Food Waste: Part 1 – Production and Retail

And now, the synthesis of some notes I took on food waste while doing research for a story I’m writing.


The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” Food waste can occur all throughout the life cycle of a food product, from before the harvest all the way to the dining room table. With the waste that happens at all these different stages taken into account, the percentage of wastage in the US is a pretty big chunk of overall food production. A 2009 study published in PLOS ONE estimates that 40% of food produced in America is wasted, and a 2014 report from the USDA Economic Research Service pegs the number at 31%. In terms of calories, that’s either 1,400 calories per person per day, or 1,249 calories per person per day, respectively.

Obviously, this is a problem. Food production is the dynamo that powers all of human civilization. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion tons of fuel per year, that’s a problem. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion blah blah blah, and all of those 1.3 billion tons of fuel took additional fuel and water usage to produce, that’s a really big problem.

To put it another way, the situation isn’t as simple as walking to the store, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time being lost before you make it to the store. The situation is driving a gas guzzler/steam engine beast of a vehicle, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time and of gas and water and whatever else powers this thing you’re driving before making it to the store. Sustainable farming practices are kind of another kettle of fish, but it’s important to note here that a wasted potato is not just a wasted potato. It’s also a waste of all the resources that went into making that potato, which, depending on what point of the process the potato is wasted at, could be pretty hefty. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that, for the year of 2011, the carbon footprint of global food loss—the amount of energy put into food that ended up wasted—was 4.4 GtCO2, “or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions [EC, JRC/PBL, 2012 Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, version 4.2]. This means that the contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent (87%) to global road transport emissions [IPCC, 2014 Fifth Assessment Report. Chapter 8: Transportation].”

How do we arrive at such an enormous amount of wastage? That’s what most of this two-part series of posts will address.Read More »

Chechnya, From Dudayev to Kadyrov

I’ve recently been fiddling with an idea for a short story which would involve a minor war in the future, with ambiguous morality of each side. Separate to that, I attended a presentation by Andrey Sazonov, sponsored by the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, titled, “Ramzan Kadyrov, Leader of Chechnya: Putin’s Frenemy?” That title interested me, and so did the prospect of free food, but I didn’t even realize how great Chechnya would be for that story I’d been trying to get a grip on. Seeing this seminar (which is available online here), it appeared that Chechnya was perfect. Tiny enough to be ignorable, but  excessively militarized enough to have a robot battalion. At least, to have a robot battalion in the future. So with that lecture as my background, I did some of my own research on Chechnya. Here it is.

Recent History.                                                                                                         

Chechnya was conquered by imperial Russia in the 1800s, though resistance from the conquered peoples continued right up to the declaration of an independent state in 1917, before being taken by the USSR in 1921. Then a bunch of horrible Stalin things and apologetic Kruschev/Gorbachev things happened, and in 1991 Chechen Dzhokar Dudayev lead a nationalist party to overthrow the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union. The USSR dissolved in that same year, but Yeltsin wanted to keep all of the Russian Republic—an administrative region of the USSR that is what we now recognize as Russia—together. In 1992 Yeltsin put forth a treaty that granted states of non-Russian ethnic background limited autonomy, which was signed by all but two of the eighty-eight states—Chechnya and Tartarstan. In 1994 Tartarstan signed a treaty to be annexed by Russia, leaving just Chechnya defiant.

Map courtesy of Jeroenscommons
Map courtesy of Jeroenscommons

In 1992 Ingush split from Chechnya and was absorbed into the Russian Republic, and the next year Dudayev declared full independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. In Dudayev’s Chechnya the minority of ethnic Russians, who had long been the ruling elite, were harshly persecuted. Although most Chechens still wanted independence, not all of them wanted ex-General Dudayev to be in power. Thus, there was some armed resistance to the Republic of Ichkeria, which received support from Russia. In December of 1994, Russia declared a full-on war to retake Chechnya, assuming that a lightning-fast aerial bombardment would bring the republic to it’s knees, and finish the war by that Christmas. But it turns out the fighting wouldn’t end for six more Ramadans.Read More »

Beach Nourishment – How

Here’s the second and final installment about beach nourishment, as taken from my research notes for an upcoming story. Last time I talked about what beach nourishment is, and why it is needed. Now I’ll talk about the methods and the costs.


So, how to do?

To start with, the sand has to come from somewhere. Although sand can be taken from inland sources, or even from sand trap areas in harbors, it typically comes from offshore deposits. Other sources include inlets, dunes, rivers, and lagoons. The sand grains have to be the same size, or slightly smaller than, the native sand at the beach for the nourishment to be effective. And if taken from an offshore site, it has to be at least two kilometers from the shore. Otherwise the borrow area will just get refilled and cause more erosion.

When sand comes from an inland source, it is brought to the beach via trucks. When it comes from offshore it is brought by pipes. In both cases, as long as the sand is underwater, it is dredged. For offshore dredging there are two methods. Actually there’s a billion, but here are two popular ones—cutter-suction dredging, and trailing-suction hopper dredging.Read More »

Beach Nourishment – What and Why

Well, here’s a post that seems to have nothing to do with anything. Although this is all taken from my research and notes for an upcoming story, it has nothing to do with writing or reading or anything like that. This is just a post about beach nourishment. You’ve been warned.


So, what is beach nourishment?

Photo of a jetty, groin, breakwater, revetment, or something, in the Black Sea, courtesy of PSDS and IO-BAS
Photo of a jetty, groin, breakwater, revetment, or something, in the Black Sea, courtesy of PSDS and IO-BAS

No, it is not some form of urban foraging, beach nourishment is the process of replenishing an eroded beach by adding sand. It’s done to protect valuable shoreline property from becoming Venice. Alternatives are building a seawall (very common in Europe) or building a breakwater or groin. I don’t know the difference between those last two, but basically they’re large walls of stone or wood that extend into the ocean and collect sediment on the updrift side, like a dam for sand. They’re kind of problematic though, because if they collect too much sand then downdrift beaches aren’t being replenished as much by the natural current of sand that moves along the coast, and might erode very quickly. Another alternative to beach nourishment is a “managed retreat”—basically giving up to the sea and relocating inland.

There’s another thing which I haven’t seen too much written about, called “living shorelines”—the use of native flora to reduce erosion.

So, why is beach nourishment?

Beach nourishment is nice because it preserves the beach without having to build any structure, or move buildings. Sometimes groins are built in conjunction with it, and can be either a series of tapered groins, or adjustable groins—both for the sake of allowing some sand to pass and continue it’s littoral drift. Beach nourishment isn’t a long-term fix though, because the beach is always eroding.

Before and after photos of beach nourishment in Miami, Florida, courtesy of USGS
Before and after photos of beach nourishment in Miami, Florida, courtesy of USGS


Erosion can be caused by damn humans damn interfering, but it is also caused by storms. Some beaches can recover from storms if they have enough submerged sand to replenish them. Others can’t. This is why during beach nourishment it’s important not just to focus on what’s above the water, but also the swash zone—the shallow area beneath the water. A lot of that sand will return to the beach as it’s carried in by waves.

Erosion is also caused by longshore drift—and mitigated by it. Longshore drift is the process by which sand is carried along the current of the ocean due to the raking angle of the waves. This causes sand to erode, and be deposited elsewhere—then erode again, and be deposited again. The process of sand returning to a beach is known as “accretion.”

Where’s all this sand coming from? River deltas, mostly. Rivers move a lot of sediment out to the ocean. At least, that’s the natural source for sand. With beach nourishment, there are a multitude of other sources. Which is what I’ll talk about next post—the “How” of beach nourishment. The methods used, the problems posed, and some boring-ass statistics about the costs of things.

If anyone wants to do some more research into this, I found these sources very helpful —

Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines,

Beach Nourishment and Protection by the National Research Council,

and, of course, Wikipedia.

A Psychopath Starter-Kit

I’ve been doing some research into psychopathy for a story I’m writing.  Not a story about psychopaths really, but psychopath analogs.  In a society where everyone has so much empathy they can not bear to kill, people who are at all capable of the act are sort of analogous to our psychopaths.  The story hinges on genetics, the idea that this society was modified to be unable to murder, and anyone with a mutation in that modification is a born killer.  A bit late in the creative process, I realized it was quite likely I was about to make a complete ass of myself.  So I went and did some research.  Here are a few interesting findings—think of this as a starter-kit for knowledge about psychopathy, with a focus on genetics.

First off, what’s the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths?  Really they’re the same, but ‘sociopath’ refers more to people that are psychopathic because of environmental influences, as opposed to a genetic predisposition.  A sociopath is always a psychopath, but a psychopath is not always a sociopath.

And someone with psychosis is not always psychopathic.  Psychosis essentially means a disconnect with reality.  There are lots of ways to disconnect with reality besides ASPD.  That’s antisocial personality disorder, and it’s synonymous with psychopathy.  Sort of.

Weird semantics aside, what qualifies someone, in cold, clinical detail, as a psychopath?  The Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Revised—or the PCL-R as the cool kids call it.  It’s a set of traits that must be fulfilled to a certain extent for someone to be considered a psychopath.  The traits are organized into two categories, or “factors.”  Factor one is covers lack of empathy, as well as narcissism and a manipulative personality.  Factor two is about antisocial aspects, impulsivity, and irresponsible decision-making.

So, what about the genetics of psychopathy?

Well, there’s a lot of controversy there.  Some believe there are primary and secondary psychopaths—the primaries develop psychopathy because of genetics, and the secondaries because of environmental factors.  Another theory is that the genes for psychopathy are like genes for cancer.  No one is predisposed to growing tumors, just predisposed to a higher susceptibility.  That was an over-simplification, but you get the idea.  Following that line of logic, another theory is that genetics can predispose someone to psychopathy, while environmental influences will determine how the psychopathy manifests itself—or if it manifests at all.

Despite these varying opinions, some things are clear.  For a start, there’s not one psychopathy gene—it’s not that binary.  A study using identical twins with fraternal twins as a control determined that callous-unemotional traits were over sixty percent heritable.  In addition, “conduct problems” such as fighting, stealing, and lying appeared seventy to eighty percent of the time with individuals that tested high for callous-unemotional traits, and a lower thirty to fifty percent of the time with those who tested lower for the traits.  This demonstrated that there is some genetic predisposition involved in psychopathy, or psychopathic factors anyway, and that while this predisposition often leads to conduct problems, it is not a required element for the problems to appear.  So good news, folks—you don’t have to be a psychopath to misbehave!

And although there’s no catch-all psychopath gene, there is one that seems to increase likelihood of aggression and antisocial behavior.  The MAOA gene (often called the ‘warrior gene’) codes for production of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A.  One allele, or version, of the MAOA gene creates an MAO-A deficiency—this deficiency allele is what gives the gene that badass nickname.  A 2007 study found that the functional version of the gene acted as a moderator of “early traumatic life events.”  So if you didn’t have the bad allele, traumatic events in your formative years would be moderated by your MAO-A, and you wouldn’t become a psychopath when you got older.  But if you had the allele that created a deficiency, the traumatic events in childhood would increase likelihood of aggression in adulthood.

That’s about as deep as my research got.  Notice there are no perfect correlations—nothing’s a hundred percent or a definite cause-and-effect relationship.  This makes all these concepts perfect subject matter for a story—gray areas like this are fertile ground for creating deep, intricate characters and fascinating societies.  Plus, it means that this utopia of non-killers is kind of bullshit.  That’s always fun.

Now let me give credit where it’s due.  The majority of my research was done using wikipedia as a hub, and going to their cited sources for more in-depth information.  Mostly I used the article and editorial here as well as the studies linked above.  Of course I’m just some jackass with a blog, I’m sure I’ve made about fifty simplifications, false interpretations, and just plain screw-ups.  This is a starter-kit, meant to clarify a few conceptions about psychopathy and do a bit of analysis on the role of genetics.  More to the point, it’s only the amount of research I felt I needed to do for the story.  I hope you found it interesting anyway.

Speaking of the story, I should probably get to writing it.  Those early traumatic life events aren’t going to exposit themselves…