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