Friday, October 30, 2009

Beautiful, Beautiful Copenhagen

Like a big rugby or soccer match, the build-up has already begun to Copenhagen '09! On the 7th of December, teams of negotiators from 192 countries will kick-off a two-week marathon round of talks in order to secure a new climate treaty to succeed Kyoto.

More than 15,000 will attend the talks - from journalists to politicians, diplomats and campaigners; as well as presidents and heads of state from around the globe.
Keen to give the right impression from the start, the Danish organisers are ensuring that, for instance, all water available at the summit is tap-water, with no bottles on summit bargaining tables. They've also insisted that a minimum of 65% of the food and beverages available on site will be organically produced.

Whilst the city boasts an impressive and reliable public transport system (which will be free of charge for the delegates) many will of course arrive by air, with the massive carbon footprint which that will entail. A recent UN climate conference in New York in September produced 450 tonnes of carbon. However, the carbon cost of getting delegates (including 50 presidents and 35 prime ministers) to and from New York, including flights, motorcades, police escorts, etc. was neutralised by directly funding a rural power project in India. The funding will support a scheme which transforms agricultural byproducts such as corn husks and stalks in electricity. It's still unclear if the organisers of the Copenhagen summit will do the same!

The COP15 meeting (as its known) is the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties - a group brought together by the UN framework convention on climate change. Ireland will be represented by officials from the EPA, as well as various government ministries. As such, they are in a race against time to have an agreement in place and ratified by all parties before the Kyoto agreement starts to become obsolete in 2012.

Kyoto was negotiated back in 1997 and things have changed utterly since then. Back then, the US was the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Now that dubious honour goes to China - an indication of the massive growth that we've seen in the Chinese economy.

Despite an on-again, off-again debate as to whether climate change and global warming are actually occurring at all, the weight of evidence and scientific support suggests that it is a real problem already and is going to get worse. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that between 1906 and 2005 the earth's average temperature has risen by 0.74 degrees. Now that doesn't seem like a lot in theory. If I put my dinner in the oven to cook and I'm out by 0.74 degrees, it's hardly likely to make a difference. But, on the global scale, if this continues there will be serious consequences.

For Ireland, the potential consequences focus on our island status and our dependence on the Gulf Stream form year-round mild conditions and a decent level of rainfall for our crops. Recent EPA figures show that the average air temperature in Ireland increased by 0.7 degrees celsius since 1890 with a massive proportion of that (0.4 degrees) occuring since 1980. The EPA predicts a temperature rise by 2100 of between 1 and 3 degrees.

In terms of rainfall, there has been a significant increase in total rainfall in the North and West of the country. Predictions say we'll see wetter winters in the West and drier summers in the 'sunny Southeast'. Researchers have also recorded a decrease in the frequency of storms hitting the country, but the intensity of these storms have increased.

The increase in average temperature is caused by the famous 'Greenhouse Effect' - a natural phenomenon which only becomes a problem when you pump loads of CO2 into the atmosphere. On its own, the greenhouse effect is useful to us - without it, the average temperature on earth would be around minus 19 degrees celsius (as opposed to 14 degrees at the moment). Due to the vast quantities of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, the greenhouse effect is going into overdrive and the Earth's climate is being effected.

That's why December's summit will focus on reducing the amount of CO2 and various other 'Greenhouse Gases' which countries are allowed to emit. The task is easier said than done since greenhouse emissions go hand-in-hand with economic prosperity. Particularly at this time, countries want to do little that will constrain their businesses and economies.

However, industrialised countries will be asked to reduce their emissions substantially. Developing countries such as China and India will be asked to limit the growth in their emissions - despite their wishes to grow their economy. Money will be discussed too. Poor countires will require massive amounts of cash to curb their emissions and to adapt to the problems a changing climate will pose.

It will be an interesting summit. Already, the various sides are flagging their opening positions. The stakes are high in beautiful Copenhagen.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not all Banks are Bad Banks

In the last week, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London celebrated collecting and storing its 24,200th plant species. The plant seeds are banked at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex. The Sussex site is part of a 180 acre estate centred around a magnificant mansion.

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank was set up in the year 2000 upon the realisation that 60-100,000 of the world's 300,000 plant species are threatened with extinction. The bank aims to conserve seed (and thus the genetic information) of plants around the world - with particular emphasis put on plants either most at risk or those which are potentially most useful to humans.

The bank has international partners and together, they aim to have stored seed from 25% of the world's plants by 2020. Of course there is a conservation reason to protect these plant species from extinction, but Kew are eager to emphasise the current and future uses of plants as a reason for their work.The most obvious use of plants is in food, something that is becoming more and more important in developing countries where food insecurity has led to civil unrest in recent years.

In fact, just last week the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "for the first time in history, more than one billion people are hungry". Speaking at the launch of World Food Day (October 16th) the Secretary-General remarked, "Over the past two years, volatile food prices, the economic crisis, climate change and conflict have led to a dramatic and unacceptable rise in the number of people who cannot rely on getting the food they need to live, work and thrive."

The medicinal uses of plants is also important. For example, the rose periwinkle of Madagascar is a source for not one, but two anti-cancer drugs used to treat leukaemia and Hodgkin's disease. The substances, vinblastine and vincristine were first discovered when the dried plant was crushed to form a tea. Drinking the tea was found to decrease the number of white blood cells in the body.

Plants are also a useful source of fuels (charcoal, biofuels), fibres (cotton), building materials (mahogany) as well as having an intrinsic benefit to the environment and our appreciation of that environment. In short, there is every reason to conserve the plants that we have.

The poet Walt Whitman puts it very well in his poem Song of Myself:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven..

That plant which brought Kew over that magic 10% level was a species of pink banana which is a particular favourite of the Asian elephant. Musa itinerans, or the yunnan banana as it is known is also an important wild relative of the cultivated banana. This valuable genetic resource will allow breeding of new varieties of banana with disease resistance. This is crucial if we are to continue to eat banana.

In the next 10-20 years the most popular variety 'Cavendish' will almost certainly become unviable due to the pressures of disease. A new variety, which the consumer will accept and have the disease resistant qualities will need to be produced during that time. The genetic information in the yunnan banana may well contribute to the breeding programme.

Professor Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, told BBC News: "the seed bank, as an insurance strategy, is a good sensible way of keeping your options open for the future."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Probiotic Advert Banned

Following up on my earlier post regarding European Commission findings on probiotic yoghurts and drinks, the BBC report that the Advertising Standards Agency in Britain have banned a TV advert for Actimel - a well known brand of probiotic drinks.

Read the report here from the BBC.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

'Less Wealth - Better Health'

According to some recent (some would say biased) research by the pensions provider Friends Provident in the UK, having to tighten our belts can have a beneficial effect on our waistline as well as the rest of our health. ‘Less wealth leads to better health’, blasted the headline I saw.
The results of a survey of 4,000 people showed that 57 % of respondents admitted that they’d like to do more to take care of their body and health. Quite why the remaining 43 % of respondents stated that they would like to do less to take care of their health is unclear and perhaps demonstrates the dangers of reading too much into these type of publicity inspired surveys.
The jist of the report seemed to suggest that with falling incomes, 48 % of respondents were eating less ready meals than this time last year, with 83 % having made some change to their eating habits over that time. Some children it seems are feeling the brunt of the recession harder than others with 21 % of parents stopping providing ‘treats’ in children’s lunch boxes – proof if proof were needed that the children are always the first to suffer! Something we can applaud though: 50 % of parents no longer provide fast food meals for their little-ones.
It’s also interesting to see that 55 % of respondents ‘frequently’ get 30 minutes of exercise, 5 days per week. I’m sorry to be putting a downer on things here, but there is no way that 55 % of the UK population (and by extension, as all these things are, the Irish population) are exercising 5 days a week. It just can’t be the case. I’d be bumping into them all as I do my daily jog. Ok, ok, I’d be seeing them out the window as I watch Celebrity Masterchef, but you get the idea!
According to some more objective research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, the bleak years of the Great Depression could have led to improved fitness in the American population. By analysing masses of census data, the social scientists found that in the years from 1920 – 1940, life expectancy (how long you can expect to live) went up when employment went down and vice versa. The greatest gains in life expectancy were made during the darkest days of the depression whereas relatively prosperous years, such as 1926 and 1936 coincided with setbacks in terms of life expectancy.
Since one might expect life expectancy to increase when a strong economy is prevailing and people have more access to healthcare, one of the scientists responsible for this latest work Jose Tapia Granados tries to explain this seemingly counterintuitive finding: "people who have studied the effect of health care on population health are in general not inclined to think that health care has a big impact." During boom times, people “tend to drink more, [and] tend to be overweight and obese during periods of economic expansion.” The authors also credit the impact of stressful jobs and even motorcar accidents (both cars and accidents increase in boom times) as contributing factors towards the decrease in life expectancy shown.
Telling the Government that health care doesn’t have a really big impact on health is like a license to cut healthcare spending even further of course. It’ll be interesting though to see what the effect of this present downturn has on global health patterns and the health of Irish people in particular. In the road-running community, all the talk is of a large, steady increase in numbers training for and competing in road races around the country. It would be nice to think that a slower economy could help speed us up towards doing a little more exercise.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Probiotic drinks under scrutiny

A panel of scientists at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has dismissed a range of health claims made by manufacturers of so-called "probiotic" yoghurts and drinks.
The opinion delivered by the EFSA was part of a wider study of over 4,000 'general function' claims submitted by EU member states. While only about 500 claims have been studied in this batch, the rest are still being evaluated.
A 'general function' claim is a claim made about a particular food product which suggests that it can aid growth, development or function of the body or make you less hungry so that you will eat less, etc. Basically, its the sort of claim made about products that says, 'Eat this and you'll get thin', or 'Eat this and you'll never get a cold or runny nose again'.
Of the 523 claims made about a variety of food components, including probiotic bacteria, one third were upheld as there was a sufficient amount and quality of scientific evidence to back up the claims.
Of the remaining two thirds which were not upheld, over 50% were rejected owing to a lack of information on the substance on which the claim was based.
180 claims made for probiotic cultures were assessed by the panel, with ten claims being rejected outright and the remainder falling into the category where not enough evidence had been provided to support the claims.
Prof. Albert Flynn of the EFSA commented:"EFSA’s independent scientific advice will help ensure that the health claims made on foods are accurate and helpful to consumers in making healthy diet choices. The scientific opinions will inform future decisions of the Commission and Member States concerning the authorisation of health claims”.
As these were "general function" claims, the next phase will be to assess specific claims made and submitted by manufacturers such as Yakult and Danone about specific strains of probiotic bacteria. A spokesperson for Yakult said: "Yakult has submitted claims for Lactobacillus casei Shirota, a well characterised probiotic strain unique to Yakult. Evidence for its health benefit is based on over 70 human studies and over 70 years of research."
Incidentally, and for a bit of fun, you can generate your own probiotic culture name by following the link below and inserting your last name. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Spider vs. Conker -Opinion

Personally, I'm not particularly frightened of spiders. Despite having seen the film Arachnophobia and despite the popular dislike of our eight-legged friends, they've never particularly bothered me. Moths on the other hand, now they're frightening! I can't quite put my finger on the reason. Perhaps its their erratic flying manner. I always feel they could fly into my face at any time. The way they fly directly into light bulbs bothers me too.
Despite my views that science needs to turn its attention towards this moth problem, it's interesting to see that in Britain, the Royal Society of Chemistry has issued an open call for proof that spiders are deterred from entering a house by the humble horse chestnut of all things.
The RSC is offering £300 to anyone who can come up with hard evidence to back up this old-wives tale with photographic or video evidence.
A quick browse of the web, to use a pun which has been much used and abused by the tabloids covering the story, shows that while a lot of people claim the conker works in warding off spiders, many posters are more suspicious with no direct evidence available.
That a plant source for an anti-spider compound could exist is not beyond the realms of possibilty. Many of our most useful pesticides and medicines were originally derived from plants. In fact, the field of ethnobotany exists to examine such old-wives tales and see if plants in use by indiginous peoples around the world might be a source of useful chemicals and drugs. The cardiac drug Digoxin, for example, was first isolated from the foxglove plant and is now used to treat heartbeat abnormalities. As a further example, nicotine derived from tobacco plants can be used to kill off aphids and other sucking insects in the glasshouse. For a plant that gets so much (deserved) bad press, this is a good news story for tobacco.
Its nice to see the general public being encouraged to conduct scientific experiments and to submit their results to the RSC. There's no reason why anybody couldn't set up a very simple experiment here using horse chestnuts found all over the countryside at this time of the year and some spiders rounded up from around the house and garden. It would also be a very interesting BT young scientist project for students. It could earn them some pocket money too!

The challenge was set by the
Royal Society of Chemistry.

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