Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Adding seaweed to cattle diets can significantly reduce their impact on global warming

I had read about this before, but neglected to comment on it. However, it could be kind of a big deal in the fight against climate change which, although you may not realize it from a quick perusal of news feeds, is still ongoing.

Methane from livestock burps and farts makes up a surprisingly large element of our greenhouse gases. There are, after all, about a billion cows worldwide, and it is cows (and specifically the way they repeatedly burp up already eaten food and chew it up as cud in order to digest it) that are the main offenders here. Other domesticated ruminants like sheep and goats also burp for the same reason, but have a much smaller "methane footprint" than cows. Cow farts are also a contributor of methane to the  atmosphere, but to a much smaller degree (about 5%) than their burping.

Methane is not as well-known a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, but it is a much more powerful one, warming the earth 23 times (or over 80 times, depending on what you read and the time frame used) as much as a similar volume of carbon dioxide, even if it is shorter-lived in the atmosphere. All in all, agriculture accounts for about 14-18% of greenhouse gases (although the calculation is somewhat fraught and contentious, especially when we are combining the effects of different gases) and the burps of ruminants make up a good proportion of that. By some estimates, about 5% of all greenhouse gases are due to cow burps alone.

So, a9nything that will help reduce the amount  of methane cows produce will help, and could help a lot. Not eating cows would definitely help, and that is starting to happen, especially in this age of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers (most of which are actually eaten by meat-eaters).

But the impetus for writing this articles is the finding that adding a very specific kind of seaweed to a cow's diet can very significswantly reduce the amount of methane it produces. There has already been some research on adding garlic to cattle diets, which decreases their flatulence to some extent, but adding a tropical red seaweed (specifically asparagopsis armata and asparagopsis taxiformis) can have a huge effect on the way a cow digests its food. In one study, adding just 2% of a. taxiformis to their food reduced methane emissions by nearly 99%. Another study yielded a 95% reduction in methane by replacing 5% of the diet with red seaweed.

The red seaweed effect works through a compound called bromform, which inhibits the action of an enzyme that produces methane during a cow's digestion, although it is not really known why this particular type of seaweed works so well. Studies are ongoing to ensure that the seaweed remains effective in real-world applications, that is shelf-stable and is not unduly affected by heat and light. But seaweed farms to commercially develop the crop are already springing up in Australia and elsewhere.

Bear in mind, though, that much more methane is produced by the oil and gas industry and decay in landfill dumps than cows ever will. It helps to keep these things in perspective.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Anti-homosexuality Hungarian MEP caught with his trousers down

Well, this is precious. Hungarian MEP Joszef Szajer, a top figure and founding member of Victor Orban's ultra-right wing Fidesz party was caught attending what Belgian media are calling a gay sex party.

The party, in Brussels, was raided by police for violating lockdown rules, and Mr, Szajer was one of the 20 men charged. He insisted that he wasn't doing drugs like everyone else, although drugs were found on him. But the incident was embarrassing enough to the party, which takes a hardline anti-homosexuality stance, that the MEP resigned immediately, citing "a personal failing". Mr. Fidesz, who was caught shining down a drainpipe to escape the scene, was not the only member attending the party who claimed diplomatic immunity.

It will be interesting to see Orban's explanation of it all.

Ignore the Conservatives, Canada is well-placed for COVID vaccines

Well, go figure. Federal Conservative leader Erin O' Toole, Ontario's Conservative Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (oh, look, another Conservative!) are all publicly tearing strips off Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for poor management of Canada's coronavirus vaccine procurement.

I guess that's what opposition parties are supposed to do: they oppose, loudly, on principle, and regardless of the importance of their quibbles or the probity of their arguments. It's boring, especially during a crisis that would benefit from a bit of national unity, but it's party politics.

There have been outraged (and highly partisan) complaints that Canada put "all our eggs in the basket of China" by backing the joint CanSino vaccine initiative, which fizzled out mainly due to, you guessed it, politics. Furthermore, there have been attempts to suggest that Canada is at the "back of the line" for vaccine imports from the USA and UK. Either way, it is all Justin Trudeau's fault, and "hard-working Canadians" will suffer as a result of his ineptitude.

Except, unfortunately, neither if those claims appear to be true. What? Conservative fake news? Surely not!

Canada has clearly not put all its eggs in the Chinese basket, because we have contracts for 429 million vaccine doses from seven major international pharmaceutical companies. This is "the most doses potentially per capita of any country in the world", apparently, and, in this age of diversity, "the most diverse portfolio of any country for vaccines". These include the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines which will probably be the first, and possibly best, to hit the market. The government has committed over $1 billion to this end. 

And, as for being at the back of the line, Moderna's chairman and co-founder recently came out publicly to explicitly explain that, "Canada is not at the back of the line", and that Canada was in fact among the first countries to make a pre-order with the company. We are actually very well placed as regards the vaccines. Moreover, the necessary work towards Health Canada approval of the vaccines is progressing in the background even before they are legally released, so that delays should be minimal. Although, frankly, who's to say that we should be at the front of the line anyway?

Arguably, Canada should perhaps be in the vaccine production business, not just importing them, but our attempt to do so (with CanSino) was unsuccessful. Our lack of production facilities can be laid at least as much with the science cuts of the Harper years as with anything Justin Trudeau has or has not done. In the scheme of things, we are a relatively small country, and it is kind of difficult to justify having underutilized top-of-the-line vaccine production capacity for decades on end on the off-chance a pandemic shuld come along. (Actually, Canada can, and does, make vaccines, just not ones that can be used against COVID-19).

All in all, Canada is in a very good position vis-a-vis COVID vaccinations, and all those Conservative politicians who are complaining are talking out of their hats based on a poor understanding of the situation, and just looking to score cheap political points. Plus ├ža change...


The news that the UK has become the first Western country to approve a vaccine (the Pfizer/BioNTech one that Canada also has in its portfolio) has only served to increase the hysteria and sniping from opposition politicians, even though neither the USA nor the EU has yet approved it either (and some feel the UK has moved TOO quickly - the European Medicines Agency has actually deliberately slowed and delayed its assessmen of the Pfizer vaccine). 

All eyes are now on how the UK deals with the logistical aspects of the rollout, and how the general public will tolerate the vaccines. I for one am glad we do not have to deal with that level of international scrutiny. I'm quite happy to move slower and benefit from the (good or bad) experience of others. 

And I think we should also be cognizant of the fact that rolling out the vaccine will not be a quick process, for the UK or for any other country. The difference of a few days or even weeks will not, in the scheme of things, make a lot of difference. This is not a race. Let's do this thing properly and cautiously.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed doesn't look much like a peacemaker now

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was granted the Nobel Peace Prize just last year for his peaceful transition of power in perennially-embattled Ethiopian. He ended a long-standing state of emergency, established democratic reforms, negotiated peace with neighbouring Eritrea after years of conflict, welcomed back exiled dissidents and released political prisoners, apologized for past abuses, liberalized some of Ethiopia's draconian internal laws, and publicly railed against war. He seemed like a breath of fresh air after decades of militaristic repression.

But now, just a year later, Ahmed is presiding over a brutal and bloody war against Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country. He has summarily cancelled planned elections, and blamed the unrest and ethnic violence in the country firmly on his old political opponents - and for many years the dominant faction in Ethiopian politics - the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) with, it must be said, little or no evidence. Government forced claim to have succeeded in taking major cities in the region, but it seems likely to settle into a guerrilla warfare, which could drag on for years.

Now, some of the same people who nominated Ahmed for the Nobel Peace Prize are starting to second guess themselves. How come Ahmed has made such a complete volte face? How did a committed peacemaker become a warmonger in the space of less than two years?

To be fair, the ethnic troubles in the region have been brewing for years. But human rights observers had already noted that Ahmed was starting to fall into old repressive ways, locking up critics and curtailing the Internet, and blocking independent media reporting. The United Nations is warning of alarming rhetoric from the government, and points to the targeting of ethnic groups. Ahmed has rejected any compromise, vowing to continue the fight until the TPLF's leaders (whom he calls "criminals") are arrested and their arsenals destroyed, hardly the language of a peacemaker.

The Nobel Committee say they are concerned and troubled - I'll bet they are! - but how far will things have to go before they retract the prize? They are desperately trying to paper over the cracks, claiming that "it is now that Abiy Ahmed's efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement". But you can inagine a very different conversation going on behind closed doors. Did they jump the gun? Can a leopard change its spots (he is an ex-soldier, after all)? Were the signs there before the prize was awarded?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Pierre Poilievre goes from attack dog to full populist demagogue

Pierre Poilievre is turning into the Canadian Conservative Party's very own mini-Trump. In his attitudes, his aggressiveness and his way of speaking, you can see who he is modelling himself on, and it's not mild-mannered Stepehen Harper.

After Poilievre's super-aggressive and downright rude performance at the parliamentary investigation of Justin Trudeau WE Charity involvement, the man seems to have reinvented himself as Erin O'Toole's attack dog, partly perhaps to make up for O'Toole's ineffectiveness, and partly, I am guessing to do O'Toole's dirty work so that he himself can remain relatively clean and give the impression of being above the less salubrious elements of party politics.

Poilievre has long had a reputation as a young, brash, energetic and spirited performer, unafraid to get his hands dirty in a political fight. But, more recently, you see the closet populist coming out in him more and more, and it would not surprise me one bit if he wasn't grooming himself to become a conservative populist leader in the mould of Trump or Boris Johnson.

He certainly has the populist language down pat. Take, for example, last week's extended harangue of Trudeau's "Great Reset" pretensions. While the feckless O'Toole contented himself with musing on whether it might not be better to "build back stronger" rather than "build back better", Poilievre, by contrast, took flight, ranting about "global financial elites" attempting to re-engineer economies and societies (like that was a bad thing, and not something that both sides of the political divide regularly talk about and attempt whenever they get the chance). He went on at length about the Liberals' plan to "empower the elites at the expense of the people", and cautioned that Canadians must "fight back against global elites" and their "power grab" in order to "protect our freedom" and to "end plans to impose the 'Great Reset' ".

Now, it was just another hyperbolic political speech like many another. But when Conservatives harp on about "global elites" (whatever that might mean) and protecting the "people", you just know they are going down that populist route. It usually doesn't end well, either for the elites or the people (c.f. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Jason Kenney, and any number of others). 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Let's not talk about Western alienation - it's Alberta that is alienated

I think we need to do something about the well-worn (not to say over-used) phrase "Western alienation".

I imagine that British Columbia, Canada's most westerly province, must be really pissed off whenever they hear the oft-repeated phrase. BC has much more in common with Ontario and Quebec than it does with closer neighbours Alberta and Saskatchewan.

When we talk about "Western alienation", what we really mean is "Alberta alienation", maybe at a pinch "Alberta and Saskatchewan alienation". "Prairie alienation", perhaps (Manitoba kind of straddles the two solitudes). Those provinces are so out of step with the rest of the country that they probably have more in common with the central (redneck) states of the USA than they do with Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.

So, let's not lump BC in with the rednecks of Alberta. Let's be more specific in our language.

Seven Russians die after drinking hand sanitizer

You have to wonder. Yahoo News Australia is reporting that seven people in Tattisky in eastern Russia have died after drinking hand sanitizer at a party

Apparently, the alcohol ran out and someone obviously spotted the "69% methanol" on the sanitizer label, and nine of the partygoers thought this would be a good idea. Now, seven of them, ranging in age from 27 to 69, are dead, and the other two are in a coma in intensive care.

Firstly, what were they doing having a drinks party in the middle of pandemic in which Russia is suffering 25,000 new cases and nearly 500 deaths a day (or at least that is what they choose to disclose)? And secondly, hand sanitizer? Really? Apparently, the Russian health authorities have specifically warned people against drinking hand sanitizer, in full knowledge of the extent of the serious alcoholism problem in Russia (30% of deaths in the country are attributable to alcohol, sustantially more than any other country).

I guess they have an acute commonsense problem too. It's hand sanitizer! Put it on your hands!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Why the COVID vaccines need to be stored at such low temperatures

The first two COVID-19 vaccines to get some serious traction are the Pfizer/BioNTech one and the Moderna one. Both vaccines are on the home straight right now, and appear to have an excellent effectiveness rate of around 95%. There are hopes to get them both fast-tracked for use early in the new year.

The vaccines are quite different, but both use varations of a relatively new technique called synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA). Because mRNA is rather delicate, and constantly at risk of damage from other molecules in the environment, it is wrapped within the vaccine in a protective layer made of nanoparticles of fatty lipids, and it needs to be stored at very low temperatures to slow down any chemical reactions and enzyme action that might affect the vaccine's effectiveness and potency.

The Moderna vaccine can be stored long-term at just -20°C (-4°F), a temperature that can relatively easily be achieved in most common freezers. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, however, needs to be stored at around -70°c (-94°F), which requires specialized equipment that is usually available at most urban hospitals but may not be available at smaller rural hospitals

I have not been able to fully ascertain why one needs to be stored at a much colder temperature than the other, but Moderna argues that its lipid nanoparticle protection is superior, and that they just have more experience in the relatively new field of mRNA vaccines. It's also possible that Pfizer/BioNTech may decide, over time and with more testing, that its product can be stored in less extreme temperatures. But, for now, and in the interests of getting the virus out as quickly as possible, they are choosing to err on the side of caution.

Either way, it could well affect the logistics of how the different vaccines are distributed (e.g. the Pfizer product may be reserved for larger population centres with better-equipped hospitals). Some wealthier hospitals are already buying up specialized freezers, despite express advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against such actions. 

Between the two vaccines, though, and the many others which are set to announce their testing results soon, it is thought that everyone will be accommodated. All we have to do now is to persuade people that they should actually get the vaccine ...