The tuition is too damn high!

I think I know what Jimmy McMillan’s opinion would be concerning college tuition rates. In my previous post, I included an infographic that suggested tuition rates have increased by 500% since the early 1980s. If we start just a little bit farther back, around the late 1970s, the increase is actually more than 1000%, and still almost double the increase that we have seen in health care costs. Both, of course, are well above and beyond the Consumer Price Index.

A very timely story was aired on NPR yesterday morning about the growing burden of college tuition rates. This story offers some excellent information, as well as perspective, on the challenges that many students face when trying to figure out how to pay for college…especially students from low-income families and students who are the first to attend college from their respective families.

In the last 20 years, the average burden for a four-year college graduate in the U.S. has gone from about $9,000 to nearly $30,000 today. The percentage of students carrying debt has shot up from less than half to nearly 70 percent these days.

In response to my last post, the question was asked “Isn’t financial aid in place to allow lower income students to afford college?” This article provides data for Pell Grants, which now cover (at best) about half of the amount that they once covered. This means that the maximum Pell Grant only covers about 15-30% of the average total cost of college.

Take Pell Grants, the largest federal aid program aimed mainly at low-income students. Even after taking into account federal loans and work-study, about 86 percent of Pell recipients had nearly $9,000 in “unmet need” on average per year.

So why is the college tuition rate so damn high? Perhaps a more precise question might be to ask why colleges have felt compelled to raise tuition rates so dramatically over the years? Since my last post, I have been looking for an answer or an explanation. As you might imagine, there is no single reason. Colleges have multiple sources of revenue, so the answer is not easily pinned to just one source. There are also many different types of institutions, and each different type may rely on different sources of funding. There are some definite contributors to the problem, and of course reasons may vary between different types of institutions. There are also a number of theories that seek to assign blame, but most lack solid evidence to support the claim. In short, finding a good answer has been frustrating, but here is what I have found.

1) The most commonly-cited reason for rate increases is the decline in state support for public colleges. At Virginia Tech, for example, the share of revenue coming from state support has dropped steadily declined from 50% back in 1987 to about 25% in 2012. The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an excellent resource for tracking the declining share of revenue that comes from state support for a wide range of institutions and institution types over the last 25 years. As revenue from public sources decreases, institutions must make up the deficit somewhere else, usually by increasing rates paid by students. A consequence of this is that private institutions seeking to compete with public institutions can increase rates as well. We are now at a tipping point where students are surpassing the states in terms of who pays more for public higher education. In 2000, the state paid more than students in 47 out of the 50 states. In 2012, the state paid more in 26 states and students paid more in 24 states. The average amount spent by states in the U.S. in 2012 was $5906, whereas the amount spent by students was $5189. Public education is not so public anymore.

2) The second reason most often cited was increasing salaries. Some point fingers at faculty, but faculty salaries are not really increasing, overall. Salaries for some full professors may be increasing, but that is often related to grant funding. Looking at the trends for different faculty types shows that salaries are barely keeping up with inflation, and certainly not matching the increases in tuition rates. In fact, according to a report that was recently released by the Delta Cost Project (a nonprofit, nonpartisan social-science organization whose researchers analyze college finances), faculty salaries have essentially remained flat between 200 and 2012. The report, entitled “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education“, points to growth in college administration as one of the primary reasons for increasing tuition rates. According to the report, “The overarching trends show that between 2000 and 2012, the public and private nonprofit higher education workforce grew by 28 percent, more than 50 percent faster than the previous decade.” I recommend reading through this report, especially their key findings. The figures on the growth of college administration and the rise of “professional positions” within the institution is startling. The popular term for this trend seems to be “administrative bloat”, and it is prevalent across the country in all institutional types. The chart below represents the changing ratios of the number of faculty and staff positions relative to the number of administrative positions in various institution types since 1990.

3) Directly related to the issue of increasing administrative salaries is the increase in student services. In fact, one of the reasons for increased administration is the overall increase in services and programs provided by institutions that are not directly related to instruction. According to a recent article by the Chronicle for Higher Education, which focuses on the findings of the report by the Delta Cost Project, “The report also makes clear that the expansion in wages and salaries derived not from instruction, institutional support, or academic support, but from student services, which can include athletics, admissions, psychological counseling, and career counseling, among other activities. Nearly every type of college had increases in that area, with little growth, or even declines, in other areas.” Apparently, many schools feel that this is necessary to be competitive with other institutions when it comes to recruiting. It is also important for building a brand, and building loyalty to that brand. The idea of building up strong athletic programs, fostering participation in activities, and providing an unrivaled experience for students is also geared towards the long-term goal of soliciting alumni contributions. The better the experience for the student, the more likely that student will be to donate someday. How these activities relate to the mission of providing students with an education is a subject of some debate these days.

4) Another common argument is that inflation is to blame. Unfortunately, the increasing rate of college tuition has outstripped the inflation rate since the 1970s. While one could always argue that inflation is a factor, it is hardly a significant factor in propelling the outrageous increase in tuition and fees relative to all other sectors of our economy.

5) An argument I have read about in several forms is based on the idea that increases in tuition rates are linked to increases in the availability of federal student aid. This is known as the “Bennett Hypothesis”, which was essentially coined in 1987 by then U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, who wrote a piece in The New York Times entitled “Our Greedy Colleges.” The theory behind Bennett’s assertion was this: “The availability of federal loans—particularly subsidized loans offering a below-market interest rate and payment of interest as long as the student is enrolled in school—provides “cover” for colleges to raise their prices, because students can offset a price increase, or at least a portion of that increase, with federal loans.A comprehensive review of this theory, written by Donald E. Heller, Dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, disputes this idea. Heller states that “While the Bennett Hypothesis may be intriguing, there is little compelling evidence that it holds true with respect to the price-setting behavior of colleges and universities in the United States.

6) Another interesting theory describes a “higher education bubble” in the United States right now, making comparisons between the housing market collapse and the exorbitant tuition rates for higher education. Prior to the housing market bubble bursting, we saw an excess of new home construction, dramatic increases in home prices, and people taking on mortgages that were financially unrealistic. The comparison describes colleges and universities that have over-expanded, college tuition rates that are dramatically climbing, and students who take on an increasing burden of debt to earn a degree. Meanwhile, there is a growing perception that the rate of return on the investment in education is growing smaller, just as people began to perceive that the rate of return on investing in a home was growing smaller. If true, a significant reason that rates are increasing is because there is essentially a “speculative boom” in higher education. This remains a theory, however, and there are experts and economists who support this theory, and others who oppose it altogether. While it may be an interesting theory, it is difficult to actually prove or disprove such a claim until after the bubble has burst (or not burst).

7) Last on the list of interesting theories about the rapidly growing rate of college tuition rates is the idea of consumer protection. I have not found a lot of references on this subject, so I am going to directly quote Wikipedia on this one: “the recent change in federal law removing all standard consumer protections (truth in lending, bankruptcy proceedings, statutes of limits, the right to refinance, adherence to usury laws, and Fair Debt & Collection practices, etc.) strips students of the ability to declare bankruptcy, and, in response, the lenders and colleges know that students, defenseless to declare bankruptcy, are on the hook for any amount that they borrow -including late fees and interest (which can be capitalized and increase the principal loan amount), thus removing the incentive to provide the student with a reasonable loan that he/she can pay back.” This seems to relate to the previous theory regarding the “higher education bubble”, as well as the “Bennett Hypothesis.” If true, this would suggest not only predatory lending habits on the part of the federal government and other lending agencies, but also that colleges and universities are complicit in this by continually raising tuition rates in response to the greater availability of loans. As tempting as conspiracy theories can be at times, this seems rather unlikely to me.

That summarizes the majority of the proposed explanations that I have found for the extraordinary increase in college tuition rates that we have seen in recent decades. In general, the two most important factors contributing to increased tuition rates seem to be: 1) the reduction in public funding that colleges have been seeing over the years, and 2) the steady increase in “academic bloat” at most institutions. As states cut funding to public institutions, those institutions are forced to act more and more like private entities. These institutions must find ways to make up the difference in revenue, and so that difference is ultimately passed on to the students. As a result, public schools become more comparable in price to private institutions, which do not receive public funding and have historically been more expensive than public schools. Public and private institutions alike seek out alternate sources of revenue such as ticket sales for athletic events. Athletics become a part of the university “brand”, and of course this leads to merchandising. Building a strong brand and loyalty among students is also key to soliciting alumni donations. Schools attempt to draw in greater amounts of research funding, and develop administrative infrastructure to help facilitate this goal. All of these steps require more administrators, which translates to mean more bureaucracy. This is the “academic bloat” that was described earlier. Ultimately, this seems to reinforce the need to continue increasing college tuition rates. One of my favorite quotes, which is often attributed to Oscar Wilde (though I can find no definitive proof of this), seems very appropriate here: “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.

While I suspect there may be other factors at play that I have not been able to identify, I find it very likely that these two factors play a significant role in raising college tuition rates. This trend has been allowed to continue unchecked because, for now, people tend to place considerable value on higher education. The consensus still seems to be that higher education is worth the trouble, the time, the increasing burden of debt, and the delayed start to career, family, etc. If we continue at our current pace, however, I will not be surprised if this perspective begins to change. Sharp declines in enrollment could very well lead to the bursting of the proposed “higher education bubble”. I fear that would only lead to a widening of the socioeconomic gap that exists in our country. So what should we do about the increasing cost of higher education? Is it even possible to change our current system to make it more affordable? These are the questions on my mind now.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Education

Do we value education?

In my professional development class last week, I had the opportunity to listen to several international students who were willing to stand up and speak about their educational backgrounds, as well as share their perspectives on the educational system of their native countries. Listening to my classmates talk about their experiences was an excellent reminder of just how differently other countries approach the concept of higher education. One of the most striking points is that, in many countries around the world,higher education is considered a right to which all citizens of that country are entitled. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by the idea that students pay for little more than some nominal fees for higher education in most European countries. Of course, the cost of this publicly-funded higher education is borne by all tax-paying citizens. If you were surprised to learn this, then you might also be shocked by the income tax rate of these countries. The top income tax rate in the U.S. is about 44%, as compared to a tax rate that ranges from about 50% in many European nations to as high as 60% in Denmark. Looking at personal tax rates on $100,000 around the world, the U.S. comes in at 55th out of 114 countries surveyed.

If you look at income tax rates on the top earners ($300,000 annually), the ranking changes little, placing us 53rd out of 114 countries. The better number to look at, however, is the tax rate as a share of gross domestic product.

When we do that, we see that the U.S. sits around 27% while many European countries are in the range of 40 to 50%. Contrary to what you might think from listening to politicians, our tax rates are not that high. A consequence of this, however, is that our approach to funding social programs also differs from many (if not most) European countries, and we certainly do not take the same view of providing higher education for all. I am going to make some broad generalizations here, but my impression is that Europeans (in general) seem to view higher education as a public good, whereas the American view is that education is a private good. To quote an excellent article by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson (January 18, 2011) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The concept of public goods is central to economic analysis of the role of government in the allocation of resources. Public goods are defined by two characteristics:

1) Non-excludability: It is not possible to exclude non-payers from consuming the good.

2) Non-rivalry in consumption: Additional people consuming the good do not diminish the benefit to others.

An example of a true public good might be national defense. Our army does not protect only taxpayers, but instead protects the nation as a whole. The fact that the army protects you does not in any way diminish the protection that I receive. By this definition, education is not strictly a public good, especially in the United States. Here, people can be excluded if they are not able to pay, and certainly it makes sense that the value of a particular degree might decrease relative to the number of people that have earned that degree. On the other hand, society does derive at least some benefits from having an educated populace. Assuming that education leads to greater productivity and innovation, then we expect people with more education to have higher-paying jobs, and therefore pay more taxes. We expect them to be more likely to start new businesses, thereby creating more jobs and employing more people. We expect them to develop innovative solutions and technologies, to advance science, math, and other fields of study, to produce literature and art. In short, we expect them to contribute more to our culture and society than they might have without higher education. There is no question, I think, that education has value. To quote Jonathan Rothwell’s November 12, 2013 article entitled The Economic Value of Education, “The data are very clear that the sacrifices made by millions of taxpayers, parents, and individuals to invest in the education of others or themselves are economically worthwhile.

Thinking about this makes me question exactly how much we actually value education as a society. In the United States, we largely seem to view education as an expense that must be borne by the individual. Naturally, this conveys an advantage to anyone born into a family with the financial means to meet the rising costs of higher education. Of course, there are some opportunities for scholarships and the like, but more often than not the only real option is the student loan.

The sheer volume of student loans in this country is staggering. Now if this trend indicated that more and more students were going to college, that would good news, of a sort. Sadly, that is not the case. The greatest influence comes from the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Everyone knows this, I think, but to put it in perspective, look at the increase in college tuition and fees relative to other typical expenses.

It is difficult to avoid hearing something about health care in the news, and how the cost of health care has increased dramatically as well. While 300% is a pretty incredible increase since the early 1980s, that still pales in comparison to the 570% increase of college tuition and fees over the same course of time! I had no idea it had increased so much. I find it almost unbelievable. Raise your hand if, like me, you have college debt that you will be paying off for years to come. I can only imagine what it will cost when my daughter is of an age to attend college. I hope she is either a genius or a superstar athlete.

Here is what I see as one of the most significant problems that we must confront with regards to college tuition: skyrocketing tuition rates can only serve to widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our country. As more people earn undergraduate degrees and graduate-level degrees, it becomes more and more challenging (if not impossible) for those without such degrees to compete in the workforce. It is difficult to imagine most of these people becoming innovators and entrepreneurs when they must struggle just to survive and meet basic needs like food and shelter. This is why I question our commitment to education in this country. I think that perhaps what we are really doing is paying lip service to the notion that education is valuable and important. I think the reality is that we are promoting a system that strongly favors those of a higher socioeconomic status by making higher education less and less accessible to those of lower socioeconomic status. The reality is that more and more students are graduating from college with an enormous handicap in the form of crushing debt. We should want a nation made up of educated individuals. We should want to give people the means to be productive members of society. I think anyone you asked would say that they want these things, yet that is not what we actually do. We say that education is important, and we say that it is a priority, but we do not actually make it a priority. I think that, if we really meant what we say, we would take steps to promote that which is in our best interest as a society: we would be making higher education available to everyone and treating it is a right that we are all entitled to, as citizens of this country.

I welcome feedback and discussion on this point. Do you think that we value education in America? In upcoming posts, I intend to explore the reasons for increasing college tuition rates.

Thanks for reading!

 

Posted in Education

A Globalized Diet

In my recent articles dealing with the controversy surrounding GMOs, I discussed the idea of food security and touched briefly upon the subject of monoculture and the issues that arise from this practice. In this article, I intend to expand upon that topic and take a look at the related issue of decreasing diversity in the human diet worldwide and the impacts of this trend. A recent study entitled “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security“, which was published in the journal PNAS, has prompted a flood of articles about this very topic. This study examines changes in the global diversity of the major crop species upon which humans have relied for roughly the last fifty years. The primary finding is that: “As a global trend, national per capita food supplies from both plant and animal sources consistently increased over the past 50 y for all variables, with animal foods becoming increasingly important in contribution to protein and oil crops dominating fat food supplies.” In other words, we are getting more protein from meat and more fat from crops like soybean, sunflower, and palm oil. Not only that, but the diversity of the most ubiquitous commodity crops is decreasing. Humans around the world are consuming more wheat, rice, and maize (corn), while crops such as millet, rye, sorghum, yams, cassava, and sweet potatoes, which have historically been staples throughout Africa, parts of Asia, and the Pacific, are all on the decline. Essentially, diets are becoming increasingly “Westernized”, which I will talk about later in this article.

This finding should not be especially surprising to anyone. This trend represents selection pressure on a global scale. Throughout history, humans have sought to ensure their food security by seeking out sources of calories that are reliable, portable, and have a long shelf life. How else do you survive the winter, make a long trek on foot across harsh terrain, or cross countless miles of ocean in a small boat? Though we may feel that we have a greater understanding of nutrition than our distant ancestors, the backbone of our diet is composed of starches that come from grains like wheat and corn, proteins that come from animals and some grains, and fats that come from animals and oils like palm and soy. As the human population continues to grow at an alarming rate, the demand for food sources that are efficient, travel well, and last a long time will continue to grow. As demand increases, growers compete to produce more and there is an increasing shift towards larger-scale production, industrial agriculture, and multinational corporations. Not only do we see a lack of species diversity, as fewer species are planted, but the genetic diversity within those few species decreases as well. There are certainly advantages to industrializing our system of agriculture, such as reduced costs, consistency in the quality of the product, and ease of distribution. While this may result in more streamlined production, and increase our ability to feed more people, this approach is the proverbial double-edged sword.

The problem with decreasing species diversity and genetic diversity is that we become very reliant upon those few species. We put all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak. We humans like to believe that we are in control of our surroundings and the masters of our destiny, but when it comes to agriculture, we are still subject to the whims of nature and weather. A rainy and wet spring can delay planting, while a lack of rainfall in the summer can stunt the plants and reduce your yield to almost nothing. A rainy fall can delay or even prevent harvest, while warm winters can lead to an early and intense assault from weeds and pests the next spring. Repeatedly planting the same crops leads to an increase in pests that prey on those crops. Combating increased populations of pests by spraying pesticides or planting resistant varieties increases selection pressure on those pests to evolve ways to develop resistance to the chemicals or to overcome the resistance of the crop. Concentrating production in certain geographical areas means that insect pests, diseases, droughts, and other disasters all take a larger toll. Extensive concentration and consolidation of production requires a distribution network for food products. Our dependence on the use of fossil fuels links the price of food to the price of oil. Relying on such wide distribution means that our food supply at the national level can be interrupted by shortages of fuel, labor disputes, inclement weather, natural disasters, and more. Apply these issues to a global scale, where you must also factor international politics and trade, civil unrest, wars, and the like, and you have a very fragile system that can tumble like a house of cards.

So what do we do about it? I find it surprisingly difficult to imagine a solution, given the direction that humanity is moving. A seemingly simple response that many espouse is a movement to/return to smaller farms, organic practices, and local production. I certainly love this idea, and dream about someday having a house in the country, gardening, and buying local meat and produce from the nearby farmer’s market. Unfortunately, I do not really see this as a viable answer to the problems that we are examining. The idea that humans would be able to abandon intensive agricultural practices and rely entirely on local, small-scale production runs counter to the direction in which we are collectively moving as a species. We are dealing with:

  1. tremendous population growth
  2. an increasingly urbanized society
  3. a universal desire for upward mobility and higher standards of living
  4. increasing globalization and interdependence

These issues make us ever more reliant upon intensive agriculture, and make the majority of us rather far removed from the source of the food that we eat. The rapid growth of the human population quite simply means that we have to find ways to do more with less. There is only a finite amount of land on this planet, and only a fraction of it is suitable for agriculture. As the human population increases, the amount of available land per person decreases and land becomes increasingly more valuable. Anyone who grew up in a rural setting can likely think of multiple examples of farmland that was sold for development. There is often far more money to be made (at least in the short term) from dividing land up into parcels and selling it for real estate than there is money to be made from selling or renting it to farmers. This is one of the many challenges of modern farming. It is difficult for small farms to compete with real estate prices, and typically farmers must take on sizable loans to purchase land outright. This is a scary prospect when your crop can be wiped out by unfavorable weather, insects, or disease, and you are left with no option but to sell the land or default on loans. Renting means a lot less cash up front, but does not offer a lot of security, as land that you farm one year can just as easily be rented to someone else the next. This gives an advantage to cooperatives and large-scale farming operations, as they are more likely to be able to acquire land.

The second and third issues are closely related and strongly influenced by the first. Most people looking to improve their quality of life, or climb the socioeconomic ladder in order to reach a higher income tax bracket, migrate to urban areas where they are more likely to find jobs or pursue higher education. We have already passed the point where the urban population of the world has surpassed the rural population (see the graph below). This push towards urbanization translates into an increased demand for affordable and portable food products with a long shelf life. As lifestyles change in the pursuit of a higher standard of living, people also spend less time preparing food. Time is another limited resource, and the more time that people spend working, the less time that they devote to activities like growing food, shopping for food, preparing food, engaging in long meals, engaging in routine exercise, spending time with family, etc. In the balancing act that is time management, an easy way to save time is by decreasing the amount of time spent obtaining and preparing food. Food is much more likely to be obtained from a supermarket than it is a farmer’s market, and very few urban residents will be growing much of their own food. Fast food presents a cheap, quick, and readily available source of calories, contributing to what we know as the “Western diet”.

The Western diet is high in refined carbohydrates, animal products, fast food, and sweetened beverages, and low in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. While we may understand at some level that this is not a very healthy diet, this is the norm here in United States, and its prevalence is directly related to socioeconomic class. Higher-quality diets (consisting of whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy products, and fresh vegetables and fruit) are more common among people of higher socioeconomic status. More energy-dense diets (consisting of a lot of refined grains and added fats) that are nutrient-poor are more common among people of lower socioeconomic status with  limited resources. Another factor is limited access to higher-quality food sources, as we see in the case of “food deserts“. According to the USDA: “Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” Naturally, these issues are not limited simply to urban areas, as one can have limited financial resources and live in a rural setting. Urbanization exacerbates the issue because the effects of these problems are intensified due to the higher population density of urban versus rural environments.

This problem with the American diet is not exactly new, though hopefully people are becoming more aware of it, nor is it limited just to the United States. Increasing globalization has resulted in an expansion of the Western diet, or (my new favorite phrase) Coca-colonization. “Globalization” may seem like a bit of a buzzword, but it is a word that comes laden with meaning. It means a growing exchange of goods through international trade, an exchange of ideas and culture through modern communication technology and travel, and a growing interdependence as countries and their economies rely more and more on these exchanges and become inextricably intertwined. Unfortunately, this can lead to a sharing of both beneficial and harmful ideas and practices. Health issues that have become associated with the American diet, like diabetes and heart disease, are now becoming global issues as well, especially in poorer or less-developed nations. If nothing else, this should serve to point out how dependent humans are on intensive agricultural practices, and how strong the allure of a low-cost, high-energy diet. Unless small, organic, local production of food can somehow be as cost-effective as large-scale, intensive agriculture, then I expect that there will always be a socioeconomic gradient when it comes to the quality of the human diet.

Just to clarify, I am not speaking against these practices. I would prefer that my cows and chickens not receive antibiotics every day in their feed, and I would like it very much if my vegetables had not been sprayed with countless chemicals. I like the idea of buying from local farmers, and knowing that there is some consideration for animal welfare. I also like the ideas put forth by the “slow food movement“. These are good practices, but they do not really solve the bigger problem. These practices are really only available to a privileged fraction of the human population that possesses both the means and the will to support them. When I say will, I mean that you may actually be able to afford such food products, but why pay that much when you can buy cheaper meat at Walmart, or just eat at McDonald’s, and then have more money in your budget for higher rent/mortgage, more clothes, new electronics, or whatever else you want or feel is important? With so many trade-offs in life, it can be very difficult to justify spending more money and setting aside more time to prepare food, at the expense of other necessities or luxuries in life, when the benefit seems so intangible. Being poor often means that long-term plans and considerations are a luxury, and one that does not really seem to offer much return.

So if our love affair with organic produce, free range chickens, grass-fed beef, and locally-sourced food is not the answer to the global problem, then what is the answer? Ugh..I was afraid you would ask that. I wish I knew. If I did, I bet I would belong to a socioeconomic status that did not have to worry about such things. First, the low-hanging fruit:

  1. I think it is clear that this is a global problem, and not one that we here in the United States will just solve for ourselves.
  2. I think it is also clear that this is a cultural problem, which makes it inherently challenging to solve.

Any solution must take into consideration the importance of genetic diversity. We must reverse the trend of becoming overly-dependent on only a narrow range of species. This means cultivating and consuming a wide variety of plant (and to some extent animal) species, and also ensuring that we maintain genetic diversity within those species as well. Finding ways to promote and support local production of these foods would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for food distribution. Alternatively, we could protect our distribution by developing cleaner, cheaper sources of fuel and electricity and reduce reliance upon fossil fuels. Changing our eating habits to incorporate a wider variety of food sources, to consume fewer animal products, and to rely less on refined carbohydrates and processed foods would have tremendous impacts on human health, animal welfare, and our environment, but how do we make this economically feasible for everyone? How do we go about changing cultural habits? We are not just talking about convincing more people to go out and try sushi, or to eat quinoa once in a while. We are talking about changes to our daily eating habits, changes to our food-buying habits, changes to the way we prepare and consume food, as well as changes in how food is produced and distributed. Most of the focus right now is on changes that are really only options for those of higher socioeconomic status, as it they tend to require both financial resources and time. The only way that we can even begin to consider implementing such practices as a species is if the vast majority of our species enjoys a high enough standard of living to make these issues both worth addressing and capable of being addressed. That is where the root of this problem lies, and in my opinion that is the only place to begin if we really want to tackle the related issues of food production, food security, and global diet with any seriousness. That is a lot to think about, but I hope that you will give it some thought.

I am going to finish this piece with a very pertinent book recommendation. Some time ago, I read an excellent work of science fiction entitled “The Windup Girl“, by Paolo Bacigalupi. I have seen it referred to as both biopunk and speculative fiction, as it features a dystopian future in which fossil fuels have become depleted, ocean levels have risen, and the universal currency is the calorie. Food production is controlled by giant corporations that are using biotechnology and corporate espionage to (barely) stay one step ahead of rapidly evolving mutant pests and rampant superdiseases, while giant springs that are compressed by manual cranking are used to store energy. This is the backdrop for a thought-provoking story that ultimately revolves around genetically-modified humans. It is a wildly compelling read that paints a fascinating picture of a future that we would never want, but seems entirely probable. It is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.

Posted in Science Stuff

The GMO Controversy, Part II

 

Welcome back for the third article in this series on GMOs, cleverly entitled part 2 just to confuse you. In my first article I spent some time defining what it means for something to be “GM”, or “genetically modified”. In my second article, I attempted to frame this discussion in a more global context. Given that I struggle with being concise, I decided to split that discussion up into two parts, instead of just the one article that I had originally intended, and I think it is going to be a struggle to keep it to just three. Anyhow, in the last article I began discussing the idea of food security, and looking at general approaches to increase food production for those in need, such as increasing the amount of land devoted to food production, or changing cultural habits to focus on products that result in a greater caloric output. While there are advantages and disadvantages to both general approaches, I hope it is clear that there are considerable challenges facing the application of either approach in those areas dealing with the highest levels of food insecurity. I left off with the idea that increasing yield on existing lands is another approach to examine, and that is where genetic engineering comes back into the picture.

Genetic modification is neither new nor recent. Since the advent of agriculture (if not before that), humans have been modifying organisms through the process of artificial selection (also called selective breeding) to improve the quality and output of the various organisms that end up on our dinner plates. Genetic engineering is simply a catalyst, speeding up the process of artificial selection to a rate that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve otherwise. In the earliest days of agriculture, some astute farmer surely noticed that planting the seeds from a wheat plant that produced more grains resulted in offspring that also produced more grains, and thus artificial selection was born. As we began to understand how plants actually reproduced, this lead to making “crosses” of plants with different traits that were desirable and easily identified. For example, crossing a variety of wheat with larger grains and a variety that produced more grains might lead to an increase in overall yield. As our understanding grew, so did the complexity of the traits that we considered, as well as the tools employed to manipulate them. Today, instead of just crossing a drought-resistant variety of wheat with a variety that shows resistance to damage by the hessian fly and then hoping for offspring that show both traits, we can look at differences in gene expression between the two plants in order to characterize the molecular basis for those traits. With that knowledge, one could cross the two varieties of wheat and then screen the offspring for those possessing the desired traits, greatly increasing the efficiency of the breeding process. Companies like Monsanto already use this approach to avoid the stigma of “GMO”, demonstrating how such technology can even benefit organic farming practices. Of course, our technology has now advanced to the point that we can introduce a desired gene from one plant variety directly into another, skipping the actual breeding part (see the over-simplified image below).

In both of the previous scenarios, we have simply sped up the process that has historically been accomplished by selective breeding. Suppose, however, that you identify the basis for an existing resistance mechanism to a common fungal pest in a food crop like wheat. What if you could engineer that same resistance mechanism into barley or corn? What if it could also be used in melons or potatoes? If that transfer of genetic material occurs, the recipient would become transgenic, and that is when the discussion becomes serious. In my first article on the topic of GMOs, I pointed out a key distinction that I hope you will bear in mind: there is a difference between saying that something is genetically modified and saying that something is transgenic. To summarize, genetically modified simply means that the genetic material of the organism in question has been altered in some fashion, whereas transgenic indicates that foreign genetic material has been introduced. One further distinction that I will make is to point out that the term genetically engineered (GE) is also commonly used when discussing this topic, and typically indicates that an organism has been modified using modern biotechnology, as opposed to traditional plant breeding. Therefore, if something is transgenic, then it has been genetically modified, and almost certainly genetically engineered, but if something is genetically modified, it is not necessarily transgenic, nor is it necessarily genetically engineered. I point this out not to quibble over semantics, but because this issue is not as binary as it may seem, or is often portrayed. The term genetically modified has come to have a very negative connotation for many people, betraying a fundamental lack of understanding about the issue. What people often fail to realize is that we have been consuming genetically modified foods throughout most of human history, and genetically engineered foods for at least the last twenty years. Furthermore, all such food products are federally-regulated:

FDA regulates food from GE crops in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for protecting agriculture from pests and disease, including making sure that all new GE plant varieties pose no pest risk to other plants. EPA regulates pesticides, including those bioengineered into food crops, to make sure that pesticides are safe for human and animal consumption and do not pose unreasonable risks of harm to human health or the environment.

Now, if you have a fundamental distrust of government and large corporations (which is probably not such a bad thing), this may not fill you with confidence. What should fill you with confidence is that GE foods have a solid track record thus far, and that there is no credible scientific evidence that GE foods pose a health risk. To quote the WHO, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” This does not mean that there will never be a GE food that does not pose a health risk. There are many factors that must be taken into account and investigated when modifying organisms to suit our needs, and it is incumbent upon all parties involved to be aware of this. Regardless of your feelings about large corporations, they are typically driven by one primary motivation: the bottom line. While this can often result in shortcuts and unscrupulous practices, there is a lot at stake when it comes to producing products meant for human consumption. There is clearly no motivation to intentionally produce dangerous food products, while considerable motivation exists to adequately test for unintentional dangers. That, coupled with federal regulation and increasing public awareness provide a certain threshold of scrutiny that must be overcome before a product comes to the market. Added to that, in my opinion, is the fact that most GE organisms are pretty boring. Yeah, that is a fact. The primary focus of most modification efforts in plants is to do one of three things: 1) increase insect resistance, 2) increase virus resistance, or 3) increase herbicide resistance. Not especially exciting, but certainly useful for increasing yields, which is not a bad thing. More important, however, is that these objectives also serve the purpose of perpetuating our current agricultural practices, and I think that is the biggest problem with GE foods right now.

What do I mean by that? What I mean is that all of our actions have consequences. We are part of a very complicated network of interactions between living organisms and natural forces that we like to call nature, or the environment. This network responds to our actions. Cut down a stand of trees to make a field, and you change the interactions. Habitat is lost for some species and gained for others as food sources and options for shelter change. Carbon cycling and the consumption of nutrients in the soil changes, as does water retention and the degradation of soil quality. Erosion patterns change due to altered wind and water flow patterns. There are consequences to converting vast swaths of land into fields of nothing but corn and soy beans, or pastures for endless herds of cattle. We call this monoculture, and while this approach has proven to be beneficial in terms of increasing food production, there are many unfortunate by-products of this type of agriculture. Instead of using biotechnology as a tool to help move away from these types of practices, all too often the products of this technology serve to reinforce our current behaviors. Plants are engineered to be resistant to a herbicide so that farmers can spray entire fields with chemicals that are designed to kill off all other plant life. Thus, we can continue to plant large swaths of corn or soy beans and then spray pesticides that indiscriminately kill not only the intended pests, but also helpful species as well. What needs to change is not the use of GE organisms (or GMOs or transgenics or whatever phrase you want to use), but how we use them. Unfortunately, that is a challenging proposition. Why? Because people typically vote with their wallet. For the most part, people are not especially excited about increasing food prices, and so the most cost-effective agricultural practices will likely prevail. Here in the United States, however, many of us actually have the luxury of choice, thanks to our relatively high standard of living. We have choices, whether it be the ten-pack of frozen chicken breasts that doubtless came from an industrial farm, the certified organic whole wheat crackers that we want to eat with imported manchego cheese, or the organic vegetables and locally-raised, grass-fed beef that we bought at the local farmer’s market. Some of us can afford to cast our vote for the option that allows us a sense of moral superiority.

When you have a national standard of living that permits such choice, it is easy to look upon GE foods with disdain. If you are a subsistence farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa whose children barely get enough calories each day to go on living, your opinions on biotechnology might be a little different. I suspect that many people around the world would agree with the idea that we would all be better off converting to a diet that consists of nothing but locally-raised, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, insecticide-free, small family farm-sourced, organic food products. That sounds great to me! How sustainable is this in reality? Well, I can tell you that here in the U.S. right now, certified organic production accounts for less than 1% of the acreage and 1% of the livestock raised (the USDA provides a lot of interesting data, if you feel inclined to take a look). Even more telling is the fact that many of the organic food products that you find on your supermarket shelves are produced by industrial agricultural practices that are not so different from the methods used to produce the non-organic products that share the same shelves. It is also quite likely that both were shipped across the country to reach you. Michael Pollan, who has published numerous books about food and food production, wrote an article that I think summarizes this point nicely. Truly “organic” food production is more expensive, and more time and labor intensive, than our current practices. It is also subject to the same market forces of supply and demand, and so it should come as little surprise that organic production is evolving into the same sort of industrial process that we are already using. Again…people vote with their wallets. What all of this tells me is that organic production, as we know it today, exists to cater to a niche market, and is certainly not accounting for the overwhelming majority of food production in the United States. Does this mean that I think “organic” is a waste of time? No, but neither do I think that it represents a significant change to our approach to agriculture. I think that the primary accomplishment of the label “certified organic” is to make people feel better about themselves in the grocery store checkout line. I am also fairly certain that the organic model that we get so excited about here is going to be even less appealing in countries where food is already scarce, and likely to be more scarce in the future.

As I said earlier, we are a part of the environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and our actions have consequences. The environment responds to our practices, and we must in turn adapt. One could liken it to an arms race. As we industrialize our agricultural practices to increase food production, we impact soil quality, change habitats, facilitate the spread of diseases, speed up the population growth of plants that we call weeds and animals that we call pests, and so forth. We respond by developing fertilizers to make up for poor soil quality, but our excessive use of fertilizers pollutes waterways and has other unintended effects. We develop chemicals to control plant and animal pests that thrive in monoculture conditions, but this also selects for resistance in those pests and produces detrimental effects in off-target species such as honey bees. These are only some of the challenges that we face when navigating this complicated network of interactions. In our country, we have the luxury of being able to consider other approaches, and (in most cases) can even afford to pay a little more for such descriptions as “organic” and “free-range”. Such is not the case everywhere. Economics and immediate need will dictate the agricultural methods used, even if that means fertilizers and dangerous pesticides. Why should those be the only options, if biotechnology can engineer crops that are more hardy, more resistant to drought, less susceptible to disease, and better able to withstand assault from insects? Why would we not seek to lessen our reliance upon fertilizer and chemical sprays as well? If that were the national consensus, would we then feel obligated to push this doctrine on other nations as well? How arrogant to promote such a view, especially when coming from a land of plenty and directed at people who lack food security. If our actions were driven by common sense and a broad vision based on long-term planning, we would likely be doing things very differently. Unfortunately, our actions are more often dictated by economics, our goals oriented towards short-term rewards, and our opinions too easily swayed by fear and propaganda.

This is what bothers me when people talk about the evils of GMOs. Such statements demonstrate a fundamental ignorance of the basic science behind biotechnology, and speak to fears and uncertainties that are often propagated by the media, and even by well-intentioned but uninformed individuals and organizations. Arguing that biotechnology is at odds with sustainable agriculture is no better, and frames the issue in a very narrow context that is dominated by the perspectives of people in developed nations with a high standard of living. This is not a question that can be answered by saying “Yes, GMOs are good,” or “No, GMOs are bad.” If those are the answers you want, then you are asking the wrong question. Biotechnology is not the problem. Biotechnology is a tool, and like any tool it can be constructive or destructive. The real problem is how we use this technology. The question that we should be asking is “How can we sustainably change our agricultural practices to reduce or eliminate our negative impact upon our environment, while also dealing with the issue of food security?” That is a serious, and truly challenging question to address. Our global population continues to grow rapidly thanks to the development and continued refinement of intensive agriculture practices. Unfortunately, the payoff for these practices comes at a significant cost to the environment that supports us and all other life on this planet. Humanity is faced with the choice of either finding new ways to provide for the future, or else dealing with the catastrophe that inevitably awaits us. I question our ability to effectively solve this problem if we elect to discard the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal.

If you made it all the way to the end of this, then I salute your patience and endurance.

Thanks for reading!

 

Posted in Science Stuff

The GMO Controversy, Part I

The subject of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is quite a challenging topic for most people to discuss, which is unfortunate because it is also a rather important subject. By its very nature, this is a complicated subject because it requires a rather broad perspective. At one end, it requires at least some rudimentary understanding of the molecular mechanisms employed by living organisms to encode, regulate, and express the traits that define us. At the other end, it requires some understanding or knowledge of global issues such as food security, economics, and even climate change. Unless one takes the time to become informed, it is all too likely that opinions will be formed by personal prejudices that influence the news sources that we follow, that dictate our opinions about large corporations or the government, and so forth. This makes the discussion political, and consequently polarizing. When an issue becomes so political, the result is that emotions (and emotional manipulation) often hold more sway than than reason or understanding. My goal here is to take a look at the “big picture”, so to speak, and to apply my understanding of the basic biology behind the genetic modification of organisms to a discussion of this serious issue using the simplest terms possible (for me). This will be the second of what I expect to be a three-part series.

So where does one begin a discussion about the societal impacts of genetically modifying our food sources? Too often, this discussion is framed in the context of pitting “big agriculture” versus “local, organic production”, unfairly characterizing genetic engineering as a tool of evil corporations that are out to crush honest, hardworking, organic farmers. Sounds a bit like a comic book plot, right? This happens to be a very narrow view of the issue, and one that primarily takes the perspective of the developed world. In my opinion, the more appropriate context is to consider this issue in terms of food security for a world that houses a rapidly-expanding human population possessed of an insatiable desire for energy and resource consumption. There is little doubt that the human population is growing rapidly. In 2011, we reached a world population of 7 billion people, by 2024 we are expected to reach a population of 8 billion people, and then by 2040 the world population should reach 9 billion people. Odds are pretty good that we will not stop there. However you want to look at it, that is a lot of people to feed, and we are already not doing so well in terms of global food distribution at the moment. According to the 2013 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we currently have around 842 million people (12% of the world population) that are unable to obtain even the minimum number of daily calories required to sustain an active existence. Although food insecurity can and does exist even in developed nations, the overwhelming majority of these people reside in  parts of Asia (primarily Eastern, Southeastern, and Southern Asia), as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. Want to guess where most of the top 20 largest and fastest-growing countries can be found? So how do we feed all of those people?

That is a complicated question. In a gross oversimplification of global agriculture and economics, there are basically two general approaches to producing more food: 1) you could convert more land to agricultural use, or 2) you could increase the amount of calories produced by the land that is already being used. Naturally, you could use a combination of both approaches as well. The first general approach is quite obviously a challenge, as land is a limited and valuable resource, and not all land is suitable for agriculture. Quite often, land that is ideal for agriculture is also sought after for private or commercial development, making it expensive for small farmers to acquire land for cultivation or pasture. More important, however, is the issue of unequal distribution of arable land. Adding more cropland in a country like the United States does not directly benefit people starving in Sub-Saharan Africa unless there is a serious investment in foreign aid on the part of the country with a surplus. Although foreign aid and relief efforts are often desperately-needed and well-received, they are really only temporary solutions to the problem of food insecurity, as they do not result in a sustainable, long-term solution help those in need to become self-sufficient. You would have to be able to add more arable land where it is needed, and often that would either be damaging to the environment, or else simply not an option. I could write an entire post about the issues with converting rainforest into cropland, but suffice it to say that the quality of the land gained is seldom worth the loss of habitat and reduction in biodiversity that it costs. It is equally impractical to attempt to convert arid desert into productive cropland, which would be the only option available to many people. Granted, possible solutions vary depending upon the location, but for many people there are just not a lot of options to add more farmland. So what about the other approach?

Instead of looking for ways to add more farmland, we could instead look for ways to increase the amount of calories being produced by the land already in use. There are a variety of approaches that might accomplish that goal, and I will certainly not touch on every one. In another oversimplification, there are two general approaches that could be taken to accomplish this goal: 1) you could increase outputs by changing cultural practices to emphasize food sources that produce more calories per acre, or 2) you could increase the output/yield of the food sources currently being employed…and yes, a combination of these approaches could also be used. An example of changing cultural habits might be to reduce meat consumption and replace pasture land with crop land in order to grow more cereals or other crops. Sounds easy, right? Except that the reaction would likely be what you might expect.  Would you want to be told that you should stop eating meat for the greater good? I mean, if you think about the impacts of excessive meat consumption on health and the environment, you might conclude that we probably should reduce our intake, but that is not the point. How excited would you be about someone from another country, who enjoys a higher standard of living than you, telling you what you should grow and eat? It is not even necessarily that people would be reluctant to give up traditional eating habits, either. In many cases, it would also require people to give up a more lucrative source of income in order to grow more food that earns little income in return. If there is a demand for a product, it is likely that someone will seek to supply that product. That is why opium cultivation hit record highs in Afghanistan last year. Why grow barley if the return on opium is so much higher?

Hopefully you are starting to get a better idea of how complicated the situation is when it comes to global food security. I am barely scratching the surface here, and simplifying things considerably. We took a look at some of the general approaches to increasing food production where it is needed most. Although not necessarily the case everywhere, simply farming more land is frequently not an option, or at least, not the best option. Furthermore, that assessment is simply talking about land in terms of quantity, without taking into account the quality of the land. Issues with poor soil quality, limited access to water, and variable climate can all impact the productivity of farm land. Although we could argue at length about the merits of changing cultural habits, it is difficult to argue with the laws of supply and demand. Besides, in many places the issue is not cultural habits, but rather trying to produce enough food to support the local population with insufficient resources. So that brings us to the other approach, which is trying to find ways to increase the productivity of your land. This is where genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms come into play, and will be the focus of the next article in this series, so stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Posted in Science Stuff

Defining GMO

Growing up, I was surrounded by fields of corn that often stretched as far as the eye can see. I grew up on a farm in southern Indiana, so that should not be surprising. My father, uncle, and cousin still farm, growing two of our nation’s staple commodity crops: corn and soybeans. In fact, my very first job was detasseling corn. If you are not familiar with the process, suffice it to say that the job provides excellent motivation for one to pursue academic success and seek out a job that involves air conditioning. Anyhow, corn is just one of many crops that play a central role in the ongoing discussion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that is taking place around the world. Did you know that 90% of the corn grown in the United States last year was genetically engineered? According to the USDA, that number has been steadily growing for more than a decade.

So what exactly does GMO mean, and how does it relate to genetic engineering? The phrase has become a bit of a buzzword that, for many, carries some very negative connotations. Although it is commonly used to refer to crops or food, the phrase is actually very general since not all modified organisms are used in food production. To say that something has been “genetically modified” would indicate that it has been subjected to genetic engineering, meaning that its genome (in other words, the sum total of its genetic material) has been altered in some fashion. This is different from saying that the organism is “transgenic”, which would indicate that foreign genetic material has been introduced into the organism’s genome. In other words, if something is transgenic, then it has been genetically modified, but if something is genetically modified, it is not necessarily transgenic. Make sense?

Humans have a long history of making genetic modifications to plants and animals, though we like to call it agriculture, animal husbandry, domestication, or more recently scientific research. Corn as we know it today was not found growing in the wild, but rather it has been modified by centuries of selective breeding to produce the tall stalk and large kernels that have become so familiar to us (see image below). Selective breeding essentially speeds up the process of natural selection by propagating only those organisms with the desired traits. This could mean breeding cattle to produce more meat or milk, breeding smaller or faster dogs, breeding plants that bear more fruit or have greater resistance to insects, and so forth.

Selective breeding imposes artificial selection upon a particular organism in order to isolate or combine desirable traits within a species, or to take advantage of valuable mutations that occur, or even create conditions where such mutations become more likely. Of course, sometimes our actions apply selection pressures that result in undesirable outcomes as well, as is the case with the development of antimicrobial resistance in a wide range of pathogens due to the overuse of antimicrobial drugs. Humans are also subject to such selection pressure, as exemplified by the ability of a large portion of the population to process lactose (consume dairy products) beyond infancy, thanks to our animal husbandry practices. On the whole, I think it is fairly safe to say that mankind has benefited greatly from the ability to modify organisms to better suit our needs. One might even argue that it is one of the driving factors that has allowed humans to progress from sharpened sticks to nuclear warheads. Your call on whether or not that was such a good thing.

So the leap from natural selection to artificial selection greatly sped up the rate at which we could modify organisms, but the process is rather limited. In essence, you have to work with what you have available. You might want one animal or plant to have the same trait as another, but if you are not able to breed them or graft them together, then you are unlikely to succeed at transferring that trait. With improved understanding of genetics and molecular biology, however, we have overcome these constraints. We continue to learn how to identify the molecular origins of these traits and decipher how they are regulated within an organism. It is even possible to transfer these mechanisms from one organism to another, and that is what we call genetic engineering. This brings us back to the idea of transgenic organisms, which is what people are really concerned about when they throw around the term “GMO” with such disdain.

This is an issue that I try to keep track of, not only as a result of my agricultural upbringing, but also because of my interest in molecular biology and my concern for the future of humanity. Like so many things, the issue itself can be rather polarizing, but that does not mean that one side is right and the other is wrong. In this post I began exploring the topic of genetic modifications to organisms in order to lay the groundwork for my next post, in which I intend to begin exploring in a little more detail the controversy surrounding GMOs.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Science Stuff

Chikungunya

Chicken-what? Unless you happen to be familiar with tropical diseases, odds are pretty good that you have no idea what I am talking about. Chikungunya is a viral disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes. The word “chikungunya” comes from the Kimakonde language of the Makonde people, which is an ethnic group that resides in parts of Tanzania and Mozambique, and means “that which bends up”. The name is meant to invoke an image of the suffering that the disease can inflict, describing the bent or contorted appearance due to athralgia, or joint pain, that is a common symptom of the disease. First described in 1952 following an outbreak in Tanzania, chikungunya has become a widespread and growing problem around the world, reaching epidemic proportions.

Chikungunya is an alphavirus, which means that it is a positive-sense RNA virus that belongs to the family Togaviridae. Briefly, what this means is that alphaviruses like chikungunya use a strand of RNA, rather than DNA, to store its genomic material. Alphaviruses are pretty fascintating in general, so I will try to make a separate post describing them in a little more detail. Anyhow, symptoms of chikungunya commonly include fever and joint pain that can last for a few days to a few weeks. It may be accompanied by a rash, nausea, fatigue and other aches. Although not usually fatal, it can cause fatal complications, especially in older individuals, and the debilitating effects can persist for months or even years. At the moment there exists neither a vaccine nor a cure for the disease. The primary prevention is to avoid mosquito bites if you are at risk, and for those infected, the only recourse is to attempt to treat the symptoms.

Looking at the map above, you might heave a grateful sigh of relief if you do not live in the highlighted area, or travel there routinely. Unfortunately, viruses and the mosquitoes that transmit them do not recognize such boundaries drawn on a map. Historically, chikungunya has relied upon the tropical mosquito Aedes aegypti (left) to serve as a vector, but a recent adaptation to make more efficient use of Aedes albopictus (below) as a vector is thought to be a contributing factor to the reemergence of the disease in a number of widespread epidemics that have occurred since 2004. Unlike Aedes aegypti, the mosquito Aedes albopictus is able to thrive in colder environments, and takes advantage of a wider range of breeding sites. The result is that Aedes albopictus has become established in Europe, as well as the Americas. This means that it is possible for viruses such as chikungunya to become established in these areas as well.

The ease with which viruses can be spread and develop into epidemics is clearly demonstrated by the introduction of West Nile virus into the United States. West Nile virus is another mosquito-borne, positive-sense RNA virus, though it belongs to the family Flaviviridae. First detected in New York in 1999, West Nile virus became established in the continental United States by 2003 and caused multiple outbreaks from 2003 to 2012, with the result being that it has become the most prevalent cause of insect-borne disease in the United States. It is not much of a stretch to predict that this could happen with other historically tropical diseases as well. Europe experienced its first major encounter with chikungunya when a Italy was hit by an outbreak of the disease in 2007. Now, local transmission of chikungunya has been reported for the first time in the Americas. The outbreak began in December of 2013 on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, and since that time cases have been reported in a number of other islands. This outbreak is ongoing, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are considering a winter trip to a sun-soaked island beach in the Caribbean.

So to summarize, what we have here is mosquito-borne viral disease whose mosquito vectors are spread throughout the world. It is very likely that chikungunya and other similar diseases will continue to spread to previously unaffected regions, like the United States, just as West Nile virus has. There is no vaccine and no cure for this disease. Sounds like fun, right? This is one of the many reasons why funding for scientific research is so important. Pardon me while I stand on my soapbox for a minute, but vaccines for such diseases do not make themselves. There is little incentive for private companies to research, develop, test, and market a vaccine for a disease that mostly just affects poor people in developing nations on the other side of the world. Furthermore, if the drug does its job, people would only have to take it once. That is hardly a steady stream of income giving you a significant return on your investment, unlike medication for high blood pressure, cholesterol, depression, etc. There you have a drug that people take for the rest of their lives and can pay for, since the target audience predominately lives in more developed countries. The fact that such diseases do not directly affect us at this moment does not mean that we will never have to deal with it. Even if we care nothing for the suffering of the millions of people affected by this and other such diseases, and care only about our own self-interest, then we should should still care about this.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Science Stuff

Vaccine-Preventable Outbreaks

The Council on Foreign Relations addresses a wide range of topics, and if you explore the website you will discover that they have a section for interactive publications. Among these publications is an interactive map that plots global outbreaks (since 200Smilie: 8) of various diseases that can be prevented by affordable, readily available, and effective vaccines. This includes such diseases as measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, rubella, and others. The map can be found here:

http://www.cfr.org/interactives/GH_Vaccine_Map/index.html#/intro

You can explore the map itself by clicking on the tab on the far left that says “map”, and then select the disease(s), the year(s), and the geographical location that you wish to view. Spend a few minutes exploring it, because it is really fascinating. The main point that I want to bring to your attention is summarized by the following two maps (click on them to enlarge).

First, a map of what the disease landscape looked like in North America in 2008.

2008 North America

Second, a map of what has been reported since 2008.

2008 - 2013 North America

In the entirety of the United States during 2008, we experienced a small outbreak of whooping cough (pertussis) in South Dakota. Not bad, given that this illness used to affect over 200,000 people each year (estimate from chart below).

Since 2008, however, we have seen a drastic increase in the number of occurrences of preventable diseases like whooping cough. If you play with the interactive map, you will see a steady increase in the reported outbreaks of all listed diseases as you look at each successive year. Unfortunately, these outbreaks are directly related to the recent trend favoring vaccine refusal. If you study the world map, you will note that we are a long way from eradicating these diseases worldwide. With the frequency of international travel, it is an easy thing for any of these diseases to be reintroduced to the U.S., which is why it is so important to protect as much of the population as is feasibly possible with vaccinations. There will always be people who are unable to receive a vaccine for one reason or another, but they can still be protected by herd immunity (diagram below).

I have written about vaccinations and the controversy surrounding them in the past, because I think it is important to promote awareness of the issue. A lot of people have strong opinions about vaccinations, but not all of these are informed opinions. Unfortunately, sometimes those opinions have a lot of influence with an uninformed public, and that is when they become dangerous. Take the time to become informed, and do not be afraid to share that information with others. It is absolutely possible to eradicate many of these diseases, not only in this country, but around the world. Such an undertaking would require a concerted effort, a lot of resources, and a lot of planning. I would not believe anyone who claims that it will be easy, but I assure you it is possible. The thing is, it first requires that we are all on the same page.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Science Stuff

Dragonflies and damselflies

I thought I might write about one of my favorite insects. I mean, I think just about all insects are pretty awesome, but we all have favorites…right? Anyhow, I have been fascinated by dragonflies for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a farm, surrounded by fields, and so I spent much of my childhood playing outside. One of my favorite places to explore was the creek (that is the polite name for a drainage ditch between fields), where dragonflies could be seen zipping about while damselflies hovered delicately along the bank or in a shady stand of trees.

So to begin, what is a dragonfly, and how is it different from a damselfly? Both are predatory insects that belong to the order Odonata. Morphologically, they possess very large eyes, two pairs of wings that can be operated independently of one another, and a narrow, elongated abdomen. Dragonflies, belonging to the suborder Anisoptera, tend to be larger than damselflies, with much larger eyes that actually meet on the top of their head. Damselflies, belonging to the suborder Zygoptera, have smaller eyes that sit on either side of the head, and a narrow, stalk-like abdomen. Another important distinction between the two is wing structure. The wings of a dragonfly extend out to its side when at rest, while the wings of damselflies are brought together at rest, extending either above or along the abdomen. Furthermore, the shape of the hind pair of wings is different from the forewings in dragonflies, whereas the wings of a damselfly are all similar in size and shape. Dragonflies and damselflies can be found in a stunning array of colors. While we often tend to associate the colorful and ostentatious colors with insects and other animals that dwell in rain forests or tropical locations, vividly colorful dragonflies and damselflies can be found just about anywhere.

As adults, dragonflies are among the swiftest and most agile of the flying insects. The majority of flying insects use what are known as indirect flight muscles to control the movement of their wings. An insect’s shape is maintained by a rigid exterior shell called an exoskeleton, rather than the rigid interior framework (skeleton) possessed by vertebrates. Though the exoskeleton of an insect is relatively tough and rigid, it is not inflexible. Indirect flight muscles, as the name implies, do not attach directly to the wings, but instead attach to the exoskeleton of the thorax, the portion of the body to which the wings are attached. When the muscles contract, it deforms the thorax, in turn causing the wings to move.

The aerial prowess of dragonflies is largely due to the evolution of direct flight muscles that are unlike those of most other insects. The flight muscles of a dragonfly attach directly to each wing, allowing the dragonfly to move each wing independently of one another.

Check out this brief video showing slow-motion take-offs and landings:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdKxmvcRxls

The result is that dragonflies can perform some rather amazing maneuvers, making them not only fascinating to watch, but also fierce predators. The adults feed on all manner of insects, and are especially useful for preying on mosquitoes. You will normally find them somewhere close to water because that is where they reproduce. Dragonflies and damselflies undergo hemimetabolism, or incomplete metamorphosis, which differs from the holometabolism (complete metamorphism) exhibited by insects such as flies, beetles, butterflies, moths,  etc. Think about a moth, which begins life as an egg, hatches to become a caterpillar during the larval stage, forms a cocoon to protect itself during the pupal stage, then finally hatches as an adult. This is complete metamorphism. Incomplete metamorphism skips a bit. The egg hatches to become an immature version of the adult, known as a nymph or a naiad, which grows progressively larger until it becomes an adult. The term naiad is used to refer to insects like dragonflies whose larvae are aquatic.

Dragonflies actually spend much of their life underwater, sometimes for years, before crawling out of the water to molt and emerge as adults.

Obviously the naiads appear to differ quite greatly from the adult stage, but they are every bit the vicious predators. In fact, dragonfly and damselfly naiads have this amazing mouthpart, which is essentially the lower “lip”, that they can rapidly extend to grab their prey. Immature dragonflies hunt other aquatic insects, larvae, and even fish or amphibians. Check out the video below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W557aSVdW_g

Imagine if those things were huge…and trying to catch you…and you were on a spaceship. Oh wait. Somebody already did. Definite nightmare fuel.

So in conclusion, dragonflies (and damselflies) are pretty bad-ass insects, both as the immature aquatic alien horror, and as the adult aerial daredevil. Be glad that they are tiny and we are not, or we would be called lunch.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Entomology

Carnivores

Apparently large predators are big news right now…I mean, one lousy Science paper comes out and suddenly everyone is chanting “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” No, seriously. That is how NPR led off the story that aired this morning. Actually, it was not just the Science paper this week. There was also a study out this week in PLOS ONE discussing the decline of lion populations in Africa and the endangered status of the large cats. Anyhow, the overall point being made by most of these stories is an important one: large predators play an important role in regulating ecosystems, but many of them are endangered and their natural habitat is shrinking.

There are many complicated interactions and interdependencies in any ecosystem, but you do not have to be a trained ecologist to have a basic understanding of how the food chain works. In the simplest version of the food chain, carnivores tend to occupy a position at the top of the chain, herbivores beneath them, and plants at the bottom. Visualizing it as a pyramid can be helpful, because that also provides an indication of the relative populations of those groups. The amount of available vegetation determines the size of a herd of grazing animals, and the size of the herd determines the number of predators that prey upon it. These numbers fluctuate, of course. This is known as the predator-prey relationship: as the number of predators increases, the number of prey dwindle. At some point, there are not enough to support the predator population, so predators die off. As the predator population decreases, the population of the prey increases, and the cycle repeats.

Of course the same cycle can happen with herbivores and vegetation as well, which is why predators are such an important part of the system. Without predators to help control the population, herbivore populations will continue to grow and consume more resources. This becomes a problem when the population begins to exceed the carrying capacity of the environment. Vegetation gets stripped away, resulting in erosion that can compound the problem by causing loss of habitat. With insufficient food available, especially during the winter, animals are forced into closer contact with humans. An excellent example is the deer population in much of the United States. With so few predators to control their numbers, deer become a nuisance to farmers and gardeners, and also a danger to drivers as they cross roadways in search of food. Larger populations lead to greater incidence of disease, which can effect humans since animals like deer often serve as reservoirs for viral diseases, which can then be transmitted to humans by vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes.

When thinking about such issues, we often consider the direct effects on human beings, but fail to go a step beyond that and look at the effects that such interactions will have on other species as well (which often lead back to humans anyways). Continuing the example of deer, if the population is too large, there will be more competition for food resources not only between deer themselves, but with other species as well. If the deer outcompete those other species, the numbers will likely decline, which in turn affects everything upstream (things that eat that species) and downstream (things eaten by that species). Getting more complicated, right? These things are easy to understand when examined in isolation, but very challenging when considering all of the variables and interactions that exist in nature.

So what is the big deal? We just need to relocate some predators so that the balance can be restored, right? If only that were the case. As usual, we are the problem. Most of us are going to feel sad at the thought of sick and dying deer, starving to death in the winter. Unfortunately, most of us are also going to feel a bit nervous about the idea of having wolves and mountain lions running around in our backyard. That is part of the reason that we have a shortage of predators in the first place. When humans move in, we build things like farms and towns, and cut down things like forests. Habitat disappears for predator and prey alike, but there is another problem as well. We introduce much easier food sources for large carnivores…things like livestock, pets, and children. I mean, if you were a mountain lion, which would you rather do: spend all day stalking and trying to bring down a deer, or find a backyard where some tiny human is playing? Tiny humans are not especially fast, or alert. Who knows? Maybe there will be a yapping little dog to serve as an appetizer. This is like fast food for large predators. See the problem?

So that is one of the many challenges that we humans have in store for us. How do we balance our desire for expansion and consumption of natural resources with nature, especially given how little we really understand the interactions between species in our environment? We often discover important relationships only when it is too late to do anything about it. To quote William Ripple, “Promoting tolerance and coexistence with large carnivores is a crucial societal challenge that will ultimately determine the fate of Earth’s largest carnivores and all that depends upon them, including humans.

Thanks for reading!

How would you feel about having this guy as your neighbor?

Posted in Science Stuff