Conservation Biologist Thor Hansen explains why feathers matter »
This week on Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist and author of the newly published Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. As part of his research, he plucked a dead wren to count its feathers. It had 1,500. A tiny wren, like the Australian white-winged fairy wren in the photo!
In the interview, which you can listen to on NPR, Hanson discusses the biological makeup of feathers, why he thinks birds evolved feathers, and how they adapted them to flight. The first feathered animals might’ve used them primarily for insulation, and now, every single individual flight feather is an airfoil, while being part of the airfoil that is the bird’s wing. Double-airfoil action for maximum flight!
Animals are amazing! So is science!
[white-winged fairy wren photo by David Cook Wildlife Photography, via Flickr]
World Water Week advocates a meat-free future, for humanity’s survival »
We’ve talked about the ridiculous amount of water needed to sustain our national (and increasingly international) meat-heavy diet, and by “meat-heavy” I mean “20 percent meat-based.” Well, the scientists in charge of World Water Week, happening right now in Stockholm, are now predicting that a meat-heavy diet is an “impossible alternative” to our continued existence.
If you want to read this year’s WWW report, which is really long but also very interesting, here’s a pdf. If you don’t, definitely read the Guardian's analysis (and the internet is full of analyses), which tells you things like “Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.”
My main question is, why not just advocate a vegan diet? Those dairy cows don’t spring from the foreheads of their mothers, fully formed and ready to make milk.
People hate a smug vegan because people hate smug. So maybe this isn’t a reason to be smug so much as a reason to worry. Will our rich, privileged peers* change their diets to support the future of the planet? I hate selling veganism with the “lose weight, feel great” line, but if that’s what it takes to get people to stop eating so much goddamn meat, then fine. Maybe we should start lying to people. “I used to be 1,000 pounds before going vegan!” “I had a vestigial skull attached to my neck from the twin I absorbed in the womb before going vegan!” “I was a horrible selfish jerk who was almost incapable of empathy, and it showed on my hideous face, before going vegan!”
Because there is no reason to eat animals. Science is on our side. And it’s just disgusting that, in the face of facts like these, people continue to do it.
[Photo: ILRI/Dorine Adhoch via World Water Week]
*By which I mean, people who aren’t starving to death.
Discussion question: Printable meat? What the heck? »
That said, what do we think about Modern Meadow’s 3D printable meat? It’s an idea that was born of this other crazytown scientific project, printing human organs; apparently, printing meat would be easier than printing organs, because the meat is “a post-mortem tissue,” which is less complicated a process than printing living tissue.
I have read a couple articles about this project and I still really don’t understand. Like, they’re going to start by “fabricat[ing] 3D cellular sheets composed of porcine cells.” How? If they succeed, will they be eligible for that $1 million from PETA, since technically they have to grown the cells in order to bioprint them? (Though with Peter Thiel money, they probably won’t need it.) What would a tissue-bioprinter even look like?
Most importantly, though, what do you all think? This falls under the same heading as “lab-grown meat,” right, so those of you who would eat test-tube meat would also eat printed meat? And on the ethics tip, would you accept a printed organ, should you ever need a transplant? I totally would, presuming it wasn’t being created unethically. About the meat, as always, I feel ambivalent. Divorcing “meat” from “living animal” is something we vegans work so hard to stop doing, but lab-grown meat legitimately would lack connection to that living animal, so presumably we would be able to uncouple them in our brains again. I just don’t know how to conceive of it, which is maybe what causes my ambivalence. What about you all?
Get more information about Modern Meadow’s meat-printing project at its website.
[3D image by Karsten Schmidt via Flickr]
Guest post: Vegans in spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace! »
Last month, we learned that yet another governmental agency turned its back on initiatives encouraging healthy behaviors. This week, NASA’S Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars. We could spend all day talking about how the government has screwed us. Instead, let’s talk about space.
Even though the President’s budget detailed cuts to NASA, there’s still a lot of experimental preparation going on in hopes that missions to Mars will happen—eventually. It’s no secret that NASA’s been lusting to set foot on Mars for decades. We’ve even had some successful robotic missions dating back to the 1960s! NASA scientists are excited about Mars, not only because it would be rad, but also because most of the scientific advancements that have been made in relation to future Mars missions are also relative to us here on Earth.
If we were to successfully gain funding and launch a manned mission to Mars, the journey to get to the “extreme planet,” as some call it, due to its harsh environment, would take approximately six months (compare to the three days it takes to get to the moon). NASA expects the initial manned missions to last a year and a half, not counting the year it would take to get there and back. The duration of such a lengthy mission is a hurdle that overflows into all other aspects of the mission, making its overall sustainability a big concern.
A big hurdle is food. It’s not all dehydrated ice cream and strawberries (or apple slices with cinnamon, if you’re fancy). Earlier this month, some interviews with Maya Cooper, a senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin, leaked some interesting information about the experimental menu planning for longer duration missions in the future. Excitingly enough, most of their menu items lack dairy and meat!
[Can’t see the video? Watch it on Vegansaurus.com!]
Many subsequent articles came out reporting that all the Mars mission food items would be vegan, but the initial interview, which detailed examples of breakfast, lunch and dinner options, included the following items that may not be entirely vegan: pancakes, spiced caramel coffee cake, lemon cake, spinach bread, soup, and peanut butter cookies. Also, Cooper states that scrambled eggs will possibly be a menu option.
Aside from how rad it is that vegan meals are becoming the easiest option to send to space, I’d also like to point out that our NASA base here in California (NASA Ames Research Center) is an incredibly vegetarian- and vegan-friendly place! There’s a café that has at least one vegan option every day. The cafeteria staff have never rolled their eyes at me when I ask if the bread they offer for sandwiches is vegan. They even sell California Suncakes and Heart Thrive cakes in the café!
The next time someone questions the vegan lifestyle or tries to rain on your vegan parade, just say, “When we’re all living in space, you won’t have a choice but to be vegan!” So there!
[photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr]
Gut-check: The real paleo diet was mostly plants »
Rob Dunn has a guest blog at Scientific American this week that neatly summarizes the problem with all those Paleo Diet enthusiasts: Our actual, paleolithic ancestors ate very similarly to today’s simians, which is to say, mostly plants.
He says that the diets of living primates “are composed of fruits, nuts, leaves, insects, and sometimes the odd snack of a bird or a lizard,” and that even notoriously bloodthirsty chimpanzees’ diets are maybe 3 percent meat, tops. You know, almost exactly what they ate before some of them took a turn toward humanity millennia ago. The money quote, though, is here:
IF we want to return to our ancestral diets, we might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts. If that is the case, we need to be eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves.
All those skinny white guys with old-timey facial hair can run around taking home-butchery classes and eating all of the pig, or whatever, but they can’t pretend it’s more “natural” than eating a plant-based diet. It’s just more violent.
To increase your knowledge and feelings of veg-superiority, go read Rob Dunn’s entire blog post. It’s terrific!
[Photo of a Temminck’s Red Colobus (taken in Gambia! A free monkey!) by Steve Garvia via Flickr]
Educational toys for zoo elephants! Because life in a zoo shouldn’t be a complete nightmare! »
This is Emily (l) and Ruth, the two Asian elephants living at the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Mass. They’re playing with their new toys, specifically designed by students in the Toys for Elephants class at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
The class has existed for two years, and was created in conjunction with Buttonwood Zoo Park’s director, Dr. William Langbauer, videographer Christen Goguen, and Vicki Croke. The history of the class, a video of the elephants, and a slideshow of these lovely ladies and their new toys are all at 90.9 WBUR’s site, and it’s all great!
As always, we don’t care for zoos as “places to display animals outside of their natural habits,” but they’re not as bad as they used to be (right?). Dr. Langbauer says, “One of our challenges is to give elephants the same sort of environment that they have in the wild…. They don’t need thousands of acres, they need enough room to be able to be together when they want to be together, and apart when they want to be apart.” That sounds reasonable.
We do love the idea of an artistic-scientific collaboration to keep Emily and Ruth sharp. Humans in retirement communities have activities for similar reasons! Not that we’re comparing elephants and the elderly, exactly (though Emily is 49 and Ruth is 54). The point is, if you’re a student at MassArt, you could make toys for elephants, and then see the elephants enjoy those toys, and that sounds pretty great. Plus the ellies look so happy! As long as they’re in a zoo, they might as well be happy.
[photo by Susan Hagner for WBUR]
Totally nasty: Eating pork could give you brain tapeworms! »
This is your brain on pork! Specifically, this is “A human brain overrun with cysts from Taenia solium, a tapeworm that normally inhabits the muscles of pigs.” How do pig-muscle parasites get into human brains? Carl Zimmer at Discover breaks it down: When humans eat undercooked meat from a pig that was infected with the tapeworms, those tapeworm eggs will hatch in a human’s body, and the bloodstream will whisk the new little tapeworms around and up into the brain, where they thrive, forming cysts and giving the human a grody disease called neurocysticercosis.
Because the symptoms of neurocysticercosis are similar to lots of other diseases—it can cause epilepsy, for one thing—doctors like Theodore Nash of the National Institutes of Health say they can only estimate how many people are suffering from brain tapeworms. Dr. Nash tells Discover that he estimates between 1,500 and 2,000 people in the U.S. have them. And even grosser: “Nash and colleagues published a review of the scientific literature and concluded that somewhere between 11 million and 29 million people have neurocysticercosis in Latin America alone.”
Get over to Discover and read the whole article right now. It’s a totally treatable disease, though of course it’d be much easier not to accidentally become infected with parasites if you weren’t eating the animals that carry them. I really wanted to say this to my dining companions last night, who were eating copious amounts of pig, but not being a complete jerk, I refrained. Still, once you see that brain, it’s hard not to see it every time someone mentions the word “bacon.”
[photo by Theodore E. Nash, M.D., via Discover]
NPR wants to “crack the code” of vegan cheese analogs! »
Rachel Estabrook at NPR’s The Salt blog gets into the science of vegan cheese analogs, and poses some interesting questions. Why are we so obsessed with making some vegan cheeses behave exactly like casein-ful animal’s milk cheese? How are food scientists working on replicating this “hold onto itself and then lightly let go and then hold onto itself” action that makes dairy cheese melt? Which company has been the most successful so far, and who else is trying?
That answer is illustrated by this photo of Easy Vegan Info’s mac & cheese pizza with Daiya (here’s her recipe, I know what you really want). Yes, according to vegan cheese code-crackers, Daiya makes the best meltable vegan cheese on the market. Being a hardcore Follow Your Heart fan, I take issue with this assertion as nonsense, but also Daiya is a total gutbomb for me and I don’t eat it.* To each her own!
Maybe this new line of shredded vegan cheeses from Galaxy Natural Foods will be the melting vegan cheese that unites us on such a divisive subject. Has anyone tried it yet? It was supposed to be out in April and it’s already May! Give us our new toy, already.
If you want to discuss your most beloved/despised vegan cheeses here, please feel free. Category is: It melts!
*OK I might make an exception for this beauty.
[photo by Kelly Garbato via Flickr]
Open discussion: If plants communicate, is it ethical to eat them? »
Adam poses an interesting question at Say what, Michael Pollan?: Should communication between pea plants raise tough issues for vegetarians?
This comes from a New York Times blog post about a Ben-Gurion University study in which a pea plant subjected to drought conditions would then “[relay] to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.”
The Times then asks, If plants can talk, are they sentient, and can people who don’t eat meat for ethical reasons continue to eat plants, if they’re essentially the same as animals, WELL YOU HYPOCRITES?
This is one of those “trick the vegan” questions that particularly irritates me, even more than “What about the animals killed in the production of soybeans?” As though there weren’t a million other terrible things happening to most animals on factory farms. As though the only reason I’m vegan is because I anthropomorphize animals. Yes, do no harm, but in a world where humans do all the harm, you have to prioritize your harm-reduction, and for me, animals that definitely suffer are more important than plants that communicate.
Adam, of course, takes a nuanced approach to the subject—“an argument based on a need to be logically consistent doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously if it isn’t itself logically consistent.” We, on the other here mostly to yell. When people use interesting scientific discoveries as another way to make us look hypocritical (maybe because you see your own hypocrisy when you look at us?), it makes me angry.
So let’s discuss! How do you feel about the idea of communicative plants? Do you think plants are sentient? What about the whole "eating things without a central nervous system is still totally vegan" debate?
Book Review: The Blood Sugar Solution, by Mark Hyman »
After PCRM’s recent body-shaming tactics, I wouldn’t be surprised if many omnivores were rightfully terrified of the plant-strong medical community. Who wants to consider making a lifestyle change when they will be derided and treated inhumanely in the process? I wouldn’t blame anyone who might potentially be interested in eschewing animal products for the sake of their health if they felt too upset and offended to consider transitioning into this lifestyle.
That is why I’m here to gently, kindly, and very lovingly tell you why Mark Hyman, M.D. is different, and why his new book, The Blood Sugar Solution, is truly fantastic. Dr. Hyman’s new book elegantly lays out a plan for anyone looking to adopt a plant-strong diet for health to do so effectively and as easily as possible. But perhaps most remarkably, he does this without shaming those he aims to help. In fact, he takes great care to explain how obesity related to animal product consumption and other processed foods is NOT anyone’s fault, and exposes how big business and factory farming are working against people’s own biology to create disease in the body. Regardless of body size, he suggests that there are ways to improve your health through a plant-strong diet rich in diverse greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Dr. Hyman states that weight loss need not be the primary goal of any nutrition regimen—any plan should foremost focus on incorporating wholesome, plant-strong foods, and that weight loss will naturally result. He sheds light on hormonal issues that can arise from eating different foods, and how moderation is near to impossible with addictive foods like cheese. He does not include any pictures of anyone’s legs with captions that say cheese made the legs the size that they are. He just spits straight biochemistry like the rad guy he is, and compassionately suggests that there are ways to boost energy and metabolism without extreme deprivation diets or dangerous surgery.
The Blood Sugar Solution touches some territory that may not apply to all vegans—if you’re already healthy, you may want to skip some of the individualized nutrition quizzes and chapters. What I do think is essential for all vegans are the latest scientific studies included that outline which nutrients are most essential for a healthful, long life as a plant-strong eater. There are also some beautiful recipes in the back, including a split pea and rosemary soup that is as easy to make as it is economical. Dr. Hyman wants people of all budgets to eat healthful soup, shame-free! What a great person!
One last note: Dr. Hyman is not a vegan (I checked with him on Twitter, just to make sure), but he heavily promotes plant-strong diets, and offers some really valuable advice for balancing your plant-strong diet. He advocates eating SLOW carbs, not LOW carbs, and sets the record straight on which essential vitamins and minerals we should all ensure we get in our diet to make sure we’re eating in a balanced way for longevity. I highly recommend you check out The Blood Sugar Solution if you’re interested in getting more info on how to eat a balanced vegan diet, or if you know someone who may want to transition into a vegan diet primarily for health reasons and wants to feel supported and informed, not ashamed and discouraged.
Here’s to our health, the health of the animals and the planet!