Save the Humans

DROUGHT CALIFORNIA CATTLE

A few years ago, I was talking with Al Gore (yes, I’m name dropping). I asked him a very simple and pointed question: “Animal agriculture contributes about 18 percent of the gases that cause climate change. Why didn’t you mention this in your book or movie?”

His answer was disconcertingly honest. I’m paraphrasing, but he said: “For most people, the role of animal agriculture in climate change is too inconvenient of a truth.”

We like our animal products.

Well, you like your animal products. I’ve been a vegan for 28 years, so to be honest I don’t even remember what they taste like.

But collectively, as a species, we seem to like animal products. A lot.

To wit: Each year, the U.S. grows and kills about 10 billion livestock animals. Globally, we’re raising and slaughtering about 56 billion animals animal agriculture each year. If you do the math, that means we’re killing 1,776 animals for food every second of every day. That doesn’t even include fish and other seafood.

But even though I’m a vegan for ethical reasons, I don’t want to write about the animal ethics of animal agriculture. I want to write about the ways in which animal agriculture is killing us and ruining our planet.

I know, that sounds like left wing hyperbole. “It’s killing our planet!” But sometimes hyperbole isn’t hyperbole. Sometimes hyperbole is just the clear-eyed truth. I’ll start with climate change.

The U.N. released a conservative report wherein they stated that animal agriculture causes about 18 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions.

To put it in perspective: animal agriculture is responsible for producing more climate change gases than every car, boat, bus, truck, motorcycle and airplane on the planet. Combined.

But we like our animals — or at least growing and eating them. So we make the trade-off: animal products for climate change.

Climate is complicated. And climate change is complicated. But the role of animal agriculture in climate change is simple.

And how about famine? There are over 7,000,000,000 people on the planet, and many of them are very, very hungry. Article after article and book after book ask the question: “How will we feed a planet of 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 billion people?” The discussions turn to fertilizer and GMOs and arable land.

But here’s a painfully simple idea: stop feeding human food to livestock.

It takes around 15 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef – which can feed a couple people for a few hours. In comparison, 13 pounds of grain fed to humans directly can feed 13 people for most of the day.

“We’re killing 1,776 animals for food every second of every day.”

Globally, we don’t have a famine problem; we have a livestock problem. Feeding food to animals and then eating the animals is kind of like heating your house during the winter by burning wood outside.

Speaking of winters: a few years ago, tired of cold winters in New York, I moved to California. Last year in L.A., we had around 362 beautiful days of sunshine. It was 80 degrees on Christmas, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Which is great, apart from the fact that California and most of the West are now experiencing the worst drought in recorded history.

As Californians, we’ve been asked to take shorter showers and use less water on our lawns. Both are good ideas. But let’s put it in perspective: a long shower uses around 40 gallons of water. Whereas it takes 4,000 to 18,000 gallons of water to create a 1/3 lb hamburger.

More than 90 percent of the water in California goes to agriculture. Some agriculture is very water responsible. It takes about 216 gallons of water to make one pound of soybeans, for example.

But other agriculture is egregiously water intensive – including rice and cotton, but especially animal agriculture. Each pound of chicken requires about 500 gallons of water, and pork requires about 576 gallons of water.

“Personally, I’d like to make a deal with California. I’ll take much shorter showers if you stop subsidizing water use for livestock.”

Personally, I’d like to make a deal with California. I’ll take much shorter showers if you stop subsidizing water use for livestock. If I just jumped in the shower and bathed quickly, I could even get it down to five gallons of water per shower. And after 132 showers, I would’ve used as much water as is needed to create one pound of beef.

So we’ve established that having an estimated 56,000,000,000 livestock animals on the planet uses a lot of water and grain and creates a lot of methane and carbon dioxide.

But these billions of animals also make waste. The really disgusting waste, not just invisible climate warming gases.

Let’s put this in perspective: the good people of Philadelphia create roughly1,000,000 tons of urine and feces per year. And one, only one, large pig farm will produce roughly 1,600,000 tons of urine and feces per year.

“One large pig farm annually creates 600,000 tons more urine and feces than the city of Philadelphia.”

Our lakes and rivers are being fouled with algae blooms. Our groundwater is being polluted. And the main culprit is livestock.The 56 billion livestock animals on the planet are making tons and tons of feces and urine every year — three times as much as humans.

And, in addition to fouling our water supplies, it’s also fouling our homes. A University of Arizona study found more residual feces and waste in the average omnivores kitchen than in their toilet bowl. Largely due to meat into the home.

The animals spend their lives in their own feces and urine, and when they’re killed and packaged, they bring their feces and urine with them. Into your home. They also bring pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, cholesterol and saturated fat.

To that end: if we collectively stopped eating animals and animal products tomorrow, studies suggest we’d see a drop in obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

“We don’t have a global health epidemic; we have a global livestock epidemic. “

We don’t have a global health epidemic; we have a global livestock epidemic. Toomuch of the western world health care budgets go to curing people of diseases caused by the consumption of animal products.

And I’m not going to toot the vegan horn too much, but vegans have significantly lower rates of obesity, diabetes and some cancers.

When I talk to people about animal agriculture and meat eating, people often say, “But meat is inexpensive.” And it is. But only because it’s so heavily subsidized by our tax dollars. In the United States, we spend billions of dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies to the meat and dairy industries. Billions of dollars in our tax dollars, subsidizing a product that ruins our environment and decimates our health.

We subsidize the grain that’s fed to livestock. We subsidize the water that’s used in livestock production. We, the taxpayers, subsidize animal agriculture.

And what do we get? We get climate change gases. And we get trillions of pounds of animal waste that fouls our lakes and rivers and reservoirs. We get an end product that causes cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

And, saving the best for last, we also get zoonotic diseases.

“Zoonotic” is a fun and fancy sounding word. It sort of sounds like a very erudite part of a zoo, where the animals read books and live on boats. But zoonotic diseases are not fun or fancy. Some zoonotic diseases you might be familiar with: E.coli, Salmonella, SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola and even some old standards like smallpox and the common cold.

Zoonotic diseases come from animals, and, in many cases, from animal agriculture.

Luckily, thus far, we’ve been able to treat most zoonotic diseases with antibiotics. But here’s the rub: animals on factory farms are so sick, and in such bad shape, that antibiotics are all that’s keeping them from dying before they’re slaughtered. The animals are fed obscene amounts of antibiotics while they’re alive, and these antibiotics are then found in their milk and their eggs and their meat.

When you’re eating an animal, you’re eating the fat and the muscle but you’re also eating all of the antibiotics the animal has been fed during its life.

The double whammy of zoonotic diseases coming from animal agriculture: animals are the source of the zoonotic diseases but they’re also the source of antibiotic resistance. So the zoonotic diseases can kill us, especially as animal agriculture has created superbugs who don’t respond to conventional antibiotics.

That’s the fun world of animal agriculture.

A simple re-cap:

Animal agriculture:
Uses tons of grain that could be fed directly to people
Uses tons of fresh water that could be used to grow healthy food
Creates tons of urine and feces that ruin our lakes, rivers and drinking water
Creates about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions
Contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer
Causes epidemic zoonotic diseases
Contributes to the creation of antibiotic resistant “super bugs”
And is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars.

As a species, we are faced with complicated and seemingly intractable problems. And then we’re faced with animal agriculture.

So rather than focus on the hard, intractable problems (like curing baldness) let’s simply focus on something easy with phenomenal benefit: ending animal agriculture.

All we have to do is stop subsidizing it and stop buying animal products. Simple. And climate change gases are reduced by about 18 percent.

Famine could end. Fresh water could become clean and more abundant. Deaths from cancer and heart disease and diabetes and obesity could be reduced. And zoonotic diseases could be largely reduced.

It really is that simple.

We’ve done hard things in the past. We’ve ended slavery. We’ve given everyone the right to vote. We’ve passed legislation prohibiting children from working in factories. We’re even moving towards a time when cigarette smoking will be seen as a foul, distant memory.

We can do this. We have to. Our reliance on animal agriculture is literally killing us and ruining our climate and our planet.

I’ll end by quoting Albert Einstein:

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” -Albert Einstein

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/moby/moby-meat_b_5889850.html?1412009893

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Ironically, Climate Change Marchers Line Up to Buy Meat, Fish & Dairy at Parade

News & Opinion

Wearing t-shirts with slogans like “Climate Justice Starts Here,” hundreds, if not thousands, of Climate March participants in NYC lined up at food trucks at the street fair after the parade to buy meat, fish and dairy products, demonstrating either a lack of awareness or disregard for what the United Nations says is, by far, the number one contributor of climate change and the planet’s biggest polluter, animal agriculture.

How can the nation’s leading enviromental groups expect the general public to make eco-friendly choices if their own members engage in the most environmentally destructive activity — and if they themselves don’t promote a plant-based diet? Can we really expect world leaders at this week’s United Nations’ Climate Summit to take drastic measures to reverse climate change if “environmentalists” can’t take the most basic one?

At Climate Change marches around the world, plant-based/vegan participants displayed compelling posters and distributed information about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, and their efforts will assuredly effect some change. However, as evidenced in the groundbreaking documentary film Cowspiracy, animal agriculture must be eliminated altogether in order to reverse climate change and save the planet.

Meat and cheese may be as bad for you as smoking

“Crucially, the researchers found that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. Rates of cancer and death also did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbohydrate or fat consumption, suggesting that animal protein is the main culprit.”

 

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That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette. In a new study that tracked a large sample of adults for nearly two decades, researchers have found that eating a diet rich in animal proteins during middle age makes you four times more likely to die of cancer than someone with a low-protein diet — a mortality risk factor comparable to smoking.

“There’s a misconception that because we all eat, understanding nutrition is simple. But the question is not whether a certain diet allows you to do well for three days, but can it help you survive to be 100?” said corresponding author Valter Longo, the Edna M. Jones Professor of Biogerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute.

Not only is excessive protein consumption linked to a dramatic rise in cancer mortality, but middle-aged people who eat lots of proteins from animal sources — including meat, milk and cheese — are also more susceptible to early death in general, reveals the study to be published March 4 in Cell Metabolism. Protein-lovers were 74 percent more likely to die of any cause within the study period than their more low-protein counterparts. They were also several times more likely to die of DIABETES.

But how much protein we should eat has long been a controversial topic — muddled by the popularity of protein-heavy DIETS such as Paleo and Atkins. Before this study, researchers had never shown a definitive correlation between high protein consumption and mortality risk.

Rather than look at adulthood as one monolithic phase of life, as other researchers have done, the latest study considers how biology changes as we age, and how decisions in middle life may play out across the human lifespan.

In other words, what’s good for you at one age may be damaging at another. Protein controls the growth hormone IGF-I, which helps our bodies grow but has been linked to cancer susceptibility. Levels of IGF-I drop off dramatically after age 65, leading to potential frailty and muscle loss. The study shows that while high protein intake during middle age is very harmful, it is protective for older adults: those over 65 who ate a moderate- or HIGH-PROTEIN diet were less susceptible to disease.

The latest paper draws from Longo’s past research on IGF-I, including on an Ecuadorian cohort that seemed to have little cancer or DIABETES susceptibility because of a genetic mutation that lowered levels of IGF-I; the members of the cohort were all less than five-feet tall.

“The research shows that a low-protein diet in middle age is useful for preventing cancer and overall mortality, through a process that involves regulating IGF-I and possibly insulin levels,” said co-author Eileen Crimmins, the AARP Chair in Gerontology at USC. “However, we also propose that at older ages, it may be important to avoid a low-protein diet to allow the maintenance of healthy weight and protection from frailty.”

Crucially, the researchers found that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. Rates of cancer and death also did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbohydrate or fat consumption, suggesting that animal protein is the main culprit.

“The majority of Americans are eating about twice as much proteins as they should, and it seems that the best change would be to lower the daily intake of all proteins but especially animal-derived proteins,” Longo said. “But don’t get extreme in cutting out protein; you can go from protected to malnourished very quickly.”

Longo’s findings support recommendations from several leading health agencies to consume about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day in middle age. For example, a 130-pound person should eat about 45-50 grams of protein a day, with preference for those derived from plants such as legumes, Longo explains.

The researchers define a “HIGH-PROTEIN” diet as deriving at least 20 percent of CALORIES from protein, including both plant-based and animal-based protein. A “moderate” protein diet includes 10-19 percent of calories from protein, and a “low-protein” diet includes less than 10 percent protein.

Even moderate amounts of protein had detrimental effects during middle age, the researchers found. Across all 6,318 adults over the age of 50 in the study, average protein intake was about 16 percent of total daily calories with about two-thirds from animal protein — corresponding to data about national protein consumption. The study sample was representative across ethnicity, education and health background.

People who ate a moderate amount of protein were still three times more likely to die of cancer than those who ate a low-protein DIET in middle age, the study shows. Overall, even the small change of decreasing protein intake from moderate levels to low levels reduced likelihood of early death by 21 percent.

For a randomly selected smaller portion of the sample – 2,253 people – levels of the growth hormone IGF-I were recorded directly. The results show that for every 10 ng/ml increase in IGF-I, those on a HIGH-PROTEIN diet were 9 percent more likely to die from cancer than those on a low-protein diet, in line with past research associating IGF-I levels to cancer risk.

The researchers also extended their findings about HIGH-PROTEIN diets and mortality risk, looking at causality in mice and cellular models. In a study of tumor rates and progression among mice, the researchers show lower cancer incidence and 45 percent smaller average tumor size among mice on a low-protein diet than those on a high-protein diet by the end of the two-month experiment.

“Almost everyone is going to have a cancer cell or pre-cancer cell in them at some point. The question is: Does it progress?” Longo said. “Turns out one of the major factors in determining if it does is is protein intake.”

 

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140304125639.htm

Meat the hidden culprit of climate change

 

Several cows stare into the camera
PHOTO 

Moving to a completely meat-free diet would go a long way to tackling climate change.

PHIL WALTER: GETTY IMAGES

Most of us agree that action needs to be taken to address climate change, but when it comes to moving to a meat-free diet to drastically reduce emissions, suddenly we’re not so keen, writes Ruby Hamad.

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “It is easier to change a man’s religion than his diet.” It is also, apparently, easier to change the entire world’s energy production.

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, “Mitigation of Climate Change”, citing fossil fuels as the biggest source of emissions, with coal, oil, and natural gas the major culprits.

However, the panel also implicates animal agriculture, noting that“changes in diet and reductions of losses in the food supply chain, have a significant, but uncertain, potential to reduce GHG emissions from food production.”

Seventy per cent of agricultural emissions come directly from livestock – and about 37 per cent of total worldwide methane emissions – and it is clear that moving away from animal products is not just potentially significant but downright necessary.

The IPCC findings come hot on the heels of another study, “The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets”, published in the April edition of Climate Change.

The study’s lead author argues that targeting the fossil fuel industry alone is insufficient because “the agricultural emissions … may be too high. Thus we have to take action in both sectors.”

In 2010 a UN report, “Priority, Products, and Materials” concluded that, “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

That report puts agriculture’s global emissions at 14 per cent, and while not giving an exact figure, the researchers warn that “animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives”. Subsequent research suggests emissions from livestock and their by-products may be much higher (even as high as 51 per cent). Even if we err on the side of conservatism and stick to the lower UN figure, it still indicates that agriculture is responsible for more emissions that all means of transport combined.

No one who cares about the threat of climate change is ignorant of the importance of renewable energy and a reduction in energy use. So why do we still have our collective head in the sand about the need to change our diet?

In an impassioned tirade against Earth Day (April 22), which he dismisses as emblematic of “the culture of progressive green denial”, The Nation’s Wen Stephenson calls for radical action, namely, “physically, non-violently disrupting the fossil-fuel industry and the institutions that support and abet it … Forcing the issue. Finally acting as though we accept what the science is telling us.”

I don’t know what Stephenson’s food habits are but, ironically, in a piece railing against denialism, he does not mention meat consumption once. It is rather extraordinary how we acknowledge the need to address climate change and then carry on with those very activities that are causing the damage in the first place.

While some media outlets do report on the link between animal agriculture and global warming, they also undermine the urgency by featuring stories on, for example, how to include bacon in every meal – including dessert. TV channels flog reality shows glorifying high levels of meat consumption, and fast food outlets compete to see who can stuff the most meat and cheese into a single, fat-laden item.

All as scientists warn of the need to move away from dependency on animals as a food source.

When those of us who are concerned by the devastating effects of animal agriculture raise the issue, somehow the focus shifts from saving the planet to respecting personal choice, as if the choice to eat certain foods is sacrosanct.

We have to compromise our personal preferences every day in the interests of public safety. Smoking prohibitions, speed limits, alcohol restrictions, even initiatives promoting recycling and “green” household products all affect our choices.

But, for some reason, requesting people reduce their consumption of meat is taken as a personal affront to their very being. Humans have been eating animals for so long, and in such large quantities, we think we are entitled to their bodies, regardless of the consequences.

Clearly, our dependence on fossil fuels has to change but it is quite remarkable that we actually consider restructuring our entire energy system as an easier and more viable undertaking than simply altering our food habits.

The Guardian’s food writer Jay Rayner unwittingly demonstrates this in his reaction to a University of Aberdeen study that found a worldwide adoption of a vegan diet would reduce CO2 emissions by a massive 7.8 gigatonnes. But, rather than take this on board, Rayner chooses instead to shrug his shoulders, declare that “the world is not going vegan any time soon” and condemn “self-righteous vegans” for “making airy proclamations about the way forward when [they] have no power whatsoever to make it happen”.

But why don’t we have the power to make it happen?

Even if we don’t all go completely vegan, surely the takeaway is that everyone should eat less meat and more plants, and not just on Meatless Mondays?

It’s easy to point the finger only at fossil fuels because this requires no major personal sacrifice. We can pin all the blame on big corporations, demand policy change, and then feel good about ourselves by declaring on Facebook that we are against dredging the Barrier Reef and we don’t support fracking.

But meat is different. Meat means we have to change. It means we have to sacrifice something we enjoy, something we believe we are entitled to. And most of us simply aren’t willing to compromise that entitlement, so we pretend that the idea of a worldwide shift to a plant-based diet is simply too ridiculous to contemplate. That’s if we even acknowledge the crisis at all.

So we sign petitions and attend demonstrations. Some of us even drive less, take shorter showers, and use eco light bulbs. But nothing it seems, not even the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, could compel a significant number of us to simply change our diet.

Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer and filmmaker. View her full profile here.

 

Source: http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-28/hamad-meat-the-hidden-culprit-of-climate-change/5414894

What the Future of Food Could Look Like…

One of the largest matters of concern surrounding the issue of climate change (or at least it SHOULD be the largest concern) is what will happen to our global food supply if we carry on business as usual. It has been said many times, right here on OGP, that the fight against climate change begins on your plate. While this is known to be true by many reputable scientists, researchers, and governmental bodies, there is still an outrageous disconnect between the facts and the action that is being taken.

What I am referring to here is the wildly wasteful system of industrialized agriculture that we have in the U.S. and that can be found in countries across the world as well. Driven by an insatiable demand for meat, our entire food system – I’m talking globally here – has been warped beyond any recognizable measure to meet the needs of the meat industry.

The result? A lot of cheap meat, a lot of food being produced to feed that “meat,” and then all the not so great environmental, animal, and human consequences. So in the most ironic of twists, in the pursuit of feeding people, the industrial food complex may be the very thing that causes the massive collapse of major food systems.

Let’s Break This Down

According to the IPCC’s climate report, 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface is being managed for cropland and pasture. That is an incredible area of land all relegated for food production. But the proportion of food produced and food consumed is way out of balance. In the U.S., only 20 percentof the corn grown across 80 MILLION acres of cropland goes to feeding people. The rest is largely portioned off to feed livestock.

It has been estimated that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grains that they use to feed livestock. And this is a quickly becoming a global trend as 40 percent of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock as well. In addition, the demand for corn to feed livestock has lead to the expansion of corn monocultures which are highly susceptible to collapse given an unexpected change in weather or disease.

According to the FAO, in 2007, 270 million tons of meat were produced across the world, every year this number increases by 2.3 percent, meaning by 2014 that number has increased by a significant margin. The energy ratio of the amount of fossil fuel to protein produced for beef is a whopping 54:1. A half a pound of steak contains around 77 grams of protein. Yum, fossil fuels.

Globally, livestock production is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s total methane emissions from agriculture.

As greenhouse gas emissions increase along with an increase of livestock production (as predicted by the FAO’s 2.3 percent per year) carbon dioxide concentrations rise, the IPCC predicts, that crops will flourish. However, the downside is, the additional CO2 comes with an increase in temperature, which over the long-term actually hinders plant growth. In addition, higher temperatures make droughts more common and more severe, making necessary irrigation nearly impossible.

The Two Options for Our Food Future

By now, the picture is pretty clear, if we continue to prioritize meat production over the production of other plant-based proteins then the future of global food supplies is not bright…to say the least.

The alternative, however, does not require new innovative technology but rather is a return to our agriculture roots, so to speak. The sustainable agriculture movement is based around the concepts of ethical and responsible farming, utilizing methods that were relied on for years before the first “concentrated feeding facility” was even created.

Organizations such as Sustainable Table and Slow Food offer an alternative to our current system of industrialized agriculture that if adopted world-wide could greatly mitigate the environmental damage caused by industrialized husbandry.

Using simple methods such as multi-cropping fields to reduce the demands for pesticides and fertilizer and planting a diverse variety of crops, sustainable agriculture is not driven by the demand to feed livestock that will one day become meat, it is driven by the intention of managing the Earth to feed to many people who probably intend on eating for the next thousand or so years…

We have put our food system on a track that is inherently self-destructive. By taking a step back and putting the nature back in agriculture we can create a flourishing food system that will be able to withstand the inevitable “surprises” posed by climate change.

Now, this change won’t happen over night, but you can take real steps to see this happen right now. First and foremost, of course, cutting meat out of your diet is a powerful way to remove your personal burden on animals and the environment. Second, take yourself out of the industrial food complex, try more raw foods, don’t buy produce that has been shipped across the world, and as a rule: don’t eat it if it didn’t come out of the ground. Consumer power is more important than you may think, change your habits and change the world – simple as that!

Source: http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/what-the-future-of-food-could-look-like-spoiler-its-not-great/

With Millions of Tons of Plastic in Oceans, More Scientists Studying Impact

Photo of a boat in the trash-filled waters of Manila Bay.

Fishermen set out amid floating garbage off the shore of Manila Bay in the Philippines on June 8, 2013.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIK DE CASTRO, REUTERS

Laura Parker

National Geographic

PUBLISHED JUNE 13, 2014

Consider this: The amount of global trash is expected to rise every year for the rest of the century. With no intervention, the growing garbage heap won’t even peak by 2021.

Since most marine debris originates on land, that grim prognosis, say researchers at the University of Georgia, could spell disaster for the oceans, creating an environmental hazard often compared in scope with climate change.

“We estimate we’re going to have millions of tons of plastic going into the ocean with, so far, unknown consequences,” says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the university, who is among a group of scientists pursuing a new phase of research on ocean trash and measuring its impact on the environment and marine life. The University of Georgia group works as part of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

But while climate change is still mired in politics and is a target of naysayers, the trouble in the oceans is an easier issue to address because it is so visible. “The one thing this issue has going for it over climate change is that you can see the garbage,” Jambeck says.

Ocean debris grabbed the international spotlight this spring during the search for the missing Malaysian jet, when multiple satellite images of floating debris repeatedly turned out to be garbage instead of pieces of the Boeing 777. (See “Plane Search Shows World’s Oceans Are Full of Trash.”)

Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to highlight the issue again next week by making marine trash one of the main topics at a two-day oceans conference that begins Monday. Kerry hopes to frame the challenges that lie ahead, including climate change-related ocean acidification and the threat of overfishing.

But the dilemma caused by the growing tonnage of mostly plastic debris is so complex, it has created a new interdisciplinary field of study. Scientists like Jambeck are examining a litany of new issues that range from the toxicity of plastics ingested by marine animals to the politics and economics of solid waste management in developing nations.

New Questions for an Old Problem

Seafarers have known for decades that the oceans are trash dumps, the ultimate sinkholes for all global garbage. So far, 136 species of marine animals have been found entangled in debris. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first such discovery was made in 1944, when northern fur seals turned up trapped in rubber “collars” that were the remains of Japanese food-drop bags from the Aleutian campaign in World War II.

But scientific research into marine garbage is only a decade or so old. NOAA, for example, launched its Marine Debris Program only in 2006, after Congress passed the Marine Debris Act at the urging of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

The defining moment of ocean debris research, says Jambeck, was when scientists discovered that ocean debris was no longer an assemblage of cloth, wood, and ceramics, but was composed almost entirely of plastic. Most of that is micro-plastic, meaning it has decayed and broken down into microscopic pieces that float in the water column. Richard Thompson, a British scientist scheduled to speak at Kerry’s conference, first highlighted the problem in 2004 in a paper titled “Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?”

“Once micro-plastics entered the picture and it was being ingested by marine life, it was a whole new ballgame,” Jambeck says. “That’s when the alarms started going off.”

Jambeck and her team’s research, to be published later this year, will provide new estimates of how much garbage is produced globally every year, how much garbage comes from developing countries lacking garbage collection systems, and how much litter is produced by developed countries. All trash has the potential to reach the oceans.

Yet despite the new burst of scientific study, solving the problem in the face of an increasing volume of ocean trash seems an almost insurmountable task.

Photo of a boy collecting trash on an Albanian beach.

A boy collects debris on a beach near Durres on Albania’s Adriatic Coast on April 9, 2010.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARBEN CELI, REUTERS

Options Are Few: Cleanup or Prevention

An alliance of 48 plastic manufacturers from 25 countries—all members of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter—has pledged to help prevent marine debris and encourage recycling. Several manufacturers are now marketing products made partly from recycled ocean plastics and abandoned fishing gear.

But the consensus among many scientists, including NOAA’s, is that cleaning up the oceans can potentially cause more harm than good. Cleaning up micro-plastics could also inadvertently sweep up plankton, which provides the basis for the marine food chain and half of the photosynthesis on Earth.

Ocean trash is driven by currents into loosely formed garbage “patches” that Dianna Parker, a NOAA spokesperson, says are more accurately described as “peppery soup” filled with grain-size plastic bits. The word “patch” suggests a defined size and location, when in fact floating debris is constantly moving, shifting with seasonal weather, and changing in shape and size.

Cleaning up even one of these areas seems impossible. Not surprisingly, the largest patch is in the largest ocean—the Pacific, which covers a third of the planet. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is known, is often said to be twice the size of Texas. It actually extends, at times, from Japan to San Francisco, and varies in shape and density. According to NOAA, cleaning up less than one percent of the North Pacific would take 68 ships working 10 hours a day for a year.

Beach cleanups help, but are costly and ineffective. The Ocean Conservancy, the international leader in coastal cleanups, has collected some 180 million tons in three decades of work. “We have now created the world’s best database for what actually happens on our beaches,” says Andreas Merkl, the group’s CEO. “We are the largest end-of-the-pipe, ocean-specific trash entity.”

San Francisco spends $6 million a year cleaning up cigarette butts alone, according to NOAA figures in a report called the “The Honolulu Strategy: A Global Framework for Prevention and Management of Marine Debris.” The Honolulu Strategy, developed at a NOAA conference in 2011, notes that a more effective solution is to prevent debris from being swept into the oceans in the first place.

But as long as some countries lack the ability to efficiently collect garbage from its citizens, that garbage will continue to end up in the ocean.

Plastic-Making Technology Spreads

Ted Siegler, a partner at DSM Environmental Services, a waste management firm in Windsor, Vermont, has spent a career helping developing countries set up garbage collection systems.

“In many ways, this is really simple. This is putting trucks on the road and picking up the garbage and bringing it to a proper place,” he says. “But none of that is occurring in almost all of the places that I’ve been working in the last 20 years.”

The complication, Siegler says, is the speed with which plastic manufacturing technology has spread globally.

“I could walk into a guy’s garage in Jordan and he would be blowing film to create plastic bags. Or walk into an industrial shop in Vietnam and a guy would have a brand-new Chinese knockoff of a Frito-Lay packaging machine,” he says.

“There is no end in sight to how much plastic we are going to be producing and how much we are going to be using, and that’s the scary part. If it’s important now, it’s going to be much more important ten years from now.”

 

Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140613-ocean-trash-garbage-patch-plastic-science-kerry-marine-debris/?utm_source=NatGeocom&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=inside_20140619&utm_campaign=Content