Thursday, October 22, 2015

Human Welfare on Animal Husbandry and the Environment

Recently I came across a journal article entitled "Farm Animal Welfare: A New Repertoire of Nature-Society Relations or Modernism Re-embedded?". After a series of experiments, the journal concluded that there is a strong correlation between human welfare and animal welfare in an animal husbandry context. The human here includes farm workers, veterinarian, and any individuals who have direct interactions with the livestock being reared. Members of the public have always raised concerns over animal welfare in terms of adequate nutrition, appropriate living condition and environment, good medical treatments, and humane slaughter/harvest processes. However, it is rare for activists who fight against mass-produced farming system to raise awareness against inhumane treatment of farm workers. Society has put so much emphasis on animal welfare that she often forgets the value of human lives.

The experiments were conducted on two separate farms, where the first took good care of its workers' welfare by giving high salary, good working hours, and less mechanized working patterns; while the second deprives the workers from such benefits. It is assessed that the first farm yields higher volume of dairy milk per day as compared to the second farm, keeping other variables constant. Upon discussing the results, Henry Buller, the co-author of the test, hypothesized that heightened workers' welfare could lead to increased motivation to spend more time interacting and taking closer observation of the animals. As a result, there were faster identification of sick animals, swifter response to keep the proximity clean, and greater self-involvement & responsibility overall. Although animal happiness could not be indexed/calculated, but increased yield might be enough to suggest that these livestock were living comfortably in a less agitated manner. In addition, I was completely taken aback when the paper posed a question that addressed the fundamental motivation to fight for animal welfare: "would increases in living space, food availability, and time to graze outdoor improve their happiness?"

Allow me to comment on the above question, by both reinforcing and rebutting this rhetorical inquiry.

First, I do not believe that family farms can offer better living conditions than corporate farms. Family farm is not the repository for all that is good, and neither is corporate farm the incarnation of all evil. I have witnessed family farms that are dirty and poorly ventilated in order to cut down costs, and corporate farms with clean and easily accessible food storage. Even if livestock raised in family farm can have more time outdoor (which is what animal activists have always believed to be an important factor to increase happiness), they are highly exposed/susceptible to pests and diseases that can eventually lead to miserable and painful lives. Hence, I believe that an increase in living space and outdoor time do not necessarily result in increased happiness of these animals.

Second, although the journal has established the correlation between human welfare and animal welfare, I'm pessimistic that there will be a causation relationship made anytime soon. I believe that both workers' welfare and improved living conditions are factors that need to work in tandem to increase animal welfare. One is unable to work if the other is not fulfilled; both have to be acknowledged to make livestock lives in comfort. Imagine a farm where the workers are highly motivated, but the space allowed for these animals to live in is far too small; imagine a second farm where the workers are not motivated, but the amount of food available is abundant and that these animals are free to roam about. In the first case, sure animals daily needs are met, but they will not be able to live normally. In the second case, without workers supervision/control, the more aggressive animals will tend to dominate food supply, leaving the weaker ones in hunger. From such illustration, it is possible that the author overlooked the importance of animal welfare as raised by animal activists, and get too involved in advocating for human welfare that he forgot the interdependency between the two.

Thus, let us consider both animal's and human's welfare in our endeavor to simulate a comfortable animal husbandry ecosystem that can change the way we have always perceived a conventional corporate farming/slaughter house (inhumane and unnatural). Because a happy animal will yield more product. More product means less animals to be reared. Ultimately, the environment can also benefit from reduced carbon footprint and methane emission.


Journal article taken from:

Buller, H. and Morris, C. (2003), Farm Animal Welfare: A New Repertoire of Nature-Society Relations or Modernism Re-embedded ?. Sociologia Ruralis, 43: 216–237. doi: 10.1111/1467-9523.00242

Friday, October 16, 2015

Not So Meaty Meat Burgers: Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Meat

Impossible Food - an upcoming start-up that primarily innovates in food production - plans to release meat-free burgers. Well, it does not sound too appealing isn't it, meat lovers? It is quite a common (maybe not so) sentiment that meat burger is better than its vegetarian counterpart, no offense intended for my vegans friends. But afraid not, because this startup is going to substitute meat in our meat burgers with plant matters, without removing the flavor and aroma of a conventional meat.

How will they do it? Well before answering that question, let me explain why the meat industry, or rather our current meat-producing farm, is bad for the environment. Animal farms are unsustainable and leave behind huge carbon footprints, yet the demand for meat is surging up as population increases exponentially over the years. Cattle farming, for instance, requires approximately 10 kg of feed and 15,500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef meat. In addition, increasing greenhouse gases emission is partly contributed by increasing number of cattle farms where methane and carbon dioxide, released from grazing and fecal materials, will exacerbate climate change and global warming phenomenon.

Now back to our initial discussion, how do the scientists working in Impossible Food replicate taste and fragrant of a real meat? Well, to do that, they need to understand the basic molecular principles of why meat tastes like meat. These scientists discovered that heme (yes, the molecule found in our red blood cell), plays an integral role in meat flavoring. The "blood" molecule, when in contact with specific sugar and amino acid, will unlock the characteristic taste of a meat. As such, by isolating heme molecules from plant matters, it is highly probable that the taste of meat can be replicated.

Taste is not the only important feature of a meat, the texture of the final product also determines if meat has been successfully replicated or not. In mimicking meat texture, these scientists have to isolate individual amino acid, sugar, fats, vitamins, and minerals from vegetable, fruits, and cereal crops, assess the texture that each molecule can potentially create, and reconfigure/reassemble them into a product that best resembles a real meat.

Tricking a carnivore is not easy, and this is going to be an uphill task for the company to synthesize meat-free meat that is on par or even better than its real meat counterpart. Besides taste and texture, there are many other properties that these scientists may need to look into to make the innovation a success, such as the fragrant, sizzling complexions, nutrient constituents, and even color. Let just see the responses of hardcore meat-lovers by 2016 (when the product is going to be officially released in the US). Hopefully these people will change their opinions from "in no parallel universe will I accept any substitute for meat" to "well, this is not so bad after all, even better than the normal meat I used to eat. Plus, I'm saving the environment."

To reward you for reading this post, enjoy this artist's impression of what the 'meat' burger would look like:

Wall Street Journal. (2014, October 7). Photos: Building a Burger in Impossible Foods’ Laboratory - WSJ. Retrieved from

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Fully Mechanized, Indoor Farm: an Opportunity or a Threat?

For my previous blog posts, I have been putting up information that are either too scientific or too idealistic. So, with regards to that sentiment, allow me to share an interesting news that I read earlier this week. The news reported that by 2017, Japan will open the first and only fully mechanized lettuce farm. This is certainly a fascinating news for us, the environment, and the agricultural world to hear and read. The farm will be built in Kizugawa, Kyoto, and has a production capacity to grow 22,000 lettuce heads EACH day. The company representative highlights some advantages to growing lettuce indoor with fully automated machines as compared to traditional soil-based farming.

First, the production is able to reduce labor cost by 50 percent. Why only 50 percent if the process is fully automated? Well, of course we need humans to control, supervise, and repair any damages to the machines. Second, not only does this idea beneficial to the company in terms of profits, but also for the environment. The farm will recycle 98 percent of water used for cultivation due to the machine's efficiency in reducing water wastage. Not only that, the computers can also regulate lighting, temperature, water quality, carbon dioxide level, moisture, and water quality to ensure high quality harvests and decent growth rate. Third, indoor farming will reduce contaminants present in harvested lettuce as human's exposure is much lesser and the use of pesticides/insecticides is completely removed from the procedure. Lastly, since Kyoto is located near the recently devastated nuclear plant, the soil, water, and air are most likely contaminated with high concentration of toxic radioactive chemicals. As such, conventional agricultural practice is not a viable option anymore, and the idea of having indoor cultivation is highly probable and necessary in order to provide sufficient food for the local communities.

However, the company only presents one side of the story; an unbalanced view of the idea. From what I can see, there are several threats or drawbacks from realizing such ambitious plan. Aside from the potential uprising of Artificially Intelligence (AI) units to take over humanity, the capital costs are considerably high as the company needs to invest approximately $16.6 millions in machinery alone. In addition, the energy consumption of indoor gardening is projected to be extremely high, way higher than greenhouse farming. If this indoor-gardening concept is accepted and proven to be profitable, then many companies will eventually follow suit, increasing the demand for energy dramatically. With surging energy consumption, many more highly-efficient power plants will be built, and nuclear power plant is currently one of the best alternatives to satisfy high energy demand.

Every coin has two sides, just like every decision has both opportunities and threats. Although the idea is extremely viable and beneficial, we cannot close one eye to the possible threats and consequences. If the Japanese can manage to minimize the possible negative implications, then this idea can become a huge leap to our current perceptions of agriculture; redefining entirely the concept of the agricultural system.

Hale, T. (2015, October 9). Japan Will Open A Fully Robotic Lettuce Farm By 2017. Retrieved from

Monday, October 5, 2015

A New 'Soil': Finding Alternative to Soil that is Eco-friendly

Soil is one of the most important components in any gardening-related practices as it dictates plant's growth rate and quality of harvest. Gardeners are reluctant to use their conventional backyard's soil as it has been generally described to have poor structure, lack in nutrients, and contain large amount of pests and diseases which can affect plants' healthy growth. At present, gardeners are substituting soil to peat as the next best alternative to conventional soil. A good 'soil' must have an open channel or structure that allows air to flow into the root networks, the ability to retain water which contains nutrients and minerals necessary for plant's growth, capacity to buffer extreme changes of acidity or alkalinity, and the absence of pests or disease-causing organisms (pathogens).  All the above-mentioned characteristics of a good 'soil' can be easily found in peat (layers of accumulated partially-degraded organic matters). Recently, however, the over-harvesting of peat has resulted in the rapid decline of peatland habitats and the increased emission of carbon dioxide that will significantly contribute to the global warming phenomenon. As such, scientists have begun to formulate alternative options of 'soil' that can entirely substitute the use of peat with similar benefits but reduced environmental consequences.

1. Coir: Coir has been considered as one of the best substitute to peat due to its natural ability to retain water and several other beneficial features that may not be present in peat. Coir is usually gathered from the recycling of coconut's outer husk, a material which is usually discarded as 'waste product'. Once the husk has been cleaned to remove salts and stuck dirt particles, it is then dried, compressed, and transported for consumption. However, one major drawbacks of the usage of coir is its cost which can be twice as much as peat.

2. Bark and shredded wood fiber: These materials are light in weight and can be transported to different places with much ease. Moreover, shredded wood particulates have good water retaining capacity, and able to promote good air flow. However, the different ages of the harvested bark may affect the efficacy or usefulness of these materials as substitutes to conventional soil or peat. Some types of shredded wood fiber have the natural ability to remove nitrogen present in composts or fertilizers. Without the presence of sufficient nitrogen in its readily absorbable forms (nitrate and ammonia), plant growth will be severely affected.

3. Composted materials: Composts derived from organic waste matters, such as, coffee ground, kitchen's waste, and tea powders can help to reduce waste and promote recycling behaviors. However, many scientists believed that composts are not substitutes to peat, but rather an addition. Furthermore, poor treatments and processes of composted materials can instead bring about greater negative implications than the benefits which are initially offered.

Scientists and botanists are still looking for other 'soil' alternative that is as cheap, beneficial, and easily available as peat with minimal impacts on the environment. The quest of finding a long-term replacement to peat is an important environmental goal because over-reliance on peat will cause devastating climatic consequences as a result of increased carbon dioxide emission. Good soil is like a well-paved road; well-paved roads will not slow down or damage the cars and neither will good soil stunt nor impede plant's growth.


American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA). "When 'soil' isn’t soil." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 October 2015. <>.

W.R. Carlile, Costantino Cattivello, Patrizia Zaccheo. Organic Growing Media: Constituents and PropertiesVadose Zone Journal, 2015; 14 (6): 0 DOI

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mushroom as a brave innovation for new plastic?

While I was trying to find Do-It-Yourself Youtube's video on how to cook a simple mushroom dishes, a 'suggested video' entitled Eben Bayer: Are Mushrooms the new plastic? appeared at the side of my tiny, unassuming internet browser. I was taken aback not by the fascination of this newly-heard concept, but by how long I have been on internet that I started to watch the possibility of re-engineering conventional plastic manufacturing from the initial intention of learning how to cook dorm-style simple mushroom dishes. Jokes aside, I was inspired by the speaker who is also the founder of "Ecovative" and a co-inventor of "Mycobond". According to Eben, Mycobond is a technology that utilizes mycelium (root network of fungi that have polymer-like structures found in synthetic plastic) that can have the potential to replace synthetic plastic in terms of tensile strength and durability. The development of mycelium is not demanding, and instead helps to remove agricultural wastes as it obtains nutrition from rice husks or woody biomass. Since the building block is chitinous polymer, mycelium can be molded to form free-shaping materials that have insulating and resisting properties including heat, acoustic sound, and atmospheric moisture.

The growing processes are described in four steps:

1. Selection of agricultural waste materials. This can be anything that is abundant and easily available in the nearby proximity. 

2. Tools to place the waste and grow the fungi. The container can be anything, in any shape that will eventually act as a physical enclosure

3. Storage. We place the filled up container in the cool dark place to allow the mycelium and the fungi associated to proliferate the entire container

4. Harvest. The remains of the waste materials will be mostly used up after 5 days (depending on the size of the initial container) to form white and moldy mycelium. The millions polymer chains can then be processed further to be used for packaging, protective buffer or for decoration purposes. 

Nature has always provided us with ways to live our life in harmony with the Earth's ecological system. Synthetic polymers that give rise to Styrofoam are difficult to be naturally-degraded over a short period of time. Mechanical breakdowns of such materials will only cause further damages as pollution of micro-plastic has now sparked interests among many wild-life conservationists and the environmentalists because negative impacts found in living organisms or habitats are becoming widespread and common.  Although the public's perception of natural plastic made out of mushroom can not be accepted as fast, but the hope and willingness to change are there. I'm hopeful and optimistic that synthetic plastic derived from finite crude oil can one day be replaced with mushroom's mycelium. 

Video taken from:

Friday, September 18, 2015

Haze: a Reflection Part 2

Last week, I have posted my overall take on the whole haze incident that hit Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. However, after looking at recent news on how the haze problem has become worse in parts of Sumatra (Riau, Jambi, and Pekanbaru), I want to dedicate another blog post to discuss/share my opinion on the matter.

Just yesterday (22/09/2015), I was looking through my Facebook feed and was shocked by a news article published by Channel News Asia entitled, "Protesters in Kalimantan decry Indonesian inaction against forest fire, haze". What caught my attention was not the prolonged duration of the haze, but the severity of the matter. The PSI reading in Palangka Raya (Central Sumatra) reached to a record high of 1995! Yes, you are reading that right, a number that represents the year of my birth; a number so high that a direct exposure for 10 consecutive minutes could cause devastating respiratory problems.

The figure was taken yesterday to depict the thickness of the smog/haze in Palangka Raya 

Let me introduce you to haze, and why it is such a big and unresolved matter that constantly plagues the locality. Most cases of haze are resulted from deliberate acts of land-clearing to provide enough space for palm-oil and paper pulp plantations. Over the years, efforts to reduce haze have bear little to no fruits, and one of the primary reasons is the fact that there are many parties/individuals who are involved in the issue. This would prevent any law-enforcing officials from pinpointing the exact players/actors who orchestrated the entire conspiracy/incidence.

Many palm-oil plantations in Sumatra are not single-handedly owned by a company from a single nationality. For instance, many Singaporeans set up subsidiary companies in Indonesia using local names and manpower to establish a plantation. This subsidiary company will then set up another subsidiary company using Malaysian identity to elude the officials from discovering the main players who actually authorized slash-and-burn practice. Despite officials managing to "catch" some executives of the allegedly responsible companies, these people are just the 'minions' who are readily sacrificed by the bigger players to save themselves. Even if the effort is commendable (as it is a step towards the right direction), it is not enough to completely stop the problem if the people at the top-of-the-food-chain are not dealt with properly.

Nevertheless, I was inspired by the acts of kindness and the solidarity displayed by the Indonesians to raise awareness and care for the susceptible. It was heartwarming to see Indonesians in parts of Palangka Raya sharing masks to the elderly, the sick, the children, and to those who were outdoor working; the officials evacuating the entire city to the nearest district with less haze until the condition has gotten better, the non-government activists who tirelessly protested in front of the government's house until were taken, and doctors who gave free aids for the sick. The nation as whole has become more aware of the problem and has worked together to lobby the local government and companies to take actions. I'm optimistic that in the future, if the people continue to act as one, the haze problem can be dealt with and eliminated once and for all. 

Cunico, K. (2015, September 22). Protesters in Kalimantan decry Indonesian inaction against forest fires, haze - Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved September 23, 2015, from

Friday, September 11, 2015

Haze: a Reflection Part 1

Throughout this week, the haze has gone from bad to worse as the air quality (PSI) index soared at the average of 100-200 in some of the days. As some may have realized, high concentrations of haze may become hazardous to human health, the ecosystem, and the environment in general. One of the main causes of haze is forest fire that happened in Indonesia and Malaysia as a result of either prolonged dry season or deliberate clearing of forested lands through slash-and-burn method. Many critics placed the blame on the local and central government by claiming that their responses in enforcing associated regulations or forecasting potential spots were slow and ineffective; while others blamed the palm oil companies that used unsustainable methods to expand/establish new land (clearing by fire). Nonetheless, it is undeniable that forest fire can cause major environmental (air) pollution because forests store large amount of carbon in trees and within the soil, which will be released/emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, haze, and smog in the presence of fire.

As an Indonesian, I'm certainly disappointed and enraged by the haze problem. But through this post, I want to discuss certain matters regarding the haze in a more optimistic point of view, so here I go.

First, enforcing and regulating laws for both local and international palm oil plantations are certainly a challenge for the government. One of the main reasons is because of the decentralized governmental system where the central government may pass a law that can be undermined by the regional governments (since each province is given the autonomy or power to override regulations and to rule itself). The regional governments have their own objectives that may differ from that of the central, such as rapid economic development versus sustainable growth or increased regional income versus nature preservation goals. Furthermore, cases of corruption (although the number of REPORTED cases is now decreasing), become major obstacles in mitigating forest fire in general. The layered, long hierarchical levels of governance in Indonesia (from town head all the way to the central government) makes corruption appears to be much more more lucrative and elusive as tracing becomes increasingly difficult. In a nutshell, it is not so simple to eliminate haze in a matter of days or even years; the complexity and convoluted governmental system in this large nation just make it for us difficult to do so.

Secondly, I feel that our current president (Jokowi) has done a pretty good job in handling the issue through a relatively fast response. On Monday (7/9/2015), when the fire became rampant, he immediately flew directly to South Sumatra (Pekanbaru and Riau) to see the incidence by himself and to lead the whole extinguishing process. Some of us might not be consciously aware of these types of small details as we were too preoccupied with the negatives that we failed to see the amount of effort being put in. In parts of Riau, the haze is so devastating that the index reading has reached over 500 during some of the worse days. Imagine poor families who do not have access to sheltered houses and air conditioning, and have to work outdoor (farming) just to feed the family. Although our haze problem in Singapore is bad, but most of us, if not all, have immediate access to sheltered indoor space that can negate or at least minimize dramatically the effects of haze.

Through this post, I want to implore some to not be so condescending or cynical to our neighbors, but instead we should show support so that the haze problem can be solved as soon as possible.

Nazeer, Z. (2015, September 7). Indonesian President Joko Widodo goes to haze's ground zero, SE Asia News & Top Stories - The Straits Times. Retrieved from "The Straits Time".