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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Flesh Of Your Flesh

From The New Yorker

How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious.

This inconsistency is the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” (Little, Brown; $25.99). Unlike Foer’s two previous books, “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” his latest is nonfiction. The task it sets itself is less to make sense of our behavior than to show how, when our stomachs are involved, it is often senseless. “Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list,” Foer writes.

Click here to read the whole article

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Eating Animals Is Making Us Sick

Eating animals is making us sick

By Jonathan Safran Foer, Special to CNN
October 28, 2009 7:08 a.m. EDT
Jonathan Safran Foer says "stomach flu" is often a case of eating pathogens in tainted meat and poultry.
Jonathan Safran Foer says "stomach flu" is often a case of eating pathogens in tainted meat and poultry.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer: Inhumane way we raise animals for slaughter poisons us all
  • Foer: Factory farming tied to global warming, swine and bird flu, other illnesses
  • He says animals loaded with antibiotics, live in gruesome conditions
  • System driven by food and pharmacetical industries; Foer asks: Why no outcry?

Editor's note: Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the critically acclaimed novels "Everything is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." His latest book, the nonfiction "Eating Animals," (Little, Brown and Co.) will be published November 2.

New York (CNN) -- Like most people, I'd given some thought to what meat actually is, but until I became a father and faced the prospect of having to make food choices on someone else's behalf, there was no urgency to get to the bottom of things.

I'm a novelist and never had it in mind to write nonfiction. Frankly, I doubt I'll ever do it again. But the subject of animal agriculture, at this moment, is something no one should ignore. As a writer, putting words on the page is how I pay attention.

If the way we raise animals for food isn't the most important problem in the world right now, it's arguably the No. 1 cause of global warming: The United Nations reports the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.

It's the No. 1 cause of animal suffering, a decisive factor in the creation of zoonotic diseases like bird and swine flu, and the list goes on. It is the problem with the most deafening silence surrounding it.

Even the most political people, the most thoughtful and engaged, tend not to "go there." And for good reason. Going there can be extremely uncomfortable. Food is not just what we put in our mouths to fill up; it is culture and identity. Reason plays some role in our decisions about food, but it's rarely driving the car.

We need a better way to talk about eating animals, a way that doesn't ignore or even just shruggingly accept things like habits, cravings, family and history but rather incorporates them into the conversation. The more they are allowed in, the more able we will be to follow our best instincts. And although there are many respectable ways to think about meat, there is not a person on Earth whose best instincts would lead him or her to factory farming.

My book, "Eating Animals," addresses factory farming from numerous perspectives: animal welfare, the environment, the price paid by rural communities, the economic costs. In two essays, I will share some of what I've learned about how the way we raise animals for food affects human health.

What we eat and what we are

Why aren't more people aware of, and angry about, the rates of avoidable food-borne illness? Perhaps it doesn't seem obvious that something is amiss simply because anything that happens all the time -- like meat, especially poultry, becoming infected by pathogens -- tends to fade into the background.

Whatever the case, if you know what to look for, the pathogen problem comes into terrifying focus. For example, the next time a friend has a sudden "flu" -- what folks sometimes misdescribe as "the stomach flu" -- ask a few questions. Was your friend's illness one of those "24-hour flus" that come and go quickly: retch or crap, then relief? The diagnosis isn't quite so simple, but if the answer to this question is yes, your friend probably didn't have the flu at all.

He or she was probably suffering from one of the 76 million cases of food-borne illness the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated happen in America each year. Your friend didn't "catch a bug" so much as eat a bug. And in all likelihood, that bug was created by factory farming.

Beyond the sheer number of illnesses linked to factory farming, we know that factory farms are contributing to the growth of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens simply because these farms consume so many antimicrobials.

We have to go to a doctor to obtain antibiotics and other antimicrobials as a public-health measure to limit the number of such drugs being taken by humans. We accept this inconvenience because of its medical importance. Microbes eventually adapt to antimicrobials, and we want to make sure it is the truly sick who benefit from the finite number of uses any antimicrobial will have before the microbes learn how to survive it.

On a typical factory farm, drugs are fed to animals with every meal. In poultry factory farms, they almost have to be. It's a perfect storm: The animals have been bred to such extremes that sickness is inevitable, and the living conditions promote illness.

Industry saw this problem from the beginning, but rather than accept less-productive animals, it compensated for the animals' compromised immunity with drugs. As a result, farmed animals are fed antibiotics nontherapeutically: that is, before they get sick.

In the United States, about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but a whopping 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock -- at least, that is what the industry claims.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that the industry underreported its antibiotic use by at least 40 percent.

The group calculated that 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics were fed to chickens, pigs and other farmed animals, counting only nontherapeutic uses. And that was in 2001. In other words, for every dose of antibiotics taken by a sick human, eight doses are given to a "healthy" animal.

The implications for creating drug-resistant pathogens are quite straightforward. Study after study has shown that antimicrobial resistance follows quickly on the heels of the introduction of new drugs on factory farms.

For example, in 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration approved fluoroquinolones -- such as Cipro -- for use in chickens against the protest of the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of bacteria resistant to this powerful new class of antibiotics rose from almost zero to 18 percent by 2002.

A broader study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed an eightfold increase in antimicrobial resistance from 1992 to 1997 and linked this increase to the use of antimicrobials in farmed chickens. As far back as the late 1960s, scientists have warned against the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farmed-animal feed.

Today, institutions as diverse as the American Medical Association; the Centers for Disease Control; the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences; and the World Health Organization have linked nontherapeutic antibiotic use on factory farms with increased antimicrobial resistance and called for a ban.

Still, the factory farm industry has effectively opposed such a ban in the United States. And, unsurprisingly, the limited bans in other countries are only a limited solution.

There is a glaring reason that the necessary total ban on nontherapeutic use of antibiotics hasn't happened: The factory farm industry, allied with the pharmaceutical industry, has more power than public-health professionals.

What is the source of the industry's immense power? We give it to them. We have chosen, unwittingly, to fund this industry on a massive scale by eating factory-farmed animal products. And we do so daily.

The same conditions that lead at least 76 million Americans to become ill from their food annually and that promote antimicrobial resistance also contribute to the risk of a pandemic.

At a remarkable 2004 conference, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) put their tremendous resources together to evaluate the available information on "emerging zoonotic diseases" or those spread by humans-to- animals and animals-to-humans.

At the time of the conference, H5N1 and SARS topped the list of feared emerging zoonotic diseases. Today, the H1N1 swine flu would be the pathogen enemy No. 1.

The scientists distinguished between "primary risk factors" for zoonotic diseases and mere "amplification risk factors," which affect only the rate at which a disease spreads. Their examples of primary risk factors were "change to an agricultural production system or consumption patterns." What particular agricultural and consumer changes did they have in mind?

First in a list of four main risk factors was "increasing demand for animal protein," which is a way of saying that demand for meat, eggs, and dairy is a "primary factor" influencing emerging zoonotic diseases. This demand for animal products, the report continues, leads to "changes in farming practices." Lest we have any confusion about the "changes" that are relevant, poultry factory farms are singled out.

Similar conclusions were reached by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, which brought together industry experts and experts from the WHO, OIE and USDA. Their 2005 report argued that a major impact of factory farming is "the rapid selection and amplification of pathogens that arise from a virulent ancestor (frequently by subtle mutation), thus there is increasing risk for disease entrance and/or dissemination."

Breeding genetically uniform and sickness-prone birds in the overcrowded, stressful, feces-infested and artificially lit conditions of factory farms promotes the growth and mutation of pathogens. The "cost of increased efficiency," the report concludes, is increased global risk for diseases. Our choice is simple: cheap chicken or our health.

Today, the factory farm-pandemic link couldn't be more lucid. The primary ancestor of the recent H1N1 swine flu outbreak originated at a hog factory farm in America's most hog-factory-rich state, North Carolina, and then quickly spread throughout the Americas.

It was in these factory farms that scientists saw, for the first time, viruses that combined genetic material from bird, pig and human viruses. Scientists at Columbia and Princeton Universities have actually been able to trace six of the eight genetic segments of the most feared virus in the world directly to U.S. factory farms.

Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science, that something terribly wrong is happening. We know that it cannot possibly be healthy to raise such grotesque animals in such grossly unnatural conditions. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film.

We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory -- disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat, we live on tortured flesh. Increasingly, those sick animals are making us sick.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Safran Foer.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Eight Meaty Facts About Animal Food

From our friend Ananda's excellent blog "Servant of The Servants"

Eight Meaty Facts About Animal Food

WHERE'S THE GRAIN? The 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.

HERBIVORES ON THE HOOF. Each year an estimated 41 million tons of plant protein is fed to U.S. livestock to produce an estimated 7 million tons of animal protein for human consumption. About 26 million tons of the livestock feed comes from grains and 15 million tons from forage crops. For every kilogram of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed nearly 6 kg of plant protein.

FOSSIL FUEL TO FOOD FUEL. On average, animal protein production in the U.S. requires 28 kilocalories (kcal) for every kcal of protein produced for human consumption. Beef and lamb are the most costly, in terms of fossil fuel energy input to protein output at 54:1 and 50:1, respectively. Turkey and chicken meat production are the most efficient (13:1 and 4:1, respectively). Grain production, on average, requires 3.3 kcal of fossil fuel for every kcal of protein produced. The U.S. now imports about 54 percent of its oil; by the year 2015, that import figure is expected to rise to 100 percent.

THIRSTY PRODUCTION SYSTEMS. U.S. agriculture accounts for 87 percent of all the fresh water consumed each year. Livestock directly use only 1.3 percent of that water. But when the water required for forage and grain production is included, livestock's water usage rises dramatically. Every kilogram of beef produced takes 100,000 liters of water. Some 900 liters of water go into producing a kilogram of wheat. Potatoes are even less "thirsty," at 500 liters per kilogram.

HOME ON THE RANGE. More than 302 million hectares of land are devoted to producing feed for the U.S. livestock population -- about 272 million hectares in pasture and about 30 million hectares for cultivated feed grains.

DISAPPEARING SOIL. About 90 percent of U.S. cropland is losing soil -- to wind and water erosion -- at 13 times above the sustainable rate. Soil loss is most severe in some of the richest farming areas; Iowa loses topsoil at 30 times the rate of soil formation. Iowa has lost one-half its topsoil in only 150 years of farming -- soil that took thousands of years to form.

PLENTY OF PROTEIN: Nearly 7 million tons (metric) of animal protein is produced annually in the U.S. -- enough to supply every American man, woman and child with 75 grams of animal protein a day. With the addition of 34 grams of available plant protein, a total of 109 grams of protein is available per capita. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) per adult per day is 56 grams of protein for a mixed diet.

OUT TO PASTURE. If all the U.S. grain now fed to livestock were exported and if cattlemen switched to grass-fed production systems, less beef would be available and animal protein in the average American diet would drop from 75 grams to 29 grams per day. That, plus current levels of plant-protein consumption, would still yield more than the RDA for protein.

From "Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the Environment" By David Pimentel

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Everybody In The Pool of Green Innovation

Everybody in the Pool of Green Innovation

Published: October 31, 2009in the New York Times

A POPULAR children’s song has a refrain — “the more we get together the happier we’ll be” — that may sound like a simplistic formula for solving the complex challenges of climate change and sustainability. But if any area is ripe for sharing and collaboration among organizations, it’s green innovation.

Companies are sharing environmentally friendly innovations. They include an I.B.M. method to clean semiconductor wafers, top, and a DuPont process, right, that uses microorganisms to identify pollutants. Others are water-based shoe adhesives from Nike and a packing insert from I.B.M.

“We all want to save the planet, and the problems are bigger than any one firm, sector or country,” says Dr. Sarah Slaughter, coordinator of the M.I.T. Sloan Sustainability Initiative. In that spirit, several major corporations have taken inspiration from the open-source software movement and are experimenting with forums for sharing environmentally friendly innovations and building communities around them. The first such effort, the Eco-Patent Commons, was started in January 2008 by I.B.M., Nokia, Pitney Bowes and Sony in collaboration with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The concept is straightforward: Companies pledge environmental patents to the commons, and anyone can use them — free.

Many patented environmental technologies are not strategic, so sharing maximizes the social benefit without sacrificing competitive advantage, says Wayne Balta, vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety at I.B.M. For instance, I.B.M. contributed a recyclable cardboard packaging insert that requires less fossil fuel to create and transport than the foam inserts that are now commonly used.

Other examples include a DuPont method for better detecting pollution in soil, air or water by using a microorganism that produces light when exposed to a pollutant. There are also methods from Xerox for removing toxic waste from contaminated groundwater, as well as a cleaning technique for semiconductor wafers from I.B.M. that uses ozone gas and eliminates chemical contaminants that result from other processes.

By assembling these patents in one easily accessible location — anyone can search through them on the council’s Web site — the hope is to encourage their widespread adoption, particularly in the developing world. Since its start, the commons has grown to 100 patents from 31, with 11 companies now participating.

Although there are no formal mechanisms for tracking who has used the commons, participating companies are sometimes contacted by users. For instance, Mr. Balta said that Yale had put into effect an I.B.M. method for decreasing the use of hazardous solvents in its quantum computing device research.

The Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that previously developed licensing programs to help in sharing creative and scientific content, is also planning to branch out into the environmental arena.

In collaboration with Nike and Best Buy, it plans to start a sharing initiative, the Green Xchange, in early 2010. The program will include both patented technologies and forums for continuing exchange of innovations such as Best Buy’s system for rating the sustainability of a supply chain. Companies that contribute patents to the Green Xchange will have the option of charging users a fixed annual licensing fee and can also restrict any licensing by rivals or for competitive use. In addition, even if no annual fee is charged, patent users must register so there is a record of who is using what technology.

Though more complex than that of Eco-Patent Commons, the structure of Green Xchange will yield greater numbers of high-quality inventions, says John Wilbanks, GreenXchange coordinator and vice president for science at Creative Commons.

“We don’t depend on altruism,” Mr. Wilbanks says. “This system helps the environment while enabling a firm to make money from patents in applications outside its core business.”

For instance, Nike’s air-bag patent for cushioning shoes is crucial to its core shoe business, but may have environmental benefits in other industries — perhaps in prolonging the useful life of tires. Green Xchange could enable Nike to license the air-bag technology selectively to noncompeting companies.

ACCORDING to Kelly Lauber, a global director in Nike’s Sustainable Business and Innovation Lab, sharing technology can have tremendous environmental impact. By sharing its water-based adhesive technology and working with footwear makers, Ms. Lauber estimates that average levels of environmentally harmful solvents used by Nike’s suppliers have decreased to less than 15 grams per pair of shoes from 350 in 1997.

Perhaps the biggest upside of Green Xchange may come from the development of communities that collaborate in innovation and the exchange of ideas. To encourage that kind of interaction, will provide a search engine, making it easy to find patents. And collaboration platforms from companies like 2degrees and nGenera should make it easy to identify companies with common interests.

Despite the obvious advantages, sharing patents isn’t as easy as it might sound.

“Numerous features of the intellectual property system, particularly the ability of companies to claim large swaths of technology through patents, play havoc with collaborative efforts,” says Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School.

Henry Chesbrough, the executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, says it is surprisingly hard to give away technologies. “If it is not done carefully,” he said, “the companies that use a donated technology might find themselves liable for infringement of another company’s patent.”

Both the Eco-Patent Commons and the Green Xchange pose organizational challenges for participating companies.

“Deciding which patents to pledge or license to a commons,” says Andrew King, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, “requires that the legal counsel, R.& D. staff, business unit and corporate sustainability groups all work together, and most organizations just aren’t set up for that.”

Weaving corporate togetherness, it seems, isn’t so easy — though green innovations offer many more reasons to try.

Mary Tripsas is an associate professor in the entrepreneurial management unit at the Harvard Business School.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

To Cut Global Warming, Swedes Study Their Plates

From The "By Degrees" series in the New York Times

This is the ninth in a series of articles about stopgap measures that could limit global warming. Future articles will address industry and cars.

Previous Articles in the Series »

STOCKHOLM — Shopping for oatmeal, Helena Bergstrom, 37, admitted that she was flummoxed by the label on the blue box reading, “Climate declared: .87 kg CO2 per kg of product.”

“Right now, I don’t know what this means,” said Ms. Bergstrom, a pharmaceutical company employee.

But if a new experiment here succeeds, she and millions of other Swedes will soon find out. New labels listing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of foods, from whole wheat pasta to fast food burgers, are appearing on some grocery items and restaurant menus around the country.

People who live to eat might dismiss this as silly. But changing one’s diet can be as effective in reducing emissions of climate-changing gases as changing the car one drives or doing away with the clothes dryer, scientific experts say.

Click here to read the full article.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cows, Environment, Food and People

From our friend Ananda's excellent blog "Servant of The Servants"

Cows, Environment, Food and People

U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists. Future water and energy shortages predicted to change face of American agriculture.

Grain-fed livestock consumes resources far out of proportion to the yield, accelerates soil erosion, affects world food supply and will be changing in the future.

"If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million," David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, reported at the July 24-26 meeting of the Canadian Society of Animal Science in Montreal. Or, if those grains were exported, it would boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year, Pimentel estimated.

With only grass-fed livestock, individual Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of meat and dairy protein, according to Pimentel's report, "Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the Environment."

An environmental analyst and longtime critic of waste and inefficiency in agricultural practices, Pimentel depicted grain-fed livestock farming as a costly and nonsustainable way to produce animal protein. He distinguished grain-fed meat production from pasture-raised livestock, calling cattle-grazing a more reasonable use of marginal land.

Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein, according to the Cornell ecologist's analysis.

Tracking food animal production from the feed trough to the dinner table, Pimentel found broiler chickens to be the most efficient use of fossil energy, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. (Lamb meat production is nearly as inefficient at 50:1, according to the ecologist's analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Other ratios range from 13:1 for turkey meat and 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs.)

Animal agriculture is a leading consumer of water resources in the United States, Pimentel noted. Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters. "Water shortages already are severe in the Western and Southern United States and the situation is quickly becoming worse because of a rapidly growing U.S. population that requires more water for all of its needs, especially agriculture," Pimentel observed.

Livestock are directly or indirectly responsible for much of the soil erosion in the United States, the ecologist determined. On lands where feed grain is produced, soil loss averages 13 tons per hectare per year. Pasture lands are eroding at a slower pace, at an average of 6 tons per hectare per year. But erosion may exceed 100 tons on severely overgrazed pastures, and 54 percent of U.S. pasture land is being overgrazed.

"More than half the U.S. grain and nearly 40 percent of world grain is being fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans," Pimentel said. "Although grain production is increasing in total, the per capita supply has been decreasing for more than a decade. Clearly, there is reason for concern in the future."

source: Cornell University Science News

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nudging Recycling From Less Waste To None

Sara Marshall peers into a drop-off point for recycling in Nantucket. The town is a leader in "zero waste."
Published: October 19, 2009

At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes.

At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into five-gallon pails and taken to a compost heap out back.

And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that the factories have gotten rid of their trash Dumpsters altogether.

Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.

The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can.

Though born of idealism, the zero-waste philosophy is now propelled by sobering realities, like the growing difficulty of securing permits for new landfills and an awareness that organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.

“Nobody wants a landfill sited anywhere near them, including in rural areas,” said Jon D. Johnston, a materials management branch chief for the Environmental Protection Agency who is helping to lead the zero-waste movement in the Southeast. “We’ve come to this realization that landfill is valuable and we can’t bury things that don’t need to be buried.”

Americans are still the undisputed champions of trash, dumping 4.6 pounds per person per day, according to the E.P.A.’s most recent figures. More than half of that ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

But places like the island resort community of Nantucket offer a glimpse of the future. Running out of landfill space and worried about the cost of shipping trash 30 miles to the mainland, it moved to a strict trash policy more than a decade ago, said Jeffrey Willett, director of public works on the island.

The town, with the blessing of residents concerned about tax increases, mandates the recycling not only of commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and paper but also of tires, batteries and household appliances.

Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971, said that sorting trash and delivering it to the local recycling and disposal complex had become a matter of course for most residents.

The complex also has a garagelike structure where residents can drop off books and clothing and other reusable items for others to take home.

The 100-car parking lot at the landfill is a lively meeting place for locals, Mr. Lentowski added. “Saturday morning during election season, politicians hang out there and hand out campaign buttons,” he said. “If you want to get a pulse on the community, that is a great spot to go.”

Mr. Willett said that while the amount of trash that island residents carted to the dump had remained steady, the proportion going into the landfill had plummeted to 8 percent.

By contrast, Massachusetts residents as a whole send an average of 66 percent of their trash to a landfill or incinerator. Although Mr. Willett has lectured about the Nantucket model around the country, most communities still lack the infrastructure to set a zero-waste target.

Aside from the difficulty of persuading residents and businesses to divide their trash, many towns and municipalities have been unwilling to make the significant capital investments in machines like composters that can process food and yard waste. Yet attitudes are shifting, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle are at the forefront of the changeover. Both of those cities have adopted plans for a shift to zero-waste practices and are collecting organic waste curbside in residential areas for composting.

Food waste, which the E.P.A. says accounts for about 13 percent of total trash nationally — and much more when recyclables are factored out of the total — is viewed as the next big frontier.

When apple cores, stale bread and last week’s leftovers go to landfills, they do not return the nutrients they pulled from the soil while growing. What is more, when sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, as they decompose. If composted, however, the food can be broken down and returned to the earth as a nonchemical fertilizer with no methane by-product.

Green Foodservice Alliance, a division of the Georgia Restaurant Association, has been adding restaurants throughout Atlanta and its suburbs to its so-called zero-waste zones. And companies are springing up to meet the growth in demand from restaurants for recycling and compost haulers.

Steve Simon, a partner in Fifth Group, a company that owns Ecco and four other restaurants in the Atlanta area, said that the hardest part of participating in the alliance’s zero-waste-zone program was not training his staff but finding reliable haulers.

“There are now two in town, and neither is a year old, so it is a very tentative situation,” Mr. Simon said.

Still, he said he had little doubt that the hauling sector would grow and that all five of the restaurants would eventually be waste-free.

Packaging is also quickly evolving as part of the zero-waste movement. Bioplastics like the forks at Yellowstone, made from plant materials like cornstarch that mimic plastic, are used to manufacture a growing number of items that are compostable.

Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, a nonprofit organization that certifies such products, said that the number of companies making compostable products for food service providers had doubled since 2006 and that many had moved on to items like shopping bags and food packaging.

The transition to zero waste, however, has its pitfalls.

Josephine Miller, an environmental official for the city of Santa Monica, Calif., which bans the use of polystyrene foam containers, said that some citizens had unwittingly put the plant-based alternatives into cans for recycling, where they had melted and had gummed up the works. Yellowstone and some institutions have asked manufacturers to mark some biodegradable items with a brown or green stripe.

Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say.

“Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done,” said Mr. Johnston of the E.P.A.

He expects private companies and businesses to move faster than private citizens because momentum can be driven by one person at the top.

“It will take a lot longer to get average Americans to compost,” Mr. Johnston said. “Reaching down to my household and yours is the greatest challenge.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 20, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Food Experts Worry As Population And Hunger Grow

Experts Worry as Population and Hunger Grow

Published: October 21, 2009

ROME — Scientists and development experts across the globe are racing to increase food production by 50 percent over the next two decades to feed the world’s growing population, yet many doubt their chances despite a broad consensus that enough land, water and expertise exist.

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Jose Cendon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A feeding center in Ethiopia last year. Experts say the green revolution's concentration on wheat and rice will not work in Africa.

Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Women spreading wet rice to dry in Bangladesh after record rains in July. South Asia is among the regions that need new food production the most.

Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

Farmers work in a rice field in eastern India.

The number of hungry people in the world rose to 1.02 billion this year, or nearly one in seven people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, despite a 12-year concentrated effort to cut the number.

The global financial recession added at least 100 million people by depriving them of the means to buy enough food, but the numbers were inching up even before the crisis, the United Nations noted in a report last week.

“The way we manage the global agriculture and food security system doesn’t work,” said Kostas G. Stamoulis, a senior economist at the organization. “There is this paradox of increasing global food production, even in developing countries, yet there is hunger.”

Agronomists and development experts who gathered in Rome last week generally agreed that the resources and technical knowledge were available to increase food production by 50 percent in 2030 and by 70 percent in 2050 — the amounts needed to feed a population expected to grow to 9.1 billion in 40 years.

But the conundrum is whether the food can be grown in the developing world where the hungry can actually get it, at prices they can afford. Poverty and difficult growing conditions plague the places that need new production most, namely sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

A straw poll of the experts in Rome on whether the world will be able to feed its population in 40 years underscored the uncertainty surrounding that question: 73 said yes, 49 said no and 15 abstained.

The track record of failing to feed the hungry haunts the effort. But other important uncertainties also give pause. The effect climate change will have on weather and crops remains an open question. The so-called green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s ended the specter of mass famines then, but the environmental cost of chemical fertilizers and heavy irrigation has spurred a bitter divide over the right ingredients for a second one.

In addition, the demand for biofuels may use up crop land. And as scores of food riots in 2008 showed, oil prices and other income shocks can quickly drive millions more people into hunger, sending ripples of instability around the world.

A summit meeting of world leaders in Rome on Nov. 16 is expected to address the future food demands. Since July, the richest countries have ostensibly committed more than $22 billion to the effort over the next three years.

The final meeting of Group of 8 leaders that month in L’Aquila, Italy, started with $15 billion already on the table. Then President Obama gave a speech evoking the Kenyan village where his father herded goats as a child. In countless villages like it, millions of people face hunger daily, Mr. Obama said, and after he finished speaking, the pledges jumped by $5 billion, according to several officials present.

Yet those pledges remain murky. Senior diplomats estimate that less than a third to slightly more than half of the money represents new commitments that had not already been made, with the rest being repackaged existing aid.

Washington and its European allies have also jostled over putting the money in a World Bank account, the American preference, or working through United Nations or domestic aid agencies, an approach the Europeans favor. An initial American proposal of one unified fund was largely rejected. How policy and priorities will be established on a worldwide scale is also a central negotiating hurdle.

“The good news is that the political class considers this important and wants to do something about it,” said one financial official involved in the talks who was not authorized to speak publicly. “But nobody has 20 billion and spare change in their sock drawer.”

The United States, with the largest pledge, $3.5 billion, organized a conference in Washington along with Italy last month in an unsuccessful attempt to nail down the pledges so that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton could announce the results during the United Nations General Assembly.

“It is a little bit difficult — I cannot give you a precise figure per country,” said Renzo Rosso, a senior Italian aid official. “But the most difficult part will be to make them all work together.”

Mrs. Clinton often calls agriculture aid a critical issue, saying the administration supports domestic efforts in developing nations and improvements in production by small farmers, particularly women. Philip J. Crowley, a department spokesman, said, “We are trying to shift away from emergency aid toward agricultural development.”

Agriculture was once a pillar of international aid programs, with World Bank figures showing that it constituted 17 percent of all foreign assistance in 1980, said Christopher Delgado, the bank’s agriculture adviser. But the emphasis declined as the number of hungry people dropped to its lowest recent level, 825 million people, around 1996. By 2000, agriculture aid had shrunk to 4 percent, he said, although it has since ticked up slowly.

World leaders often evoke the green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s as an inspiration for future progress. The original revolution employed new seeds, fertilizers and irrigation in Asia and Latin America to stave off famines affecting millions.

But the green revolution’s concentration on wheat and rice would be impossible to copy in parts of Asia and in Africa, experts say, noting that Africa has seven or eight staple crops, wildly varied growing conditions and only an estimated 7 percent of farmland irrigated.

Then there is the question of genetically modified crops. No issue provokes such an emotional division among agronomists, who debate whether they constitute the building blocks of a second green revolution or a health menace.

“Who is steering this fear and global paranoia about the G.M. cotton and all these G.M. crops?” said Hans P. Binswanger-Mkhize, a South African agriculture consultant. “Show us where the corpses are — the corpses of earthworms, the corpses of bees, the corpses of antelopes and the corpses of humans. Nobody has yet ever shown us a corpse.”

Opponents respond that organic farming is critical to producing healthy food and reducing global warming. Widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers has contributed heavily to greenhouse gases, and the vast water resources required for irrigation are not sustainable, they contend.

“We have a billion hungry people today, so we can’t say the green revolution solved the problem,” said Markus Arbenz, the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “We can’t just cut and paste the solution from the 1960s with G.M. crops.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 22, 2009, on page A6 of the New York Times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How Food Shapes Our World

Every day, in a city the size of London, 30 million meals are served. But where does all the food come from? Architect Carolyn Steel discusses the daily miracle of feeding a city, and shows how ancient food routes shaped the modern world.

Click here to head on over to TED to check out an engrossing video presentation by Mrs. Steel.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Curbing Emissions By Sealing Gas Leaks

Photographs by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

To the naked eye, no emissions from an oil storage tank are visible. But viewed with an infrared lens, escaping methane is evident.

From The New York Times "By Degrees" series

Published: October 14, 2009

To the naked eye, there was nothing to be seen at a natural gas well in eastern Texas but beige pipes and tanks baking in the sun.

But in the viewfinder of Terry Gosney’s infrared camera, three black plumes of gas gushed through leaks that were otherwise invisible.

“Holy smoke, it’s blowing like mad,” said Mr. Gosney, an environmental field coordinator for EnCana, the Canadian gas producer that operates the year-old well near Franklin, Tex. “It does look nasty.”

Within a few days the leaks had been sealed by workers.

Efforts like EnCana’s save energy and money. Yet they are also a cheap, effective way of blunting climate change that could potentially be replicated thousands of times over, from Wyoming to Siberia, energy experts say. Natural gas consists almost entirely of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that scientists say accounts for as much as a third of the human contribution to global warming.

“This for me is an absolute no-brainer, even more so than putting in those compact fluorescent bulbs in your house,” said Al Armendariz, an engineer at Southern Methodist University who studies pollutants from oil and gas fields.

Acting quickly to stanch the loss of methane could substantially cut warming in the short run, even as countries tackle the tougher challenge of cutting the dominant greenhouse emission, carbon dioxide, studies by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggest.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere a century or more once released, methane persists in the air for about 10 years. So aggressively reining in emissions now would mean that far less of the gas would be warming the earth in a decade or so.

Methane is also a valuable target because while it is far rarer and more fleeting than carbon dioxide, ton for ton, it traps 25 times as much heat, researchers say.

Yet while federal and international programs have encouraged companies to seek and curb methane emissions from gas and oil wells, pipelines and tanks, aggressive efforts like EnCana’s are still far from the industry norm.

As a result, some three trillion cubic feet of methane leak into the air every year, with Russia and the United States the leading sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s official estimate. (This amount has the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States.) And government scientists and industry officials caution that the real figure is almost certainly higher.

Unless monitoring is greatly expanded, they say, such emissions could soar as global production of natural gas increases over the next few decades.

The Energy Department projects that gas production could rise nearly 50 percent over the next 20 years as companies race to discover and tap new sources. In the United States, 4,000 miles of new pipeline was laid last year alone.

But the industry has been largely resistant to an aggressive cleanup.

The Bush administration, which opposed mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, expanded an existing voluntary domestic program for capturing methane emissions and began a related international program — with both aimed at promoting profitable ways for businesses to cut methane emissions as a relatively easy first step to combat climate change.

In April the Obama administration signaled that it could adopt rules requiring the biggest American companies to report all of their greenhouse gas emissions. Oil and gas industry groups countered that the cost and complexity of dealing with some 700,000 wells were too great.

In September the E.P.A. announced that the obligatory reporting would begin in 2011 but that it excluded oil and gas operations, at least for the time being. (Agency officials say they plan to issue rules for oil and gas by late next year.)

Some scientists reject the industry arguments. “Further delay on finding and stopping such releases would be irresponsible, given the financial and environmental benefits,” said F. Sherwood Rowland, a Nobel laureate in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine.

Internationally, the amount of methane escaping from gas and oil operations can be only crudely gauged. But in 2006 the E.P.A. estimated that Russia, the world’s largest gas producer, ranked highest, with 427 billion cubic feet of methane escaping annually, followed by the United States at 346 billion, Ukraine at 225 billion and Mexico at 191 billion.

Reflecting the uncertainty in such estimates, Gazprom, Russia’s giant state gas monopoly, estimated its annual emissions at half that figure last year.

An E.P.A. review of methane emissions from gas wells in the United States strongly implies that all of these figures may be too low. In its analysis, the E.P.A. concluded that the amount emitted by routine operations at gas wells — not including leaks like those seen near Franklin — is 12 times the agency’s longtime estimate of nine billion cubic feet. In heat-trapping potential, that new estimate equals the carbon dioxide emitted annually by eight million cars.

In the routine operations, great yet invisible plumes of gas enter the atmosphere when new wells are activated, old wells are invigorated to boost gas flows and wells are purged of fluids by letting out cough-like bursts of gas.

In many gas fields, said Roger Fernandez, a senior methane expert at the E.P.A., fluid-clogged wells are still purged the old-fashioned way, by opening valves or using outdated equipment in ways that release a misty burst of gas directly into the air.

For the E.P.A. and environmental scientists, the challenge is convincing gas and oil producers here and abroad that efforts to avoid such releases often more than pay for themselves.

The use of infrared cameras is expanding as word spreads of the payoff in saved gas, said Ben Shepperd, executive vice president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, which represents 1,200 companies in the oil and gas business around West Texas.

“We would like to see more people doing it,” he said. “People are very surprised when they shoot their equipment with these cameras and they see that there are releases in places they wouldn’t have expected.”

The benefits are there not only for gas producers but also for companies handling oil. Thousands of oil storage tanks emit plumes of methane and other gases, said Larry S. Richards, the president of Hy-Bon Engineering in Midland, Tex., which is using infrared cameras to survey storage tanks in 29 countries and sells systems that capture the gas.

A clearer view of the worst methane emissions could come next year, when Japan plans to start releasing data from Gosat, a satellite that began orbiting the Earth in January. It may be able to identify the top hot spots within a few miles.

That may increase pressure on countries with particularly large leaks.

As the biggest methane emitter, Russia has begun seeking high-tech solutions. In April, for example, Gazprom, the Russian Defense Ministry and an Israeli aerospace company began discussing the potential use of miniature remotely piloted helicopters to monitor pipelines for leaks.

But gadgets alone will not halt the vast exhalation of methane from Russia, environmentalists say. There is some hope that a successor to the 1997 Kyoto climate change pact will include more incentives for money to flow to Russian methane-reduction projects.

Western companies that have captured methane point out the money that is often to be made by doing so.

Starting around 2000, BP began introducing methane-catching techniques at 2,300 well sites in New Mexico. At well after well, gas that would have otherwise escaped now flows through meters that field crews affectionately call the “cash register.”

Among other actions, BP engineers have fine-tuned a system for purging fluids that can stop up wells. The process uses the pressure of gas in the well to periodically raise a plunger through the vertical well pipe. This removes the liquids but typically allows gas to escape.

The new computerized process, which BP calls smart automation, tracks well pressure and other conditions to more precisely time the plunger cycles in ways that avoid gas emissions. From 2000 to 2004, emissions from BP wells in the region dropped 50 percent, the company says. By 2007, they had essentially ended.

On average, installing the systems has cost about $11,000 per well, but they have returned three times that investment, said Reid Smith, an environmental adviser for BP working on the project.

“We spend a lot of money to get gas to the surface,” Mr. Smith said. “It makes a huge amount of sense to get all of it through the sales meter.”

Andrew C. Revkin reported from New York and Farmington, N.M., and Clifford Krauss from Franklin, Tex. Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Holy Cow, What's Chrissie's Beef?


Holy cow, what’s Chrissie’s beef?

The Pretenders’ lead singer is back on the milk run, explaining why dairy cattle should be at the centre of all our lives

Sitting on the floor of a cattleshed, at the business end of a cow, Chrissie Hynde is trying to get to grips with a set of udders. “Are there four of them?” she shouts above the Hare Krishna devotional music blaring out of a CD player in the corner. After a few moments of grappling, milk comes squirting into the pail between her feet. “Awesome!” cries the lead singer of the Pretenders. “I bet Jordan can’t do this.”

We are at Bhaktivedanta Manor, near Watford, Hertfordshire, the British headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement, where Hynde is fulfilling a long-held ambition to milk a cow and explain why she thinks that dairy cattle should be at the centre of our lives.

Hynde, well known as an outspoken animal-rights campaigner, is promoting a bovine-centric existence as outlined in a new book, Cows and the Earth, by Ranchor Prime, a Hare Krishna. The book, with a preface by Hynde, has a Hindu core, but argues that it is a blueprint for the way society as a whole — not just those who believe in reincarnation and the sacred status of cows — should exist with these animals.

The manor was bought by George Harrison in 1973 and given to the Hare Krishna movement. Today it incorporates a temple and school as well as a “cruelty free” 50ha farm. Here cows are allowed to live even when they are no longer useful. Male calves that elsewhere would be slaughtered for meat are castrated and kept on the farm to plough fields. Cows that have stopped producing milk are kept until they die of old age.

According to Prime’s book, “the law of karma says that whatever we take from others we must return”. Cows look after us by producing milk, so we should take care of them. Giving them useful work is seen as a kindness and as more sustainable than using farm machinery.

Hynde regards meat-eating as “like a drug addiction. People like the taste and will defend that, just like I enjoy smoking pot. I am buying into a bloody trade, I know that. I’m a hypocrite. But this is out-and-out slaughter.

“I would say that any form of life is sacred,” Hynde says, “but this one is particularly special because the human family can actually benefit. If we look after the cows, we can make our homes, feed our children and have food all year round; they can plough our fields.”

Hynde is not a Hare Krishna. She loves Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but is also attracted to the Vedas, the ancient Hindu texts, and enjoys meditation. After we have talked she steps into the temple here and spends a few minutes alone.

Hynde was born in the US, but has lived mostly in Britain since she moved to London from Ohio, aged 17, and became a journalist on NME and then a singer-songwriter, forming the Pretenders and recording hits such as Brass in Pocket and Back on the Chain Gang. The band’s line-up has changed many times, but she has remained a constant. At 58, she still tours, still has the distinctive dark fringe (flecked with grey) and still wears skinny jeans, though today the kick-ass boots are Hunter wellingtons.

She grew up in the Ohio town of Akron and has always loved the outdoors. “I spent all my childhood running around the woods, and I think that really informed my consciousness. If I found a frozen animal that had been hit by a car, I would put it in a box and take it home and bury it.”

As we walk through the cattlesheds, she coos over the cows: “Oooh, you’re absolutely gorgeous, aren’t you? Look at your lickle horns. Can you imagine! What kind of person would allow one of these to be killed?”

Twenty years ago a McDonald’s restaurant in Milton Keynes was fire-bombed two days after Hynde had been critical of the chain. She hasn’t changed her tune. When I mention that there is a McDonald’s by the turn-off for the farm, she glowers: “I am not going to leave this planet until the last one is burnt to the ground. I promise.”

It is clear that while she enjoys trying to shock — “I’m not non-violent, by the way, that’s where I part company with my brothers and sisters here” — she isn’t really planning to spend the rest of her life touring the globe with a box of matches and a jumbo vat of accelerant. She is quick to bark, but swiftly backs down. She is scathing about the TV chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, referring to the latter as “that dickhead” because “he says if we kill it ourselves it’s all right”. But later she acknowledges that their work on better welfare for farm animals has been an important step and pleads: “Can I retract my hateful comments? They are doing great things.”

She doesn’t take herself too seriously. “He looks like he’s backing off already,” she says when one of the oxen edges away from her. “I’m used to that. All my men back off eventually.” (Her relationships have included marriage to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, by whom she has a daughter, the actress Yasmin Kerr, and a long period with Ray Davies of the Kinks, who fathered her other daughter, Natalie. She describes herself now as a “lone wolf; I’m in a rock band and I tour”). A dog lover, she is preparing to adopt a Staffordshire bull terrier from an animal shelter — a misunderstood breed, she says.

I am puzzled why she supports a dairy farm given that she has said that she is a vegan. She explains that she will consume dairy products that have been produced somewhere such as this, but “won’t buy them from the meat or dairy industry”. She admits that she will eat “a piece of cheese once in a while. A little bit”.

Industrial milk production is “a crime that should be punishable by something very severe”. She claims it is distressing for the cows. Are milking machines really that bad? “Ask your wife! Would she rather have a baby or a machine on her?”

The farmers here claim that they bond with the cows in a way that those who slaughter their cattle do not, with the result being that the cows are happier and the milk is “healthier and more nutritious”.

But it is hard to see many farmers going back to the time-consuming business of hand milking. And how would it be possible to meet the country’s milk needs this way? She and Prime argue that we need to be prepared to consume less dairy food and pay three times as much for it.

As we eat delicious vegetarian Indian offerings, Hynde rails about people throwing away food. I can’t help noticing that she has left some of hers. To be fair, it was a large portion, and she repeatedly says that she is a hypocrite. In her less angry moments she concedes that we should praise people for the positive things that they do to enhance animal welfare and protect the environment, and not chastise them for what they fail to do. While she is mostly vegan, she would wear leathers to protect herself on a motorbike.

She owns a vegan restaurant in her home town, but food is clearly not a big part of her life. I ask if she has to be organised to make sure she gets enough nutrients. “I just eat beans on toast and potatoes,” she replies. “I’m not fussy.”

She has a pallor, but there is no denying her energy. She still tours regularly with her band, sleeping in a bunk on the tour bus, and there is nothing lethargic about the way she stalks around the farm and unleashes verbal salvos. “I haven’t eaten meat for 40 years and I don’t take any supplements. I stand on my head every day, I smoke cigarettes, and I’m OK. I’m still breathing.”

Cows and the Earth by Ranchor Prime is published by Fitzrovia Press

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Sacred Cow

The Srimad Bhagavad-Gita
and the Sacredness of All Cows

by Jagannath Das

Lord Krishna states in Srimad Bhagavad-Gita: chapter 10, verse 28

dhenunam asmi kamadhuk

dhenunam-among cows, asmi-I am, kamadhuk-the wish fulfilling cow

Among cows I am the wish fulfilling cow.

In this verse Lord Krishna reveals that among cows He is manifested as the kamadhuk meaning kamadhenu the original wish fulfilling cows known as the surabhi cows. Just who and what are the surabhi cows and how the surabhi cows attained such an elevated and exalted position that they are able to represent a portion of the energy of the supreme Lord Krishna will be revealed in the following information given in the Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa.

The surabhi cow descended from the spiritual worlds and manifested herself in the heavenly spheres from the aroma of celestial nectar for the benefit of all created beings. The direct descendants of the surabhi cows are the sacred cows from the continent India which are uniquely distinguished the same as the surabhi by the beautiful hump on their backs and the wonderfully soft folds of skin under their necks. Since all cows in existence in the world today are factual descendants of the sacred cows of India they are all holy as well and should always be lovingly cared for and protected with the highest esteem and greatest respect. One should never cause harm to cows in any way even in a dream and one should never ever even think of eating the flesh of cows as there is no action more sinful in all of creation then cow killing.

Cows are the mothers of all creatures. Cows are verily the mothers of the 33 crores of demigods that administrate creation in the material existence throughout all the universes. Cows are the goddesses of the gods and the refuge of all auspiciousness. Cows bestow every kind of happiness and for these reason they always are worshippable. Cows are the support of all the worlds for by their milk they nourish terrestrials beings and by their ghee offered in sacrifice they nourish the denziens of the celestial realms. Nothing superior to cows.

A cow should not be owned by one who is a killer of cows or a seller to killers of cows, by one who is unrighteous, by one who is sinful, by one who is untruthful in speech, and by one who is outside of the Vedic culture nor should cows ever be given to one such as these. Gifts of cows should be made after ascertaining and determining the qualification of the receiver. Cows should never be given unto those whose residence they are likely to suffer from fire or sun. Cows should always be given away accompanied by their calves. Those cows who have been rescued from situations of distress or have been received from humble farmers unable to continue to take care of them properly are considered to be most auspicious.

One should never show disrepect for cows in any way nor should one feel any repugnance towards the urine and dung of a cow because these things are also pure. When cows are grazing or laying down relaxing one should never disturb or annoy them in any way. Cows should never be killed in any type of sacrifice or slaughtered in any way for food as the killing of cows constitutes the most heinous of all sins in existence.

Cows are the foremost of all creatures in all the worlds. It is from cows that the means for sustaining the worlds has established. Cows are auspicious and sacred and the bequeathers of every blessing. Cows benefit humans with milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter and ghee. The Vedas have stated that the milk of a cow is equivalent to ambrosial nectar and that ghee derived from cows milk is the best of all libations poured onto the sacred fires of brahmins.

For the full article, click here to head over to

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Vedantic Conception of Life

Vedantic Concept of Life

By Phalguni Banerjee for Kangla Online on 10 Oct 2009
Image: Courtesy of Google Images
The Vedantic paradigm is an ancient paradigm and has been well studied within the traditional schools of Vedanta throughout the ages.

Science Magazine in its 125th Anniversary Issue came up with the title “What Don’t We Know?” where it listed 125 crucial questions facing science over the next quarter-century. A major question of foundational importance that is listed is, “How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?” Some of the other interesting questions that were listed are, “Can the Laws of Physics Be Unified?”, “What Determines Species Diversity?”, “How Will Big Pictures Emerge from a Sea of Biological Data?”, “How Far Can We Push Chemical Self-Assembly?”, “What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing?”, “Do Deeper Principles Underlie Quantum Uncertainty and Nonlocality?” and “What is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?”

The magazine also noted the statement of 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics, David Gross, that “Fundamental questions are guideposts; they stimulate people.” Thus hundreds of years of the glorious history of modern science have failed to provide any satisfactory answer regarding life and its deeper reality. Science without knowledge of the scientist (life) who is exploring Nature is thus incomplete.

In 1828, the German chemist Friedrich Woehler synthesized urea, from ammonium cyanate, a purely inorganic compound. This profoundly influenced the minds of chemists and they began to accept a completely materialistic view of life. In 1859 Darwin published “The Origin of Species”. His claim was that all existing organisms are the descendants of simpler ancestors that lived in the distant past. He proposed a completely materialistic theory of evolution in which natural selection is main force driving this evolution. This provided further support to the wholesale materialistic and mechanical conception that life could have arisen as an emergent by-product of material combinations.

Darwin thought that his theory of evolution would, “serve to bring together a multitude of facts which are at present left disconnected by any efficient cause.” In natural science, abiogenesis is the theory of the origin of life that considers life on Earth might have emerged from non-life. It is generally assumed by modern scientists that it might have happened sometime between 2.7 to 4.4 billion years ago. Almost 150 years have passed since modern science adopted an approach based upon Darwinian evolution as the basis of all their efforts at understanding life and its deeper reality. But it seems that we are witnessing that over all these years modern science has failed to give us a clear understanding of how life originated.

This is evident from the 125th Anniversary Issue of Science Magazine, where it has listed 125 questions for which modern science has no tangible clue to their answers. One of the questions is, “How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?” In this regard Hubert Yockey, an information theorist argued that, “One must conclude that, contrary to the established and current wisdom, a scenario describing the genesis of life on earth by chance and natural causes, which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith, has not yet been written.”

The RNA world hypothesis contains many difficult aspects needing explanation. Every other idea of the chemical evolution of life also give rise to many intractable questions. There are many unknowns in the chemical pathways. Over the years in an attempt to understand life, modern science has made extensive attempts to understand only the molecular constituents like RNA and DNA in the bodies of living entities.

In this regard Dr. TD Singh, founder director of Bhakivedanta Institute, attended a lecture on the origin of life by the world-renowned reductionist, Professor Stanley Miller. Dr Singh asked him during the question and answer session, “Suppose I were to give you all of the ready-made bio-molecules —DNA, proteins, lipids, sugars, etc. — would you be able to produce life within a test-tube by combining these molecules?” Professor Miller replied, “That I don’t know.”

The vedantic idea is directly opposite to the idea of chemical evolution. Srila Prabhupada presented it in a very profound and simple way as, “Life Comes from Life.” According to the Taittariya Upanisad, 'asadva idamagra asit': Brahman or Consciousness existed before the manifestation of the material world. Thus Vyasadeva, the compiler of all Vedic literature exhorts that the prime duty of the human form of life is to inquire into the original basis of existence, which is Brahman or consciousness, “athato brahma jijnasa”.

Furthermore consciousness is one of the prime symptoms of life. Thus according to Vedanta life is really a very deep reality and the full realization of the characteristics, meaning and purpose of life requires the conception and help of more than any material principle.

According to Vedic knowledge the nature of dead matter and life are completely different. For example, consciousness is one of the symptoms of life which dead matter does not possess. The major problem, which appears in the present approach of modern science, is that it assumes (without having sufficient scientific evidence) that life is of the same nature as that of matter and then tries to understand life. This approach has been adopted by science for years and due to this we don’t have any theory in modern science which could give us a clear scientific idea about life.

Scientifically, the origin of matter as well as of life is not known. This fact is also evident from the questions listed by Science Magazine in its 125th anniversary issue. There is no final theory of matter. Scientists – physicists and chemists – only try to understand the properties of different chemical components that make up the various lumps of matter and their physical and chemical properties. Biologists and biochemists, following the footsteps of physicists and chemists, are also on the wrong path – because they borrow the concept that life is a product of chemical evolution.

So in reality, they don’t study life. Therefore they cannot go much further. Darwinian paradigm has ensured that, the search for life was conducted only from a materialistic approach. This idea is actually only a theory, although it is now accepted and taught as if it was an unquestionable fact. Yet even after so much effort is the origin of life remains an unsolved problem. Many difficult questions raise the doubt that whether this paradigm can stand a true scientific analysis. If this one sided assumption can be removed from the studies on life and if the studies are carried out following the indications given in the Vedic literature regarding life then modern science may be able to provide many breakthrough findings on life and its deeper reality.

The Vedantic paradigm is summarized by Srila Prabhupada as Life Comes from Life. Furthermore matter also comes from life. It begins the study of the origin of life by including a divine or spiritual element coined as spiriton by Dr T. D. Singh. The Vedantic paradigm is an ancient paradigm and has been well studied within the traditional schools of Vedanta throughout the ages. Thus the Vedantic conception of life is that it is non reducible to matter, like atoms, molecules, chemicals and forces.

According to Vedanta an ignorance of the original conception is the cause of sufferings. But when the actual Origin of both matter and life is understood, then peace and harmony are simultaneously achieved. Thus there is a great hope if scientists of the world can come together and study the question of Life by including the spiritual conceptions of the world, including the Vedantic conception. Today in science, in a strictly materialistic approach, we are facing many difficult and intractable questions. Thus a synthesis between the Vedantic idea and modern science is sure to expand the domain of our scientific conception of Life.

(This paper was presented at the International Conference on Science and Spirituality for World Peace held at the RIMS Jubilee Hall in Imphal on November 23-24, 2007. The writer is a Research Scholar in the Dept. of Chemical Engineering at IIT Kharagpur)