Archive | November 2012

Not Your Pilgrim’s Turkey

As we get ready for a great traditional Thanksgiving feast, I often wonder if this meal is really what the pilgrims and Native Americans would have eaten. Most likely our traditions have nothing to do with what really went down. We cannot even be sure that the first Thanksgiving had a turkey, and even if they did, according to a new study, this main dish would be genetically different than the bird present at the first Thanksgiving.

 “Ancient turkeys weren’t your Butterball,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics. “We set out to compare the genetic diversity of the domestic turkeys we eat today with that of the ancestral wild turkey from South Mexico. Some of what we found surprised us.” First to note is that all commercial turkey lines have descended from the South Mexican turkey that was first domesticated in 800 BC.

To obtain the turkeys’ genetic code, researchers sequenced the genomes of domestic turkeys from seven commercial lines and compared the genomes to those of three museum specimens of the South Mexican turkeys collected in 1899 from Chihuahua, Mexico.

What researchers found was that the domestic turkey exhibits less genetic variation than not only its ancestral wild counterparts, but the species has less diversity compared to other livestock breeds, like domestic pigs or chickens.

“It is often the case that selection in domestication reduces the level of variation,” Fleischer said. “What did surprise us, however, is how well the ancient DNA from the three museum specimens worked to generate the genome sequences needed to determine the genetic variation and structure. These data and this approach show great promise for determining what genes were involved in the process of turkey domestication.”

Turkey is the second largest contributor of poultry meat consumed worldwide and the production per bird doubled between 1970 and 2008 as breeders started selecting traits that would appeal to consumers. However, this genetic “improvement” of farm animals has resulted in a loss of genetic diversity.

The research is important in order to discover the differences between ancient and modern domesticated turkeys, which can predict any unforeseen problems that may threaten the stability of the commercial turkey lines.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume more than 45 million turkeys every Thanksgiving. So gobble up and enjoy your turkey day!




US Military Takes Part in Reducing Ecological Footprint

In an effort to enhance American security and address climate change, the U.S. military is diminishing its footprint. The military is producing cleaner power, reducing energy consumption, managing water and minimizing waste. Their efforts encompass vast numbers of vehicles, ships, planes, buildings, lands, and other facilities.

A major impetus for these efforts is Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” which President Obama signed on October 5, 2009. It mandates a 30 percent reduction in energy usage by federal agencies.

Independent of EO 13514, most senior ranking military officials acknowledge the need to address the risks posed by climate change. Even military men that were around long before the Obama administration believe that it is urgent that we address climate change. Admiral John Nathman, USN (Ret.), former Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command under President George W. Bush, put it this way:

“There are serious risks to doing nothing about climate change. We can pay now or we’re going to pay a whole lot later. The U.S. has a unique opportunity to become energy independent, protect our national security and boost our economy while reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve been a model of success for the rest of the world in the past and now we must lead the way on climate change.”

Climate change has been an important issue for the Department of Defense (DoD) dating back to the dawn of the 21st century. In 2008, the DoD set the goal of generating 25 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2025. In 2009, the U.S. military launched several clean energy initiatives including solar and wind projects. The DoD’s current Comprehensive Energy Strategy involves annual reduction requirements, which include energy, water, and GHGs.

A Pike Research report titled, “Renewable Energy for Military Applications”, indicates that annual spending on renewable energy by the DoD will reach $10 billion by 2030.

The US Department of Defense spends approximately $4 billion per year on energy. About one quarter of these costs come from 500 fixed installations, comprising nearly 300,000 buildings that cover 2.3 billion square feet.

To help manage these facilities, the DoD has developed an energy strategy designed to reduce energy demand through conservation and efficiency. To achieve these goals, they are expanding their supply of renewable energy and leveraging advanced technology.


Let’s Celebrate America Recycles Day by taking the Food Recovery Challenge!

Today is America Recycles Day, a nationally recognized day dedicated to promoting recycling in the US. All across the country, thousands of events are being held to celebrate recycling awareness in communities.

One way organizations are participating this year is by taking the Food Recovery Challenge. The Food Recovery Challenge is a voluntary program established by the EPA with a goal to cut the 35 million tons of food wasted nationwide annually by reducing unnecessary consumption and increasing donations to charity and composting.

Whether it’s week-old leftovers, spoiled vegetables, or food you’re just tired of eating, the average America throws away $2275 per year in unwanted food- and this food ends up in landfills where it decomposes to generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Nationally, food is the single largest material sent to landfills, accounting for 25 percent of all waste. By limiting wasted food, we have the potential to reduce methane emissions.

Instead of throwing away food, the Food Recovery Challenge emphasizes the use of composting. When compostable foods are put into composts piles, they break down faster and put key nutrients back into the soil. If you do not have the means to start your own compost heap, many organizations will often come and collect your leftover food scraps for a nominal fee.

For foods that are in surplus, the campaign suggests donations. A lot of supermarkets and restaurants that have expired or leftover food often throw these products away. However, donating these foodstuffs to the appropriate parties not only saves the food from going into landfills, but it also helps those in need. According to the EPA, in 2009, more than 14 percent of households in the US did not know where their next meal would come from, so it is important that we donate any and all leftovers.

Some examples of how organizations can implement food waste reduction programs is by including trayless dining, which reduces the tendency to take more food than can be consumed. For restaurants, management can modify their purchasing orders or pay attention to food that is left on diner’s plates. Individually, we can focus on portion control to not only reduce excess food waste, but to also save money.

Over 100 higher education institutions, grocers, businesses, cafeterias, and entertainment venues have signed up to take the challenge. Will you?

Find a recycling event for America Recycles Day.

Read more about the Food Recovery Challenge.

Food waste image via Shutterstock.


Lightning Bolts Could Make Concrete Recycling Viable

© Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics
A process for disintegrating waste concrete into its various components using bolts of lightning could help to make concrete a truly recyclable building material.

When it’s recycled at all, waste concrete is typically ground down into smaller pieces, a process that not only produces lots of dust, but because of its limited efficiency, turns out a product mostly used as a road base material. That process is more akin to simple reuse than to true recycling, and it only accounts for a small percentage of the waste concrete produced every year.

But if there was a process that could break down the concrete into its constituent components, which could then be used again in new products, then the rate for waste concrete recycling could jump by a factor of ten, according to research being done in Germany.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP are using a process known as electrodynamic fragmentation to selectively separate concrete in their lab. The method was originally developed by Russian scientists in the 40s, but it wasn’t until recently that the technology was improved to the level that could make large-scale use feasible.

The fragmentation system, also known as “pulsed power processing”, uses electrical pulses forced through the materials, which are submerged underwater:

“When the pulses strike the rock, in this case the concrete, the pre-discharges always follow the path of least resistance – along grain boundaries.” – Dr. Volker Thome

Once the pre-discharges have weakened the rock along its grain boundaries, shock waves then disintegrate the concrete by pulling it apart into its individual components with great force:

“The force of this shock wave is comparable to that of a TNT explosion.” – Thome

Once the components have been dried and screened, they can potentially be reused as raw materials, such as gravel aggregate in cement production. With the hundreds of millions of pounds of waste concrete generated around the world each year, being able to recycle even some of it would reduce not only the need for new mineral extractions, but would also lessen the loads of landfills.

Mining companies currently use the fragmentation process to separate valuable minerals from the surrounding rock without destroying them, and this new advancement could also be developed into applications for recycling carbon fiber reinforced polymers and reclaiming municipal solid waste incineration (MSWI) bottom ash, according to the researchers.


Could Your Morning Cup of Coffee Become Extinct by 2080?

 wild arabica coffee wild arabica South Sudan Leon Kaye Kew Royal Botanic Gardens coffee Climate Change Boma Plateau arabica coffee arabica

Scientists in the United Kingdom recently completed a study suggesting that Arabica coffee, the species that makes up 75 percent of coffee beans sold, could become extinct in 70 years. Due to climate change and its symptoms including deforestation, at team at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens ran a series of computer simulations that indicate that wild Arabica coffee could become extinct by 2080.

Such a development should worry everyone from growers to consumers. Coffee is the second most traded global commodity after petroleum and is an economic lifeline for many countries in Africa and Latin America. Since the Arabica coffee beans grown throughout the world’s coffee farms are from a limited genetic stock, they are susceptible to pests and diseases. Wild Arabica coffee stock offers opportunities for scientists to extract some of its genetic stock to strengthen cultivated varieties and make them more climate change resistant.

The Kew scientists ran a series of analyses to gauge the future of Arabica coffee production in a world affected by climate change. The results showed that by 2080, the most favorable outcome would be that the world would suffer a 38 percent reduction in land suitable for coffee production–but the worst case scenario was a 99.7 percent reduction, which would effectively wipe out wild Arabica plants.

The team then traveled to the Boma Plateau region in South Sudan, a region where coffee cultivation has endured for centuries. The area had already undergone dramatic change, from deforestation to land clearing for agriculture. Compared to earlier studies, the Boma Plateau had suffered environmental degradation, with reduced seedlings, a lower frequency of flowering and fruiting and finally, a decrease in mature pants. Add the fact that coffee has risen in price in recent years because of poor harvests yet continued increased demand, and the long term prospects for coffee could become very grim.

Kew’s scientists hope their study is a clarion call for an increased understanding of coffee’s precarious future. The research team identified a series of sites in eastern Africa that could become home to wild coffee plants. And while deforestation has had a role in decreased coffee yields, climate change alone could be the deciding factor in Arabica beans’ survival. To that end, the Kew study calls for more storage of varieties in seed banks and immediate conservation action. Despite all the actions of fair trade organizations and groups including the Rain Forest Alliance, larger forces could have a huge impact on coffee cultivation in the years to come. Coffee companies will have to step it up if their businesses are to survive in the long term.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable BusinessInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.


Sail-inspired turbine promises cheaper wind energy

Sail-inspired turbine promises cheaper wind energy

Nébil Zaghdoud

5 November 2012 | EN

The new turbine
The sail-inspired wind turbine may capture more energySaphon Energy

[TUNIS] A Tunisian invention that harvests wind energy through adesign inspired by sailboats promises cheaper, more efficient wind energy.

The bladeless wind turbine, the Saphonian, named after the wind divinity that was worshipped by the ancient Carthaginians, also promises to be more environmentally friendly than existing wind turbines that produce noise and kill birds through their blade rotation.

Instead of rotating blades, the Saphonian’s sail-shaped body collects the kinetic energy of the wind, Anis Aouini, the Saphonian’s inventor, told SciDev.Net.

He explained that the resulting mechanical energy moves pistons which generate hydraulic pressure that can be stored in a hydraulic accumulator or converted into electricity.

“This is not the first bladeless wind turbine, but we thought outside the box: the initial idea came from sails — the only human system that can capture and convert the bulk of the wind’s power into mechanical energy,” said Aouini.

An average wind turbine captures only 30 to 40 per cent of the wind’s kinetic energy, while the Saphonian can capture up to 80 per cent, according to Aouini.

Hassine Labaied, chief executive of Saphon Energy, the start-up energy company established to get the turbine to market, said the Saphonian reduces the aerodynamic and mechanical energy losses associated with rotating-blade turbines.

“Our second generation prototype is 2.3 times more efficient, and costs nearly half the price of its predecessors [conventional wind turbines]. It discards the most expensive components in a traditional wind turbine, which are the blades, hub and gearbox,” said Labaied.

Aouini and Labaied patented the technology in Tunisia in September 2010, and received an international patent in March 2012. Saphon Energy is now looking for a partnership with a manufacturer to deploy the technology worldwide.

“We are negotiating with a number of international companies that produce renewable energy technology, and will finalise this by the end of this year,” said Labaied. He estimated that it would take up to two years until the commercial product reaches the market.

Ali Kanzari, a renewable energy expert and director-general of Solar Energy Systems, told SciDev.Net that the Saphonian “seems to be a radical and economically viable alternative to bladed turbines”. However, he added that “the manufacturing step is important as it will determine how the market will accept it”.

“The electricity produced through wind in Tunisia represents five per cent of total electricity production in the country,” Ayadi Ben Aissa, former chief executive of the Tunisian Society of Electricity and Gas (STEG), told SciDev.Net.

He said that using the Saphonian technology could produce up to 20 per cent of Tunisia’s electricity from wind in the medium term.


Hello world!

This is a blog that will be part of a final project for my Environment in Literature class. I will be posting articles on various sustainability and environmental topics and asking people to comment on them in hopes of starting an engaging and informative discussion. Feel free to add your comments to any topics you are interested, and thank you for your help!