Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Farmed salmon still in the news

An opinion piece in today's Globe and Mail is full of righteous outrage and huff-and-puff about farmed salmon (aquaculture), specifically about how the British Columbia and Canada governments are conspiring to wilfully wreck an industry that produces what it calls the most sustainable source of protein in the world (by which I assume it means animal protein). 

The authors, mainly from the aquaculture industry, predictably enough, are complaining about the recent decision by the government of Canada to phase out all open-net salmon farms off the BC coast, which is under dispute by the industry. Most environmentalists and First Nations in the area are fully in favour of the phase-out.

The debate over farmed salmon has been going on for decades, with strong opinions on both sides. Due to polluted waterways, habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change, wild salmon are an endangered species, and so farmed salmon, on balance, is probably a better option (whatever the foodies might tell you). It is certainly among the most sustainable animal protein available, but is it really as environmentally blameless as claimed?

If you read an article like this one from Sea West News and many others from salmon advocacy and lobby gtoups (of which there are many - this is BIG business, around $20 billion a year big), you might get the impression that all is hunky-dory in the world of aquaculture. If, however, you read a critical article (this one from Time is a good introduction), you realize that there is much we are not being told.

Farmed salmon are bred to grow fast in cages, packed so tightly that they are rife with parasites and disease. An estimated 15-20% of farmed salmon die each years as a result, a mortality rate three to four times the rate of factory chickens, and five to six times that of feedlot cattle. Like industrially-raised chickens, which is probably the closest land analogy, they are doused regularly with pesticides and antibiotics (including some banned neurotoxins). But, even so, sea lice and viruses leak out from the farmed cages to infect wild salmon passing by. Untreated waste from excess feed, decomposing dead fish, excrement and chemical residue falls to the ocean floor, coating it with a toxic slime that presents a health risk for marine life for some distance around.

Farmed salmon typically contains seven times the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable carcinogen, as wild salmon, as well as elevated levels of drug-resistent antibiotics, all of which concentrate in the bodies of consumers. The risks, of course, are much greater for infants, children and pregnant mothers, but there is a good reason that nutritionists recommned wild salmon over farmed salmon (after which it becomes a matter of conscience).

Farmed salmon is probably not even that sustainable in other respects, despite the accolades. A quarter of all the fish harvested in the world's oceans goes to aquaculture and pet food. Huge industrial trawlers off the coasts of West Africa and Peru in particular are responsible for this catch, robbing local subsistence fishers of their livelihoods and leading to substantial food insecurity in those regions. 

Recent court cases have challenged fish farming's advertising claims of sustainability. The world's largest salmon farmer, Mowi ASA of Norway, which routinely prevails in the protein sustainability indices, recently settled one such case out of court, paying $1.3 million and agreeing not to advertise its products as "sustainably sourced" or "naturally raised" in North America.

So, as you see, not as black and white as some would have you think. The Globe article paints a picture of Canadian salmon being replaced by Norwegian or Chilean farmed salmon, which clearly would be a retrograde step in environmental and sustainability terms. But that is not necessarily the only stark choice available. 

The salmon farming industry could clean up its act, for one thing. Another alternative is what are called "recirculation aquaculture systems", where fish are farmed in closed-containment facilities on land, using filtered, recirculated water, so that the farmed salmon do not interact with ocean fish at all, and the use of chemicals and the damage to the ocean environment is minimized or all but eliminated. Or, of course, there is always - shock horror! - non-animal plant-based protein. Oh and, just in case you were wondering, salmon hatcheries are not a great solution, either.

Sure, the Globe article is just an opinion piece. But many people will have read it as gospel truth, and there's the rub. 

Sunday, February 05, 2023

"Corvid Cleaning" takes off in Sweden

Here's a smart idea from - where else? - Sweden. Crows are being trained to pick up litter in the form of cigarette butts (which apparently represents an amazing 62% of total litter), and deposit them in an automated container in exchange for food pellets. This reduces the cost of picking up cigarette butts from 12c per butt (using human labour) to 3c (using crows).

It's not a new idea, though. The Puy de Fou theme park in western France started training rooks to pick up litter back in 2018.

Crows are smart enough to learn the skill (and even teach it to upcoming generations of crows). Although, as one person commented, if crows are smart enough to learn to pick up butts, but humans are apparently not smart enough not to drop them in the first place, what does that say about us?

Why would you use a balloon for surveillance?

That was my first question and it seems I am far from alone. In an era of sophisticated satellite and drone technology, why on earth would you choose to send up a glorified weather balloons?

Well. It seems that there are actually some valid reasons for using high-altitude spy balloons. For one, they are significantly cheaper than satellites. For another, because they operate within the bounds of the earth's atmosphere, it is possible to obtain better quality images. However, they still operate above the range of most planes and, because they move relatively slowly, they can often avoid being spotted by radar (other technology and special paints can also help to conceal them). They are more manoeuverable than satellites (although less than drones), and can make less predictable moves if required. They can even spend a long time hovering over one particular area (weather permitting). History shows that they can also be surprisingly difficult to shoot down, although this one was taken out relatively straightforwardly.

The Chinese balloon was tracked for several days by Canadian authorities, as it moved over the Northwest Territories, northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, before being made public as it entered US airspace over Montana. It was then allowed to travel all the way to the east coast, where it was shot down just off the South Carolina coast, supposedly once it was past the point where debris might hit people or property (a less than convincing explanation in my view). It is hoped that some debris will be recovered from relatively shallow water. 

China, of course, insists that it was just a ("mainly meteorological") weather research balloon that blew off course, but then, who believes anything the Chinese government says, any more? It is blustering about the "serious violation of international practice", and "the US's use of force to attack civilian unmanned airships", and rumbles darkly that it "reserves the right to respond further" (which is probably what it wanted all along).

So, anyway, yes, there are reasons why a balloon might be used for spy surveillance purposes. Other spy balloons have been spotted over the United States over the last several years (although Trump denies this), and the US itself (as well as the UK) has been investigating the technology for its own purposes. Personally, I'm not sure why the US decided to shoot it down, rather than capture and investigate it, but maybe that's harder to do than I think.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Misinformation can kill you

A recent study by the Council of Canadian Academies - a body I admit I have never heard of, but it certainly sounds legitimate - has somehow put a figure on the actual consequences of the disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines that was rife in the early stages of the pandemic (it is still rife, but the consequences are arguably less drastic now that the virus has mutated over time).

The World Health Organization has, in the past, taken a stab in the dark and estimated that vaccination has averted two to three million deaths a year, but this is an overall ball-park figure. The Council of Canadian Academies has tried to specify the numbers of excess cases and deaths that can be attributed to those who declined to be vaccinated against COVID, either through their own ornery stubbornness or as a result of deliberate disinformation campaigns, well-meaning or otherwise.

They concluded that, as a direct result of Canadians not getting vaccinated when they became eligible, a figure they estimate at 2.3 million, some 198,000 additional COVID cases occurred, resulting in 13,000 additional hospitalizations and, ultimately, 2,800 additional deaths, between March and November 2021 alone.

These are alarming figures, and the overall count over the full course of the pandemic would be substantially higher. I don't know what methodology they employed to arrive at these figures, but even if they are wrong by a factor of several - and, of course , they could also be understated by a factor of several - they give a graphic and disturbing indication of the kinds of numbers we are looking at. 

The bottom line is that hundreds or thousands of people - wives, husbands, kids and grandparents, real people with real lives - have died because some people have ill-advised and erroneous views about vaccinations or half-baked political views, and other people are either excessively credulous or too lazy to do some basic due dilligence. And that's a scary thought.

Quebec's squabble over Islamophobia appointment speaks volumes

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and Quebec Premier François Legault have both appeared in public absolutely apoplectic over the Liberals' appointment of Amira Elghawaby as Canada's special representative on combatting Islamophobia.

Whether or not you feel that the country needs such a "special representative", it's hard to object too strongly to Ms. Elghawaby herself. She seems eminently qualified for the job. The objections of the Quebec politicians seems to revolve around a perception that Ms. Elghawaby once said something that was not entirely complimentary about the province of Quebec (in actual fact, the comment in question is being taken out of context - she was actually quoting the findings of a Léger opinion poll, and not stating her own opinions).

But even if she were to have voiced an opinion that Quebeckers were being swayed by anti-Muslim prejudice in their support for the province's controversial secularism law known as Bill 21 (which is what most Canadians believe, according to the Léger poll), I am at a loss to understand how that would bar her from a position as an Islamophobia specialist. As a Muslim, of course she would object to a law that clearly discriminates against certain religions. How could she be expected to be otherwise?

But, given that it turns out that she was not even expressing her own opinions, you would think that the Quebec politicians would apologise and walk back their excessive initial reactions. But no, they actually doubled down on them, despite the outpouring of support for Ms. Elgawaby from many influential voices.

The issue for the Quebec political leaders is not so much about freedom of religion or la laïcité. It is a knee-jerk reaction to any opinions that they see as critical of the province of Quebec and its sacrosanct right to special treatment (how ironic is that for people who purport to be standing up for secularism?) Much like the state of Israel, Quebec revels in its status as perpetual victim, and it regularly uses claims of unfairness and discrimination as an excuse to close down awkward discussions.

Surely, as seasoned politicians, they must have grown a thicker-than-average skin. Surely, they can accept criticism, and use their words to argue their side of the debate. They should not be closing down the discussion by trying to censor protestations and rebukes. It wouldn't be because they know they are in the wrong, would it?

Has vertical farming's time come?

Vertical farming is very much du jour. Ag-tech is being touted by many as the best way to save the world, at least as regards feeding its population, particularly the environmentally-challenged world we currently live in.

Huge indoor soilless hydroponic systems using LED lights and smart monitoring technology appear in many sci-fi movies, and increasingly in the real world. The industry is projected to be worth more than US$20 billion by the end of the decade. It can produce large volumes of plant-based food using much less land and water (around 5-10% of open-field farming), in a fraction of the time needed outdoors or even in a greenhouse. And it can do it predictably, 365 days a year, regardless of climate or geography. Proponents also argue that the technology can be used for urban renewal too, utilizing vacant warehouses in neglected neighbourhoods, as well as reducing transportation costs snd environmental impacts.

So, what's not to like? Well, its energy usage for one thing. Vertical farms, despite their high-tech solutions, use an estimated nine times the energy of a typical greenhouse farm per kilogram kg food produced, which, in a warming world should be a red flag. Hell, we may as well just import food from Chile or Vietnam, right? They are also very expensive to build initially, requiring lots of pricey and specialized equipment.

A detailed WWF analysis has shown that, while hydroponic vertical farming in California is better environmentally than vertical farming in Ohio, it is still not as sustainable overall as greenhouse farming (although substantially better than traditional outdoor farming).

So, is it an idea whose time has come? Even newer technology is helping to overcome the energy costs caveat, at least to some extent, and vetical greenhouses, that also make use of sunlight, are an option. If all the electricity used for hydroponic/vertical farming is fully renewable sources, then most analyses suggest that the technologiy then becomes more sustainable than conventional greenhouse farming, but that is not easily achieved yet. Wider adoption and economies of scale may also help bring down initial capital costs.

So, we are probably not there yet. An idea whose time is coming soon, perhaps.

Friday, February 03, 2023

Why is the NDP voting against gun control?

Can anyone explain to me why the NDP (and the Bloc Quebecois, for that matter) are joining the Conservatives in blocking the Liberals' gun control amendment

Pierre Poilieve is, predictably, taking all the "credit" for derailing the Liberals' attempt to ban hand guns and some long guns, but the other minority parties are complicit in it; the Conservatives could not block it on their own.

The NDP, like the Liberals, are supposed to be in favour of banning hand guns and "assault-style weapons", as is the Bloc. Why, then, are they now giving in to a small but vocal gun and hunting lobby, who apparently need laser-guided repeating guns to shoot a deer. Ridiculous people! But, hey, they seem to be able to get what they want somehow.

Yes, the amendment was mismanaged, at least to some extent. But, surely, some movement on gum control is better than none at all?

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The inside story of Musk's Twitter takeover (and take-down)

I have written the occasional entry about Twitter in the age of Elon Musk's ownership (I don't like Twitter and I don't like Musk, so you can imagine the tenor of most of these entries). But the Guardian has just shared an article entitled "Tears Blunders and Chaos: Inside Elon Musk's Twitter", detailing the early days of "Twitter 2.0" in all its Technicolor horror. 

I'm not going to repeat it all here but, suffice to say, it makes for compelling reading. From the mass sackings to Musk's own off-hand and off-colour tweets to panicked employee reactions to the third-party corporate backlash, it's all here in gory detail. 

Just one short quote from the article, maybe: "How smart could he really be, the guy who purchased a company for far more than it was worth, then drove what remained of it into the ground?" Maybe one more: "His imperiousness in the middle of a session he appeared to be botching was something to behold." You get the idea. Now,  read the article (and cancel your Twitter account).