FOOD WASTE, WAR, CLIMATE CHANGE ANCIENT ANEROBES AND FUTURE PANDEMICS
One could almost feel the entire country cringe with disgust, when the New York Times, and other news outlets, reported on how farmers in Idaho, Ohio, Wisconsin and South Florida, had to bury millions of pounds of perfectly edible produce, dump 3.7 million gallons of milk per day and crack 750,000 eggs, without making a single omelet (Yaffe-Bellamy & Corkery, 2020). They did so according to Yaffe-Bellamy and Corkery, because of the dramatic decrease in sales to restaurants, hotels, and schools, forced to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, sweeping its way across America. Some grief-stricken growers donated their surplus food to food banks and other charities. However, even these organization, faced with their own logistical challenges, could absorb only so much of the excess food. So, confronted with harvesting and distribution cost, the frustrated farmers were forced to bite the bullet. It was an once-in-a-lifetime disaster, of epic proportions. Or was it?
The study of food waste is not a new area of scientific inquiry. As early as 1895 scientist and researchers like W. O. Atwater were sifting through garbage barrels and soap and lard buckets, from selected dwellings, in an effort to measure not only the economic value but also the nutritional and caloric value embedded in the food that was wasted, which, at least in Atwater’s opinion, included food consumed in excess of what was needed to fuel daily activities, i.e. work (Atwater, 1895).
In the years between 1917 and 1918, the world was locked in a pitch battle against itself and a novel influenza virus. The Spanish Flu, so-called, not because Spain was the epicenter of the disease, but because the country’s neutrality in World War I meant that there was no strategic disadvantage in reporting that 50,000 of its citizens had died of the virus in October of 1918 alone. Worldwide, more than 50 million people succumbed to the disease, including 675,000 people in America, where, ironically, the first recognizable case of the disease was documented in Haskell County, Kansas (Barry, 2004).
As might be expected there were food shortages, which focused attention on food waste. In the U.S., the government encouraged feeding food waste to pigs, the animal from which the deadly virus leaped and acquired its more befitting name –Swine Flu. Billed as a patriotic way to increase food production, feeding food waste to hogs continued until the 1950s, when it was determined that because their inherent susceptibility to disease, feeding crap to cob rollers was probably more crazy than conservative (Thyberg & Tonjes, 2016). It is worth mentioning that the government also promoted anti-flu measures, such as no-spitting ordinances, using handkerchiefs or disposable tissue and wearing masks, as ways of protecting soldiers (Little, 2020), 45,000 of whom perished from the disease.
The Rationale for Rationing
After a 21-year hiatus, the combatants from the First World War met for a rematch in August of 1939, except Japan and Italy had switch their allegiance to the Axis Powers. Compelled by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. joined the battle 2 years later. Once again food shortages and rationing ensued. Sales of sugar stopped in the U.S. on April 27th. 1942. Rationing began on May 4th. Coffee was added to the list in November. And to make matters worse, tea was in short supply as well. The list grew to include meats, fats, canned fish, cheese and canned milk by March of the following year. Indeed, by November of 1943, the distribution and sale of almost all processed foods, canned, bottled or frozen, dried fruits, fruit butter, jams, and jellies were being managed by the Office of Price Administration (OPA) (Rationing, n.d.). Simultaneously, while the OPA worked to enact and enforce regulations, block black marketing, check chicanery and get a grip on graft (Somebody stop me please!) that invariably follows from attempts to proscribe or prohibit access to goods and services in high demand, i.e. alcohol, never mind those considered essential, other organizations, both private and public, encouraged consumers to eschew excess and waste, to grow their own grub, to look twice at leftovers and to buy local. Sound familiar? Did it work? Well, yes and no! To the extent that the primary rationale for rationing food was to support American and allied soldiers, on the ground, the campaign was an unequivocal success. On the other hand, reducing food waste, as a means to that end was a flat-out flop.
So efficient and prolific a killer was the Swine Flu that not even its World War I counterparts could keep up with the carnage it wreaked on humanity, albeit not from lack of trying. A food-waste-foraging archeologist, in search of artifacts, in the back allies of, let us say, Philadelphia, was as, if not more so, likely to encounter an uninterred victim of the virulent Blue Death as the uneaten remains of a Blue Plate Special. World War II-era food waste researchers were not similarly stifled. Quite to the contrary, unimpeded by neither disease nor demolition, researchers conducted a number of studies that revealed that while wartime food scarcities increased attention on food waste, they did not lead to a reduction in food waste. Instead, one such study conducted in 1942, found that food loss and waste was substantial and that a significant portion occurred, as is the case today, during preparation and as plate waste (Thyberg & Tonjes, 2016). In the following year, two studies, including one conducted by the U.S. Food Administration, found that as much as 30% of food produced in America was being wasted. In the years since that number has grown by over 33%. Today, pre-pandemic, on average, Americans continue throw food away with impunity and without compunction, to the tune of 133 billion pounds every year, 364.4 million pounds per day, enough food to fill the Rose Bowl -everyday. And it is not just the food; it is the water, soil, energy and other squandered inputs. Moreover, it is the damage done to the ecosystem that is the source of these irreplaceable resources. Here’s the thing though, we are an integral part of the biosphere. In fact, some scientists assert that the industrial revolution marked the beginning of a new epoch, an era they would designate as the Anthropocene, as a reflection of the extraordinary impact human activity has had on the planet, impacts we have both affected and have ourselves been affected.
A 16-Year-Old Boy and 2300 Reindeer
When cells from a novel Carnobacterium were not only isolated, but also resurrected, from the permafrost tunnel in Fox Alaska, scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) wondered what the discovery of the 32,000-year-old bacteria meant for the science of cryogenics and if similar, psychrotolerant microbes might be found on Mars or some other remote rondure (Britt, 2005). As exciting and sexy as those lines of inquiry may have been, not all re-animated anaerobes are as innocuous as Carnobacterium, as is evidenced by the death of a 16 year-old boy, and 2300 reindeer in 2016, after having been infected by Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax. Officials traced the outbreak to a reindeer that had died from the disease 75 years earlier, in 1941, a (year) that will live in infamy.
The animal’s contaminated carcass had been exposed due to the thawing of the permafrost on the tundra of Siberia (BBC News, 2016). Furthermore, even though Carnobacterium does not pose a direct, pathogenic threat to humans (Pikuta, et al., 2005), the specific location from which the cells were plucked, and the relative ease with which they were revived, may have enormous implications for the future of the planet.
Driven From Sink to Source
Permafrost is soil that remains frozen for 2 or more consecutive years. It covers about ¼ of the Northern Hemisphere, including parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia (Reiny & Grant, 2019), at depths ranging from a1 to 3000 meters. It is home to more than 5 times more CO2 than has been emitted by all human activities since 1850. (NASA: Earth Observatory, 2016).
But the surface layer Artic permafrost temperatures have risen over 300% more than the average global temperature and it has been slowly thawing (Legendrea, et al., 2014). This gradual, top-down dissipation has converted the Artic permafrost regions from a CO2 store or sink to a source of the heat-trapping gas (Reiny & Grant, 2019), an eventuality that was not anticipated, even in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report (5AR) (Anthony, et al., 2018). Nor is CO2 the only greenhouse gas that is driving the climate over the proverbial cliff. Or should I say ice shelf?
As we reported in a previous post, food waste is responsible for 2% of all national greenhouse gas emissions totaling 113 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). Globally, food waste accounts for 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2e methane (CH4) emissions (Food Wastage Imprint Impacts on natural resources, 2013). In the U.S., 23% of all CH4 gas emissions can be attributed to decomposing food waste. (Gunders, 2012). This is the atmospheric CH4 that, along with CO2, fuel the temperature increases driving the aforementioned topdown, creeping, persistent permafrost thaw. It should be noted that, presently, CH4, although 28 times more potent than CO2 as a heat-trapping gas, accounts for less than 20% of the temperature increase in surface layer permafrost (Anthony, et al., 2018). However, there is another type of thawing occurring in Arctic permafrost.
Microbes with the Munchies
The Carnobacterium discussed above was found in a thermokarst pond, formed approximately 32,000 years ago. Thermokarst ponds form when the ice in permafrost soil thaws. And because solid ice takes up more volume than water, the land surface shifts, slumps or recedes, resulting in a cavity, into which water from rain, melting snow and ground ice collects. The heat from this pool of water and the rising surface temperature combine to produce an affect known as abrupt thawing or AThaw.
One might imagine that ancient anaerobes that wake up in thermokarst ponds, do so with a powerful case of the munchies. Fortunately, for them at least, as mentioned previously, the now liberated soil is an abundant source of carbon, which, incidentally, is oftentimes older than the microbes themselves. Nevertheless, upon being roused from their slumber, our bygone bugs indulge themselves on a smorgasbord of nutrients, the metabolism or decomposition of which releases CO2 and CH4 back into the atmosphere. And while the CH4 emissions from AThaw lakes is small compared to CO2, because of its exponentially greater heat-trapping potential, CH4 will account for most of the disruption of Earth’s radiative equilibrium, the balance between the amount of heat it absorbs and the amount it reflects, caused by abrupt thawing of northern permafrost soils (Anthony, et al., 2018). It could be said that as, a climate driver, CH4 really puts the petal to the metal!!!
Mercury (and Other Heavy Metals) Rising
Mercury (Hg) is a heavy metal. It exist in three forms in the environment, elemental, inorganic and organic. While all three varieties of the metal are potentially harmful to humans, depending on the amount and/or duration of exposure. For instance, elemental mercury has long been used in dental amalgam fillings. Inorganic Hg is used in various industrial processes and in the production of other chemicals. In some countries, mercury salts are used in skin creams. Organic hg compounds, like ethyl mercury (EHg) and methylmercury (MeHg), are formed when hg combines with carbon. And there is no place on the planet where the two –mercury and carbon- are more likely to meet and bond than the northern permafrost.
The ice fields of the Arctic are home to between 332 Gg and 1254 Gg of mercury, more than twice that found in all other soil, the oceans and the atmosphere. Notably, there is, at least, 1.25 times more mercury than carbon in the northern permafrost. Imagine all of that mercury locked up with all of that carbon in permafrost that is projected to defrost, by up to 99% by the year 2100, if greenhouse gases, generated by human activity, continues at the present level (Schuster, et al., 2018). What could possibly happen?
All that mercury and all that carbon
Once released from its chilly chains, mercury like carbon, is now available to be degraded, by, let us say, a covetous, 32,000 year-old Carnobacterium, in to EHg and\or MeHg. Predictably, the primary source of exposure to MeHg, for both humans and wildlife, is the ingestion of fish and shellfish. MeHg is, by far, the most toxic and bioavailable form of Hg, that, when mobilized, is eventually transported to all water bodies. It is a pernicious and nefarious neurotoxin, especially to the still developing brains of the young. It can pass through the placenta to the fetal brain (Chen & Driscoll, 2018). It is a likely abortifacient, that is, it may cause abortions. And it is on the rise, particularly in aquatic ecosystems around the world.
So grave is the concern over the silvery white metal, as a worldwide, pervasive environmental pollutant, that the Minamata Convention, a global treaty on Hg was ratified in August of 2017. The accord requires that its 128 signatories control and monitor both existing and new sources of the extirpative element (Chen & Driscoll, 2018). But it is not just mercury rising.
Other metals, like lead, a potent and insidious neurotoxin in its own right, along with arsenic, a subtle, slow-acting carcinogen, chromium and nickel, both of which are carcinogenic and allergenic, have already been identified in Artic freshwater ecosystems as well as in the blood and breast milk, in the indigenous communities that consume so-called country foods. And lest you think that what happens in some remote census designated place, in the Alaskan Artic does not affect you, you better think again. Because, unlike Vegas, what happens in the Artic does not stay in the Artic. Every place is connected to every other place on the planet. Every sentient being is connected to every other sentient being on the planet. Ours is a closed terrestrial life support system. We are all in this together. There is no such place as away! And although these may seem little more than platitudes, they are, in fact, fundamental truths. To deny them is to deny the absurdity of food waste, the futility of war, the calamity of climate change, the awakening of ancient anaerobes and the certainty of future pandemics.
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