news: the report of the World Commission on Dams, published in 2000, notes on page 75 that "the gross emissions from reservoirs may account for between 1% and 28% of the global warming potential of GHG emissions." On the other hand, this new study finds that emission of gases may be 25% higher than previously noted.

What goes on is that reservoirs, usually made by damming up a river, end up submerging a great deal of plant life. In China, the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, flooded 244 square miles of land, including 100,000 acres of productive farmland which used to produce 10% of China's annual grain. As I understand it, submerged plants basically rot, consumed by bacteria and turned into methane, which adds to the burden of greenhouse gases emitted every year.

A few caveats here: first, it's not all about dams. Other types of reservoir can do the same damage. Second, obviously dams do a lot of good for the climate as well: that same Three Gorges Dam produces nearly 100 TW per year, Producing that by coal plants would release at least billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, based on numbers listed here. Averting that is definitely a good thing, though it's not free!