• In Defense of Food

    I just finished watching Michael Pollan's 2015 made-for-tv movie, In Defense of Food. While generally agreeing with both his message ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.") and the facts presented on the evolution of how we eat, the show left a bad taste in my mouth. I've either become too educated about food, or else Pollan has found a way to gracefully sell out. Maybe both.

    There is a gaping - perhaps even cavernous - hole where he fails to acknowledge the existence of agribusiness. Two statements in particular caught my attention:

    "There are people who demonize meat, but there’s no reason to do that. Meat is healthy food. Humans have eaten meat for a very long time with great pleasure. I think our problem is we eat too much of it. So, and that’s why I say mostly plants."

    Pollan is blatantly ignoring the current state of meat production in America, perhaps enveloped in a naive fantasy where we're all outside gutting deer and slitting home-grown chickens' throats. To his credit, there is a brief mention at the beginning of the show about how cows are no longer fed a natural diet of grass. This means cow meat is significantly less nutritious for humans than it used to be. He also shows dedicated urging against the purchase of "edible food-like products" that are designed to be as cheap as possible and last for as long as possible. Unfortunately, ripping on Yoplait while simultaneously encouraging the consumption of factory-farmed meat is, at best, self-justification for his own one-way ticket to that sweet, sweet animal flesh.

    "There’re many aspects of our lives where we feel like we have very little power. But when it comes to food, we do have power.

    The rise of farmers’ markets, the rise of organic agriculture, the rise of the food movement, none of this was the result of government action. All of this was the result of consumers voting with their forks, signaling to farmers and the food industry they wanted something different. And this has created a multi-billion dollar alternative food economy."

    Organic agriculture? Zero government influence? Sure, those ethereal concepts are lovely, but words like "organic" hold about the same amount of depth as a pack of chocolate chip cookies claiming to be "fat free." The multi-billion-dollar value of that alternative food economy has wholly corrupted our very idea of alternative food. Hey Pollan, you can't encourage people to buy products without labels and simultaneously tout now-meaningless brand keywords like "organic."

    Finally, I realized the whole fricking movie is comprised of old white men who are experts on low-income neighborhoods, the nutrition genetics of Africans, and breastfeeding. No joke - he apparently could not find a single woman to speak about the science of lactation. Besides being just plain lame, I find it disturbingly hypocritical that he can make a profit off of a projected "alternative" lifestyle while simultaneously failing to uplift the very same minority communities he's presenting.

    Anyway. The overall message is important, but I say, let's make it better.

  • One Foot in Front of the Other

    It's hard to remember that the true "science" of the CORAL campaign is quite literally the data collected by the airplane. All of the ground work - from logistics to boat hours, from instrument setup to algorithm tweaking, from underwater camera challenges to photomosaicking... all of this has but a single purpose: to validate the data collected by the airplane. To conclusively state, "Yes. The airplane imagery looks good."

    So how do you tell 14 people working their butts off for two solid weeks that the airplane still isn't ready? And that even if it had arrived on time, there's too much cloud cover to conduct any useful flyovers?

    It's not easy. But the unpredictability of the weather is something that every environmental scientist comes to accept. The chaotic nature of the Earth is both incredible and incredibly frustrating, and we experienced the latter during our Operational Readiness Test in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

    Luckily, a coral reef ecosystem takes a long time to change its structure in any significant and visible way. Because of this, we can confidently say that the airplane images (shot 1-2 weeks late) are still correlated with the underwater validation images. In the end, our benthic cover team was able to document almost 20 sites, despite high tradewinds and turbid water!

    It was eye-opening to see just how many moving parts come together to create a good matchup. The science team needs to be on location, the airplane has to be on standby, instruments can't fail, pilots need to have available hours, clouds can't blow in, etc., etc., etc. And this is all for a study conducted right here on our home planet.

    I can't even imagine how NASA deals with outer space.

  • Mission Complete

    Woah. A whole month has gone by since my last post, but it feels like only yesterday. I've never traveled for work at this scale before - a field campaign, a science convention, and preparation for the next field campaign all at the same time. I was in Oahu so long my hotel room started to feel like an apartment.

    Over the next few days I'll try to break down some of the highlights of the trip. The plane containing the PRISM instrument arrived two weeks late. I took a Portugese Man-O-War to the face. We experienced 26 mph winds in Kaneohe Bay during a time period that's historically calm. But after all was said and done, the Operational Readiness Test was deemed a success! Thank God.

  • 3 Days and Counting

    I'm really antsy to get off the island. Americans take for granted the ability to jump into a car and move freely across four million squares miles of political boundaries... my home state alone is the size of France! So, living on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean can be suffocating.

    Conversely, living in a tropical jungle means there's always something exciting going on. Last week we had two indicators of ecosystem bouncebacks: a land hermit crab sighting and a sudden bee swarm.

    Land Hermit Crab (Coenobita clypeatus)

    Like all hermit crabs, these guys find old shells to live in. They are both the biggest species in Bermuda and the only hermits that live on land, causing real estate to be a perpetual seller's market. Bermudians added insult to injury by overfishing their shell of choice: the West Indian Topshell. The decimation of one species led to total poverty for the other. As far as we can tell, the land hermit crab survived the last few decades by carrying around fossils and human garbage.

    The Topshell was reintroduced to the island in 1982 with severe protection laws. Both species have been on the rise ever since, though the land crabs are still a pretty rare find. The one pictured above (now a temporary lab pet) is snuggled into his very own West Indian Topshell! A solid sign of ecosystem recovery.

    Bermuda Bees

    Between mites, pesticides, hurricanes, and the general global phenomenon, bee populations in Bermuda have declined drastically over the past decade. A group finally formed in 2013 (The Buzz) to help restore a natural environment condusive to bee reproduction. Last weekend a huge swarm flew into my neighbor's garden, and a local beekeeper was able to remove and re-home them into a proper hive box.

    And here's a picture of my lil' nugget. I'm not looking forward to being apart for the next 3 weeks.