Friday, August 31, 2012

A Contact Lens for Cows?

Dr. Babak Amir Parviz, at the University of
Washington, is hard at work developing a
a 'bionic contact lens' for humans;
He believes a simplified cow-version could
marketable for under $1 per cow before 2030 
From the You Heard it Here First department - let me present an idea that sounds patently ridiculous and yet - according to my discussions with the leading researcher in the field - is entirely possible within 20 years - a possibility that I argue - is indeed a probability.

Introducing - a contact lens for cows! Not just any contact lens - but ones infused with augmented reality capacities that guide the herd across pastoral landscapes with an ease and precision unimaginable today. What? How? Why? - So many questions may arise from this claim - I'll deal with the first two as succinctly as possible before getting to the far more interesting third inquiry - Why on earth might we want to do this?

Much has been made about the Google Glasses to be released - at least for testing purposes - later this year. The glasses have a tiny screen embedded in them to connect the user and his/her environment to google (and vice versa). A tiny camera in the bridge of the glasses allows the users visual world to literally be "searched" - buying tickets for a concert simply by looking at a poster and verbally asking your google glasses is but one example purported by google. On the team of developers for this project is Dr. Babak Amir Parviz, a nano-materials specialist with vision far beyond glasses - he seeks to integrate a google-enhanced reality directly into contact lenses. Parviz is years if not decades away from getting high-resolution, Internet enabled visuals seamlessly integrated onto a human's contact lens - but he's not that far away. Already proto-types exist for getting very simple visual cues onto such lenses.
The prototype for Google-Glasses

Simple visual cues are really all we need for cows! Numerous researchers around the world are engaged in projects seeking to develop 'virtual fencing' - the ability to control where cows graze without the energy intensive use of fencing. To date- these projects use a range of audio and vibratory cues to train the animals - and while there has been some success - it is far from effectively controlling the grazing patterns at a scale and precision optimum for truly ecological cattle production.

It's been estimated that, given consistent exponential growth in the price-performance of information technologies, augmented reality contact lenses could achieve "throw away" economic levels. That is to say - in my conversations with Dr. Parviz - he estimates it is entirely possible to achieve a 'virtual grazing' contact lens for cows that costs just $1 per cow within 20 years. When this occurs - the ability to produce grass-fed beef through the latest in holistic grazing management - will, in fact, be the easiest and lowest cost option.

The application is simple. The contact lens' will be placed in bovine eyes during routine handling sessions. Tiny GPS units in a cow's collar will simply blur the landscape as a cow leaves the current delineated grazing area.  Using simple iPad or Android tablet apps; integrated with Google Earth - cattle and farmers will work in fluid synchronicity, balancing the needs of the land with the interests of the cows. Farmers will be more profitable, land will be healthier, cows will have more freedom, bountiful and better grass; that is - for those who choose to adopt such an emerging technology.

Doubtlessly there will be many who will get hung up on my third question posed Why would we want this? This dissent is doubtless a good thing; debate and discourse on new technologies should be both omni-present and vigorous in nature. There certainly could be unintended consequences from this (and every) technological advancement. Though in this case - I do believe such consequences could all be managed fairly easily. What concerns me more than unintended consequences is the reasons I predict many will reject this highly probable future of farming option before it even reaches the field.

Farms of the future will use advanced information technology,
rather than steel and diesel fuel, to guide the movements of
cow herds across time & space in an optimum balance
for cattle, soils, farmers, and consumers.
Cows truly are sacred in so many contexts and ways - it makes them a subject rife with moral judgements; from if they should be eaten, to how they should be born, raised, and die. There is no area of bovinity out of the scopes for modern food ethicists. Some will inevitably claim we are degrading the purity of the animal with such technology; that the farm itself is somehow cheapened by this particular step towards precision grazing. I remain open to the possibility that these claims could bear fruit - that this technology could introduce it's own set of animal welfare, environmental, and human health concerns itself. I argue only that we should think through these possibilities with high levels of scrutiny - and not let real agro-ecological progress be missed by knee-jerk reactions to 'high tech solutions'.

Indeed - holistic grazing uses cows instead of tractors to manage vast landscapes. Farmers of the future may well view steel & diesel as high-technology; and nano-scale computation as appropriate-technology. To me the idea of a contact-lens for cows is emblematic of the nuanced challenges technology will thrust ever more upon our moral reasoning - let's try to understand it's full ramifications and adopt or reject it based on evidence over emotion.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reasonable Genes, Rational Responses?

It's not easy to grow stuff here - but divisive moralising
in the "1st world" surely won't help!
The US National Public Radio (NPR) service recently posted a story about Saving Lives in Africa with the Humble Sweet Potato - the piece is 'fair and balanced' to the degree that it is requisitely vague in detail. The ~5 minute audio segment documents a project in Mozambique (a stones throw across the channel from where I've been living in Madagascar); this project aims to save lives by improving the genetics of sweet potatoes to enhance their production of life saving micro-nutrients. While the story has nothing to do with meat - the responses on NPR's Facebook comments reveal insights critical to all food debates.

The story does go into the potential of genetic engineering of crops to enhance micro-nutrient properties - though from my listen; it's hard to tell whether the majority of the crops their using are GMO or not, and in fact, the sweet potato they were highlighting was just a normal everyday, orange fleshed tuber-au-natural. Perhaps it was this lack of clarity that, in part, fueled a not-surprisingly heated debate.

Right out of the gates, minutes after the story was posted; a Dave Wu comments "NPR, stooping to new lows, promoting GMO crops. wow! every day you post more crap!". Just moments later, Josh Hofmeister rebuts Wu by claiming "anti-gmo is pro-starvation"

The lines have been drawn, the food tribes begin to gather and circle around their sacred beliefs!

To be fair- not all commentors engaged in high level tribalism here - many were happy with the story and many others were simply confused.

But soon after Josh Hofmeister's strongly divisive stance, Eleanor Pickron weighs in; "Josh, yams, the orange-flesh sweet potatoes are NOT at all GMO food. I am totally anti-GMO and there's no benefit to GMO-food only problems."

As well, the fiesty Melissa Giaccheti adds "Anyone who says anti-GMO is pro-starvation is an ignorant moron....of course the people benefiting from the sale of those [GMO] crops are going to spew propaganda. look at the facts".

Already we see many moral foundations being invoked:

>Care / Harm
-For GMO opponents; this is the potential harm of using them
-For GMO advocates; this is the potential harm of not using them

>Liberty / Oppression
-For GMO opponents; this is mega-corp Monsanto oppressing the rural poor
-For GMO advocates; this is about the freedom to farm, eat, and live

>Sanctity / Degradation
-For GMO opponents; this biotech process threatens the sanctity of their sacred object- food

Now, NPR has a reputation for attracting an intellectual listener base.

Unfortunately - the comments cited, and many more left on the cutting room floor - do not seem to exemplify this. Let's remember - the sweet potato they are talking about is - by point of fact - NOT a GMO. To turn this story into a battle ground for the GMO-Debates is neither needed nor helpful. To argue that "anti-GMO is pro-starvation"  is self-defeating in that this whole story is about a non-GMO making strides in alleviating hunger.

And yet - I'm afraid both of these points soared to to voluminous heights - leaving a far more real and critical issue never to be discussed. It's an issue best described by the brilliant Bill McKibben. Back in 2003, McKibben wrote Enough - a book outlining the dangers of emergent technologies including GMO's. Now I actually disagree with almost everything he claims in that book - except for his point around the so-called "bio-fortification" of crops to alleviate hunger in developing nations. McKibben reminds us, it's not a lack of Vitamin A that the worlds poor are lacking - it's a lack of a diet rich in diverse vegetables and adequate in everything else. McKibben is specifically arguing against the bio-fortified GMO Golden Rice - but indeed - his argument goes beyond the issue of GMO's.

African folk aren't lacking in sweet potatoes, they're lacking in access to a diet rich in diverse vegetables and adequate in everything else. So what - is this potato story just a scam? an illusory feel good story turned into a worthless heated debate?

Literally as I write, my girlfriend is in the extremely isolated village of Efoesty in southern Madagascar. She's an agronomic researcher working with local farmers to diversify their vegetable production in these unbelievably harsh semi-arid conditions. Together with the farmers, they are experimenting with varieties, irrigation methods - and all manner of complex variables to hopefully help these folks add diversity to their rice-based diets rather than putting nutrients into their rice.

You want to tell this girl she shouldn't eat
because it's a GMO? Conversely - she
may very well have no need for GMO Food!
Without question - this is how it should be done - but guess what - it's TOUGH! Given current technology it is highly questionable whether such diversified yields will be attainable in the near future. And it's the near future that is most important to the kids who need nutrition today.

What we need is long-term vision and short-term solutions. What we don't need is idealogical brow-beating that obscures reality and wastes our precious social capital.

As evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt says "morality binds and blinds". Our minds are intuitive and emotional - this binds us into groups of the like-minded, and blinds us to real problems and real solutions.

If you're staunchly anti-GMO; perhaps realise that SOME applications, in SOME contexts - may just possibly be helpful and appropriate.

If you're staunchly pro-GMO; perhaps realise that sometimes things are more complicated than they appear; that sometimes a hard-nosed engineering approach, however powerful it may be, just might not be what is actually needed.

Instead of accusing others of ignorance and malice, lets remember we all want to feed the hungry and assume the best of anyone willing to talk about it!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Poultry Divides: Moral Diversity & Chik-Fil-A

"When the politics of poultry becomes a moral wedge that we can't as a
nation overcome - we are indeed roosting in a vast pile of shit"
Gay marriage would normally be beyond the purview of my humble blog here - but it's the power of meat to connect into nearly all domains of humanity that, well, here we are. It's no new news that Chik-Fil-A restaraunt founder, Dan Cathy, recently admitted he is "guilty as charged" for believing in the sanctity of "traditional, biblical marriage" - as well a funnelling millions to support organisations that advocate against the freedom of certain single consenting adults to marry each other, aka - "gay marriage".

Now - my politics generally fit into the box of 'bleeding heart liberal' - but it would be a waste of my time and yours to write one more blog on the level of disgust felt by me and my 'leftist' comrades regarding the actions of Cathy and his chain of oh-so-delicious chicken sandwiches (truth be told - I've actually never been ;). Despite the liberal, carnivorous evolutionism that shapes my world views - I follow all manner of folks in the social media sphere. From conservative Christian cowboys, to radical vegan activists. I follow folks I frequently disagree with, not for "opposition research" aiming to craft better attacks on the enemy, rather - to understand how it is that good people can become so divided by politics and religion. Let me attempt to shed some evolutionary light on this most recent chicken-based wedge threatening to pull the US populous deeper into tribal anomie.

Earlier this year, champion of evolutionary moral pyschology, Jonathan Haidt published The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Inside, Haidt offers a cavalcade of concepts that might help us use this poultry-based debacle to yield greater mutual understanding, rather than simply fodder for hatred between the Christian right and those advocating for gay rights.

Haidt argues that our ancestral environments shaped our minds to universally behold (at least) 6 mental mechanisms - or highly emotional moral responses - to a variety of stimuli. The graphic summary on the left lists these moral foundations and it is not difficult to imagine how ancestors which had moral responses to anything listed became more cohesive communities - and out competed the less cohesive.

Today, Haidt argues; "morality binds and blinds". It binds us into groups based on shared moral responses to these stimuli and it blinds us to the potential truths or rationale of others. This can be either helpful or harmful - the end result will be based on how You and I take the time  understand each other's moral matrices.

For our conservative cowboys - Chik-Fil-A's Dan Cathy was standing up for the sanctity of marriage- protecting a sacred institution from degradation of the authoritative word of God. When liberals respond by calling for a boycott on these poultry palaces- conservatives cry fowl. Numerous conservative ag-commentators have spun the issue as one of free speech. The liberals, some say, seek to limit Cathy's liberties - his freedom to voice his support against gay marriage.

Predictably, according to Haidt's intensive empirical findings - this stance outrages liberals and fills us with disgust. You see - for the liberal moral matrix - the Care/Harm and Fairness foundations are incredibly strong (indeed stronger than for conservatives). When we see the pain caused to entire groups of people due to discriminatory policies and dangerous pseudo-psychological treatments (as in bans on gay marriage and 'pray the gay away' clinics) - we cringe and wonder how any supposedly moral community could allow this to continue. 'They must be stupid and ignorant out there in the mid-west' - we stay to ourselves on either coast.

Conservatives would do well to understand that liberals have a notoriously difficult time seeing the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations as having anything to do with morality - in fact we frequently see them as negatives. Conservatives do indeed have a "more balanced" moral matrix than liberals - but this is not to say it's better. Morality binds and blinds - and in the case of gay marriage, perhaps conservatives in their rush to bolster full array of moral foundations - become blinded to the real and perceived harm of their actions. The astonishing levels of support for Chik-Fil-A (in recent days the restaurants have been flooded with conservative consumers) is easily perceived by liberals as actions of hate, not a defense of free speech.

Likewise, Liberals could reduce the anomie and build bridges toward productive conversation if we took time to at least understand where our conservative bretheren are coming from. True - the harm caused to homosexual communities by such political rhetoric can be seen as so great "why would we even want to take time to understand these assholes" - I can hear many of my gay-supportive friends asking.... I'm not asking for agreement, merely pause to understand the foundations of moral diversity. If we were to do this perhaps our communications would sound different - perhaps the 'other side' would listen to us instead of turning inward to their existing tribal groups.

A boycott of Chik-Fil-A is a logical and reasonable step for anyone who supports gay rights....I for one will never eat there (never have - but still, now I never will). People should, if they feel so inclined, align purchasing power with personal values (whatever those may be). But if liberals can understand as well that conservatives have an ultra-attenuated response to the Liberty/Oppression foundation - perhaps we could be more careful about how we communicate. Yes - Dan Cathy has a right to say and fund what he likes, and yes, Chik-Fil-A has as much right to exist in the US as much as any group we may vehemently disagree with. I think every liberal agrees with that statement, but too often we don't start conversations this way - and just as often these conversations stop before they even begin.

Morality binds and blinds; when the politics of poultry becomes a moral wedge that we can't as a nation overcome - we are indeed roosting in a vast pile of shit. Let's open the doors of our respective hen houses, pick on the fresh grasses of tribal diplomacy - and use this odd example as a way to understand each other in new and productive ways!

For more information on Moral Foundations Theory check out: