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A layer of ‘aerogel’ could make Mars habitable and even enable life to develop there – but here’s why we should wait

A layer of ‘aerogel’ could make Mars habitable and even enable life to develop there – but here’s why we should wait

Artist concept of settlement on Mars. NASA

Transforming the red planet to support life has long been a dream of science fiction. Mars is now too cold to support life. Its atmosphere is also too thin to protect any living organisms from harmful radiation. But a new study suggests that local conditions could be changed using an inch of “aerogel” – a synthetic and ultralight material made by taking a gel and replacing the liquid component with a gas.

The authors behind the paper, published in Nature Astronomy, claim the technique could produce habitable regions on the red planet and potentially allow life to develop and thrive thanks to photosynthesis – the process by which plants can convert sunlight into energy. But is this really the case? And, if so, should we do it?

Some 3.8 billion years ago, when life was starting on Earth, conditions on Mars were habitable. The red planet had water on the surface, clouds in its blue sky and volcanism provided part of a water cycle. We know all this from space missions, which have spotted signs of dried up water-crafted channels on the surface. Meanwhile the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers have proved that these features were due to water, by finding tell-tale water-rich minerals.

A magnetic field also protected Mars from harmful space radiation up to 3.8 billion years ago. This was revealed by Mars Global Surveyor, which found crustal magnetic fields in the older, southern highlands. These are the only remains of an ancient global magnetic field, similar to Earth’s magnetic field now.

Cold and dry

These habitable conditions, however, changed 3.8 billion years ago. The magnetic field disappeared. We think this is because Mars lost the heat left over from its formation more quickly than Earth did – this may have been augmented by a large collision which formed the Hellas basin on Mars. Unprotected by a magnetic field for billions of years, Mars’ atmosphere has been scavenged away to space. Some of the water was lost that way, and some went underground and remains as permafrost and in subsurface “lakes”.

The surface now is inhospitable for life as we know it. The thin carbon dioxide atmosphere, less than 1% of Earth’s atmospheric pressure, means surface conditions include high fluxes of harmful radiation from the sun and the galaxy. The surface environment is also cold: 0-10°C during the day but down to below -100°C at night.

Rosalind Franklin rover. ESA-AOES medialab, CC BY-SA

But it’s not impossible that life could have once flourished on Mars – or even exist there today, albeit unlikely. With the Rosalind Franklin (ExoMars 2020) rover, to be launched in 2020, we will drill up to two metres under the harsh Martian surface to search for signs of ancient life. This goes beyond what Opportunity and Curiosity could achieve with their 5cm drills, and gives the best chance of any planned mission to find biomarkers and evidence of life. Also, it is hoped that an international sample return mission may bring back the rocks cached by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

With these missions we may be able to answer the age-old question of whether humankind is alone in the universe. Mars itself, along with other prime astrobiological targets in the solar system, including the moons Europa and Enceladus around Jupiter and Saturn respectively, should be kept in their pristine state until we have answered this fundamental question.

Terraforming Mars

Ideas for changing or “terraforming” Mars, by introducing an atmospheric greenhouse effect to warm it, have been around for a long time. Recently it was shown that the carbon inventory on Mars is insufficient to do this, apparently killing off these ideas for now.

Aerogel . Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

But the new study suggests a different approach – that smaller areas of Mars could be covered by a thin (2-3cm) covering of aerogel, providing a greenhouse effect by locking in heat. Using lab experiments, the researchers showed that this could increase the surface temperature by 50°C. The authors then used a climate model of Mars to confirm that the gel would be able to keep the water below it liquid up to a depth of several metres. It would also protect against harmful radiation by absorbing the radiation at UV wavelengths, while still allowing enough light for photosynthesis.

This suggests that a habitable region could be produced, enough even to grow some plants to fuel eventual human exploration. The idea is certainly interesting, and according to the experiments potentially plausible. But it ignores the other key issue affecting life on Mars – cosmic radiation. Silica aerogel, the proposed material, is sometimes called “frozen smoke” due to its low density. But because it is so low density, cosmic radiation of higher energy than ultraviolet light can pass through it almost unscathed. Without magnetic protection, this radiation threatens any life on the Martian surface, just as it does today.

Aerogels are extremely light. NASA

Mars is the planet nearest us where life could have started. And to artificially change the environment would threaten one of nature’s “experiments” which has been billions of years in the making –with life either evolving or not since the planet’s formation. We go to great lengths to keep missions like Rosalind Franklin sterile, in line with international rules, so that we do not disturb any past or even present life. If we did go ahead with terraforming plans and find living organisms on Mars later on, it would be hard to know whether these were natural Mars microbes or just contaminants from Earth thriving under the areogel.

Large-scale experiments like this would affect the pristine environment so much that we should not do this yet. At least until after Rosalind Franklin and Mars sample return, let’s leave Mars untouched so we can discover whether we are alone in the universe. When the science is done and we are ready to go, aerogel blankets may be worth a further look.

The Conversation

Andrew Coates receives funding from STFC and UK Space Agency. He is Principal Investigator for the PanCam instrument http://exploration.esa.int/mars/45103-rover-instruments/ on the Rosalind Franklin (ExoMars 2020) rover

Source: The Conversation: Technology http://theconversation.com/a-layer-of-aerogel-could-make-mars-habitable-and-even-enable-life-to-develop-there-but-heres-why-we-should-wait-120330

How expectation influences perception

How expectation influences perception

For decades, research has shown that our perception of the world is influenced by our expectations. These expectations, also called “prior beliefs,” help us make sense of what we are perceiving in the present, based on similar past experiences. Consider, for instance, how a shadow on a patient’s X-ray image, easily missed by a less experienced intern, jumps out at a seasoned physician. The physician’s prior experience helps her arrive at the most probable interpretation of a weak signal.

The process of combining prior knowledge with uncertain evidence is known as Bayesian integration and is believed to widely impact our perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Now, MIT neuroscientists have discovered distinctive brain signals that encode these prior beliefs. They have also found how the brain uses these signals to make judicious decisions in the face of uncertainty.

“How these beliefs come to influence brain activity and bias our perceptions was the question we wanted to answer,” says Mehrdad Jazayeri, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

The researchers trained animals to perform a timing task in which they had to reproduce different time intervals. Performing this task is challenging because our sense of time is imperfect and can go too fast or too slow. However, when intervals are consistently within a fixed range, the best strategy is to bias responses toward the middle of the range. This is exactly what animals did. Moreover, recording from neurons in the frontal cortex revealed a simple mechanism for Bayesian integration: Prior experience warped the representation of time in the brain so that patterns of neural activity associated with different intervals were biased toward those that were within the expected range.

MIT postdoc Hansem Sohn, former postdoc Devika Narain, and graduate student Nicolas Meirhaeghe are the lead authors of the study, which appears in the July 15 issue of Neuron.

Ready, set, go

Statisticians have known for centuries that Bayesian integration is the optimal strategy for handling uncertain information. When we are uncertain about something, we automatically rely on our prior experiences to optimize behavior.

“If you can’t quite tell what something is, but from your prior experience you have some expectation of what it ought to be, then you will use that information to guide your judgment,” Jazayeri says. “We do this all the time.”

In this new study, Jazayeri and his team wanted to understand how the brain encodes prior beliefs, and put those beliefs to use in the control of behavior. To that end, the researchers trained animals to reproduce a time interval, using a task called “ready-set-go.” In this task, animals measure the time between two flashes of light (“ready” and “set”) and then generate a “go” signal by making a delayed response after the same amount of time has elapsed.

They trained the animals to perform this task in two contexts. In the “Short” scenario, intervals varied between 480 and 800 milliseconds, and in the “Long” context, intervals were between 800 and 1,200 milliseconds. At the beginning of the task, the animals were given the information about the context (via a visual cue), and therefore knew to expect intervals from either the shorter or longer range.

Jazayeri had previously shown that humans performing this task tend to bias their responses toward the middle of the range. Here, they found that animals do the same. For example, if animals believed the interval would be short, and were given an interval of 800 milliseconds, the interval they produced was a little shorter than 800 milliseconds. Conversely, if they believed it would be longer, and were given the same 800-millisecond interval, they produced an interval a bit longer than 800 milliseconds.  

“Trials that were identical in almost every possible way, except the animal’s belief led to different behaviors,” Jazayeri says. “That was compelling experimental evidence that the animal is relying on its own belief.”

Once they had established that the animals relied on their prior beliefs, the researchers set out to find how the brain encodes prior beliefs to guide behavior. They recorded activity from about 1,400 neurons in a region of the frontal cortex, which they have previously shown is involved in timing.

During the “ready-set” epoch, the activity profile of each neuron evolved in its own way, and about 60 percent of the neurons had different activity patterns depending on the context (Short versus Long). To make sense of these signals, the researchers analyzed the evolution of neural activity across the entire population over time, and found that prior beliefs bias behavioral responses by warping the neural representation of time toward the middle of the expected range.

“We have never seen such a concrete example of how the brain uses prior experience to modify the neural dynamics by which it generates sequences of neural activities, to correct for its own imprecision. This is the unique strength of this paper: bringing together perception, neural dynamics, and Bayesian computation into a coherent framework, supported by both theory and measurements of behavior and neural activities,” says Mate Lengyel, a professor of computational neuroscience at Cambridge University, who was not involved in the study.

Embedded knowledge

Researchers believe that prior experiences change the strength of connections between neurons. The strength of these connections, also known as synapses, determines how neurons act upon one another and constrains the patterns of activity that a network of interconnected neurons can generate. The finding that prior experiences warp the patterns of neural activity provides a window onto how experience alters synaptic connections. “The brain seems to embed prior experiences into synaptic connections so that patterns of brain activity are appropriately biased,” Jazayeri says.

As an independent test of these ideas, the researchers developed a computer model consisting of a network of neurons that could perform the same ready-set-go task. Using techniques borrowed from machine learning, they were able to modify the synaptic connections and create a model that behaved like the animals.

These models are extremely valuable as they provide a substrate for the detailed analysis of the underlying mechanisms, a procedure that is known as “reverse-engineering.” Remarkably, reverse-engineering the model revealed that it solved the task the same way the monkeys’ brain did. The model also had a warped representation of time according to prior experience.  

The researchers used the computer model to further dissect the underlying mechanisms using perturbation experiments that are currently impossible to do in the brain. Using this approach, they were able to show that unwarping the neural representations removes the bias in the behavior. This important finding validated the critical role of warping in Bayesian integration of prior knowledge.

The researchers now plan to study how the brain builds up and slowly fine-tunes the synaptic connections that encode prior beliefs as an animal is learning to perform the timing task.

The research was funded by the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, the Netherlands Scientific Organization, the Marie Sklodowska Curie Reintegration Grant, the National Institutes of Health, the Sloan Foundation, the Klingenstein Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the McGovern Institute.


How tech firms make us feel like we own their apps – and how that benefits them

How tech firms make us feel like we own their apps – and how that benefits them

ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Possessions are going out of fashion. An endless stream of media reports claim millennials – that amorphous mass of people born in the 1980s and 1990s who have grown up with the internet and digital technology – are in favour of accessing rather than owning stuff.

And yet my research shows that owning possessions is still something millennials hunger for. It is just that these possessions are now digital rather than physical.

People who become heavy users of the apps they download can develop deep relationships with these services, so deep that they take on what we call “psychological ownership” of them. This means they perceive each app as something that belongs just to them and has effectively become an extension of themselves. After using it frequently and adjusting the settings to their liking, it becomes “my app”, even though their rights to use the service and transfer their data are actually restricted and their accounts can be terminated at any time.

Read more: Do we really own our digital possessions?

Psychological ownership can benefit the companies because it leads users to take on valuable extra roles. In the real world, companies have long pushed for shoppers to give feedback, recommend their products and help other shoppers. App “owners” are willingly doing all of this in the digital sphere and often with more expertise and commitment than traditional consumers.

My colleagues and I studied this phenomenon for users of music streaming apps such as Spotify and QQ Music and found that they went the extra mile in four ways. They provided services such as answering the queries of other users on internet forums or offering other information that would enrich the experience of users. They improved the app by giving the company feedback or taking part in the app’s governance. They advocated for the app by championing it in public or defending it against critics. And they financed the service by paying a premium fee or even donating money.

By interviewing more than 200 users of these music streaming services, we also found that companies use three key experiences to encourage users to become “owners”.


We all have a strong desire to exert control and influence on our environment. Research has shown people gain satisfaction and a boost in self-esteem by changing their surroundings, and we found the same desire among app users to control their digital space.

Users want autonomy to use the app at their own pace and in their own way. They do this by changing the settings to suit their interests and tastes. They can choose what notifications they receive or by which channel. They can skip or hide content. They can decide who they want to share their activity with.

Through this process, they learn how to use the app and see their influence on it, gradually gaining a sense that they can control it and so perceive it to be “their” Spotify or Apple Music.

Where’s my Spotify? Bo1982/Shutterstock


Past generations of young people put posters on their bedroom wall, wore t-shirts with slogans and displayed rows of vinyl or CDs as a show of who they were and what they believed in. Now this demonstration takes place online too. Self-identity is curated in the digital sphere.

Music apps allow users to express themselves by creating a library of likes and sharing the music that appeals to them. They can create their own playlists for any mood or occasion: the homework playlist, the party list or bath-time music.

The more you explore and listen to music, the more the app’s algorithms understand your likes and dislikes. And so the service becomes more tailored to your personality. It becomes “your” service and is trained to look like you. You can even upload your profile pictures and decorate your homepage in your own style.

Apps that allow users to sync their accounts across different devices further reinforce this sense of personalised identity.

Sense of home

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul,” said French philosopher Simone Weil in her 1952 book The Need for Roots.

App designers do well when they recognise this need. As well as looking for a digital space to store their creations and memory, users want to build a sense of home, their own place within the app, somewhere familiar and comfortable.

Some mobile apps have tapped into this longing, allowing users to store their memories and history within the app. For instance, a timeline or statistics feature allows users to look back on what they have done on the app and what music they have listened to.

This sense of history can also be made more tangible by creating playlists of a user’s top songs of the year, or reminding them of past events they had on the app, or even with a review of the person’s usage on the app.

Profitable relationship

These three experiences mean that users are able to build a relationship with a faceless technology such as a mobile app through psychological ownership.

Once deeply engaged in this kind of relationship with their app, users are then more likely to undertake voluntary contributions for the good of the technology. That can be helpful for the community of other users but ultimately is a major benefit for the company profiting from all that hard work.

The Conversation

Melody Zou receives funding from City University of Hong Kong.

Source: The Conversation: Technology http://theconversation.com/how-tech-firms-make-us-feel-like-we-own-their-apps-and-how-that-benefits-them-120248

Salt: China’s deadly food habit

Salt: China’s deadly food habit


People in China have used salt to prepare and preserve food for thousands of years. But consuming lots of salt raises blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack and stroke, now accounts for 40% of deaths in China.

It is well known that salt consumption in China is high, but accurate assessments are scarce. Public health experts need robust estimates of salt intake to help them develop strategies to reduce this intake. An example of a promising strategy is replacing regular salt with potassium salt, which contains less sodium (which raises blood pressure) and more potassium (which lowers blood pressure).

The most accurate way to measure salt intake is to measure the sodium excreted in urine over a 24-hour period. Although this data was collected in China, it has never been comprehensively reviewed. Our latest review, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, aimed to plug this knowledge gap.

Searching both English and Chinese-language databases for all studies ever published that reported 24-hour urinary excretion of either sodium or potassium in China, we found 70 with sodium data (drawn from 26,767 participants), of which 59 also reported potassium data (drawn from 24,738 participants). The data covered four decades and most provinces of China.

Of all the reviews of salt intake in China, our review is the first to be systematic and is by far the largest.

Salt intake by country.
Author provided

High salt and low potassium intakes

Our meta-analysis of the combined data revealed important patterns in salt and potassium consumption in China. We found, for example, that on average children and adolescents exceed the salt-intake limit set for adults.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults consume less than 5g of salt per day, and this upper limit should be reduced for children and adolescents according to their energy requirements. In China, however, children aged three to six, on average, consume 5g of salt per day. The WHO recommendation was far exceeded by children and adolescents aged six to 16 years. Their intake averaged a worrying 8.7g per day.

In adults, the average salt intake was 10.9s per day, which is more than twice the maximum recommendation set by the WHO and one of the highest salt intakes in the world.

Our review also showed geographical differences between northern and southern China. Salt intake in northern China has declined over the past four decades, which may be the result of the government’s efforts to increase salt awareness and of improvements in the year-round availability of fresh produce. Yet, despite this decline, the average salt intake in northern Chinese adults remains high, at 11.2g per day.

In contrast, salt intake in southern China has increased during that same period, which could be due to an increased consumption of processed, restaurant and takeaway foods, which are typically high in salt.

Finally, we also found that potassium intake was less than half the recommendation. Potassium intake has been consistently low throughout China for the past 40 years, with people in all age groups consuming less than half the recommended minimum intakes.

China: trends in salt intake.
Author provided

Improving matters

With a fifth of the world’s population living in China, reducing salt and increasing potassium intakes across the country would be of enormous benefit for global health. Here is how to achieve this:

  • Replace regular salt with potassium salt. Unlike in Western countries, where most of the salt comes from processed foods, most salt consumed in China comes from the salt added while cooking. Potassium salt can be used the same way as regular salt and would have the added benefit of increasing people’s potassium intake.

  • Start early in life. Childhood and adolescence are when dietary habits and taste preferences are formed. If a child eats more salt, they will develop the taste for salt and are more likely to eat more salt as an adult. Also, high blood pressure in childhood tracks into adulthood.

  • Anticipate new sources of salt intake. There is a rapid increase in the consumption of processed foods and of food from street markets, restaurants and fast-food chains in China. Setting maximum targets for their salt content would create a level playing field where salt is reduced across the board, which would help guide the population in getting used to a less salty taste.

The Conversation

Monique Tan's PhD studentship is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).


Flooding: Britain’s coastal towns and villages face a design challenge to cope with climate emergency

Flooding: Britain’s coastal towns and villages face a design challenge to cope with climate emergency

As an island nation, Britain has vulnerable communities that must be prepared for the impact of the climate emergency. And while much has been said about homes at risk from the sea in coastal regions, or those inland subject to river flooding, the UK Committee on Climate Change’s new progress report for 2019 has laid bare the challenge facing them.

In 2018, Hemsby on the coast of Norfolk in the east of England saw several homes dramatically lost after storm surges caused metres of the sandy cliff edge to collapse. Over the last decade, major storms left substantial areas of England badly flooded for weeks or months, such as in 2007, 2009, 2012, and the winters of 2013-14 and 2015-16. The Environment Agency has said that the UK faces having to abandon areas rather than continue to defend them with the ever higher and stronger flood defences that would be necessary.

According to the committee’s climate change risk assessment it is almost certain that England will have to adapt to at least one metre of sea level rise. Modelling studies have shown that flooding increases exponentially with rising sea levels. So for coastal areas subject to flooding it is not sufficient to increase the height of sea walls in line with sea level rise.

The assessment predicts that up to 1.5m properties (including 1.2m residential homes) may be located in areas with an annual flood risk of once in 200 years or more by the 2080s. Around 8,900 properties are located in areas at risk from coastal erosion, this may increase to over 100,000 properties by the 2080s. While coastal erosion affects fewer properties than flooding, the impact is more drastic due to the inevitable and irrecoverable loss of land to the sea.

Significant increases in coastal flood risk are projected to occur as early as the 2020s due to increases in storm frequency. According to the committee’s projections the number of residential properties exposed to flooding more frequently than once every 75 years (on average) is predicted to increase 20% by the 2020s under the scenario which gives a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the 2080s.

However, the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report on dealing with these issues scores work on alleviating surface water flooding, and work on ensuring new building development is properly designed to manage flooding, both firmly in the “red” of the red-amber-green traffic light system indicating readiness. Other aspects of flood protection fare only slightly better, with river and coastal development flood protection and alleviation and flood recovery in general marked as “amber”.

Number of properties (residential and non-residential) potentially affected by a future once every 200 years coastal surge.
HR Wallingford

In the Netherlands, for centuries vulnerable to floods due to its low-lying land, a number of new approaches to water management have been adopted over the years in an effort to live with water rather than to fight it. Schemes range from flood-proof homes, including floating homes, to the Room for the River programme which entails strategies for planned evacuations, temporary relocation of farmers and villagers, and strategic flooding of polders (reclaimed areas separated by drainage dykes).

The UK has its own approaches to manage increased flood risk, and is developing new approaches in view of the dire predictions by climate change experts under scenarios of both 2°C and 4°C global temperature rise. River flooding and coastal flooding (from waterway or coastal inundation), as well as surface water and groundwater flooding (from rain and storms and insufficient drainage), were categorised as the most significant sources of risk in the UK now and in the future.

Coastlines changed

The committee’s projection of flood risk has identified the most cost-effective, engineering-based measures to reduce flooding as improving defences, managed realignment of the coast, catchment area management, and urban runoff management through sustainable drainage systems. In this case, “realignment” of the coast entails not only the natural changes to the physical coastline as a result of climate change, but also the decision to abandon or relocate entire settlements. This can have a significant personal and financial impact on those residents affected.

While the abandonment of properties in places like Happisburgh and Hemsby in Norfolk due to coastal erosion is well known, we can see from the map above that many other coastal areas around the Humber, Mersey, Severn and Thames estuaries are at risk. Those affected, and also key infrastructure assets, will need to be evaluated to ascertain whether they should be included in this process of coastal realignment. The area around the Thames in southern England is likely to be classed as worth protecting due to the high numbers of people living there, for example. In addition, a number of low-lying inland plains will also be lost – many of which were selected for housing development only a few decades ago.

While planning and building regulations can reduce flood risk to new-build properties within affected areas, anticipated population growth means that there is increasing pressure to build on floodplains. According to Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, the number of properties built on floodplains will double over the next 50 years, creating further flood risk problems.

The UK has a significant number of key industries and infrastructure at the coast – for example power stations, petrochemical plants, steel industries and oil and gas infrastructure. To tackle the associated design challenges for housing, business and industries appropriate funding and having a well-skilled engineering force will be key.

In view of the increasing impact of climate change we need to urgently build our resilience to flooding. Flood resilience includes knowing what the risks are and where. We need flexible engineering solutions, including natural flood risk management, as well as ways to help society adapt. We need to make sure we have the right people with the right skills at all levels to address related socio-economic issues, including hard decisions on what to fight to keep, and what can be lost.

The Conversation

Carola Koenig is a Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and a Charted Engineer.

Philip Collins is a Fellow of the Geological Society of London, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and graduate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

source: The Conversation: Environment

NASA Awards Contract for Infrastructure Support Services

[rNASA Awards Contract for Infrastructure Support Services NASA has awarded eight contracts for architect-engineering services in support of the Facilities Infrastructure Division at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Source: Eurogamer. http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-awards-contract-for-infrastructure-support-services

NASA Funds Demo of 3D-Printed Spacecraft Parts Made, Assembled in Orbit

[rNASA Funds Demo of 3D-Printed Spacecraft Parts Made, Assembled in Orbit NASA has awarded a $73.7 million contract to Made In Space, Inc. of Mountain View, California, to demonstrate the ability of a small spacecraft, called Archinaut One, to manufacture and assemble spacecraft components in low-Earth orbit. The in-space robotic manufacturing and assembly technologies could be important for America’s Moon to Mars explor Source: Eurogamer. http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-funds-demo-of-3d-printed-spacecraft-parts-made-assembled-in-orbit

NASA to Broadcast Launch, Arrival of Astronaut Andrew Morgan at Space Station

[rNASA to Broadcast Launch, Arrival of Astronaut Andrew Morgan at Space Station A multinational crew of space travelers, including NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station on Saturday, July 20 – the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing on the Moon. NASA Television and the agency’s website will provide live coverage of the crew’s launch and arrival. Source: Eurogamer. http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-to-broadcast-launch-arrival-of-astronaut-andrew-morgan-at-space-station

Food system needs a revolution, not tinkering around edges by the ultra-processed producers

Food system needs a revolution, not tinkering around edges by the ultra-processed producers

Altagracia Art/Shutterstock.com

Eating ultra-processed food is definitely bad for you, a recent study has confirmed. In the experiment, people were fed either ultra-processed or unprocessed food, with meals matched precisely for calories, salt, sugar, fat and fibre. Those on ultra-processed food ate more and gained more weight within two weeks.

This finding puts two torpedoes in the notion that “all calories are the same”. Recent studies have linked ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, heart disease and early death.

Most foods need some level of processing, such as freezing or pasteurisation in order to prolong shelf life, food safety and commercial viability, but “ultra-processed” products have little or no intact “food” remaining. Rather, they are made principally from already processed commodities, such as potent sugars, modified oils and salts and they undergo an array of further processes such as emulsification, thickening and carbonating. No longer really foods, they are better thought of as formulations.

One strategy to make ultra-processed products less harmful is to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats in them through what is known as “reformulation”: redesigning an existing processed food product with the objective of making it healthier. Reformulation could help if it had adequate scope and intensity – and it may act to bolster other sugar, salt and fat reduction strategies such as taxes or improved product labelling. But while about a dozen countries have mandatory salt and trans-fat limits, none have set legal limits for sugar and saturated fats in foods.

Food reformulation has been around since the early 1980s, and it has always been a business opportunity for large food brands to compete for health conscious consumers. Only recently – since the mid-2000s – has it become a high-level strategy for food companies seeking to proactively adopt it to avoid mandatory nutrient limits. Countries all over the world now collaborate with the food industry to reformulate ultra-processed foods – a partnership that has received widespread and enthusiastic endorsement from senior policy makers. A recent food industry report to the Irish government on putative improvements in diet resulting from industry reformulation is a case in point.

But we have found what we feel are selection biases, ecological fallacies and inappropriate study design that we argue make the inferences about the benefits of industry-led reformulation in this report unsound. Others have described how methodological weaknesses limit the policy “relevance” of similar industry reports. In seeking to lead and influence national dietary strategies, the food industry promotes two consistent narratives: that reformulation is enormously difficult and expensive, and that it must happen slowly because consumers will react negatively to dramatic changes in taste.

So what exactly is wrong with industry-led reformulation? We think it has four serious dangers.

1. A PR strategy

Because reformulation has been framed by industry as a series of voluntary commitments, big food actors across the world look like they are doing government and society at large a massive favour, all the while burnishing their corporate images. Indeed, the websites of ultra-processed food companies prominently feature reformulation. Consider, for instance, Mondelez’s “commitment to improve the nutritional content of our most loved brands”. We feel this slow progress towards the promotion of significantly healthier diets.

2. Industry saviours

Industry-led reformulation stages the food industry as the saviour from our obesity problem. It places them as a central authority which can speak reliably and legitimately about nutrition goals with governments. Food brands speak convincingly about how much sugar, salt or fat they extract from national diets.

The Irish reformulation report for example, states that between 2005 and 2017, beverage companies removed 10 billion calories from the annual diets of the country’s 4.8m people. But it is silent about how many calories the companies are responsible for introducing to the diet in the first place.

This mirrors industry development of low tar cigarettes, which were an ineffective, tokenistic industry-led solution to the public health crisis that smoking presented. In the same way, voluntary reformulation of unhealthy food products that are making so many of us sick risks delaying more substantive strategies to get rid of the most harmful products altogether.

The sugar baseline.
Alexander Weickart/Shutterstock.com

3. A false picture

The ultra-processed food industry reformulates existing products while adding more to the food system. It is constantly creating new products such as cereal bars or “snackfections”); new formats which masquerade as portion control but actually increase snacking (bites, thins, share size); new eating occasions (Domino’s World Pizza Day, Cadbury’s Friendship Day); new category expansions (biscuits for breakfast, meat snacks) and new retail concepts.

A recent study by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that while there were indeed some decreases in the amount of salt and sugar in the category of “baby foods” in the country, there were whole new classes of foods created for babies that it deemed “inappropriate”: products that normalise snacking in babies and young infants. We need to measure not just reformulation at a product level, but how many new ultra-processed foods are being produced, to get a true picture of the changing food system.

4. Status quo bias

Status quo bias happens when a baseline is mistaken for a standard to strive towards. The Irish reformulation strategy is a good example: if Irish children are eating 101g of added sugar per day, it will take about 300 years to reach the recommended intake of 25g at current rates of decline. Such bias contributes to policy inertia, where it is imagined that the food system can be tinkered around with, rather than needing to be fundamentally revolutionised.

Industry-led reformulation has become a public relations strategy – a goodwill gesture that enhances the dominance and legitimacy of the ultra-processed food category. The ultra-processed concept is not challenged. It is inadvertently legitimated as attention is focused on changing the formulas of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods instead of working out ways to replace them altogether.

Some of the ways that governments might intervene include subsidies for fruits and vegetables, tax breaks for local food co-operatives and food growers, school and adult education. Ultimately, cultural norms need to change so that people have more time to think about what they eat – and to engage with preparing and cooking it.

The Conversation

Francis Finucane is partly funded by a Clinical Research Career Development Award from the Saolta Hospital Group. In the past he has received research funding, honoraria and travel expenses from pharmaceutical companies including Novo Nordisk, Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, A. Menarini, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, MSD and others. He sits on Council at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Norah Campbell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Jair Bolsonaro wants to deforest the Amazon – what powers does the UN have to stop him?

Jair Bolsonaro wants to deforest the Amazon – what powers does the UN have to stop him?

Tarcisio Schnaider / shutterstock

Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is at its highest rate in a decade, according to new satellite data. This comes after president Jair Bolsonaro has loosened environmental regulations, cut enforcement budgets, and supported further development in the region.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide naturally, and are one of best tools we have to help stave off climate catastrophe – and the Amazon itself is a crucial carbon sink. This means responding to deforestation in Brazil has become a matter of international responsibility.

The primary purpose of the United Nations is to maintain international peace and security. With climate breakdown already causing conflict and undermining human security, it’s hard to argue the UN should not get involved.

So what could it do about Brazil’s deforestation? My PhD research examines the intersection between environmental governance and the UN Security Council. The council is a legislative body designed to safeguard international peace and security – it’s made up of five permanent members and ten non-permanent (elected) members. I want to consider three options available to it: the support of international law; intervention through force; and sanctions.

The UN Security Council has five permanent members (France, China, Russia, the US, the UK) and ten non-permanent members elected for two year terms.
Golden Brown / Shutterstock

Option 1: Applying international law?

Brazil was one of the 195 signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which set global targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming below 2℃ or ideally 1.5℃. Article 5 of the Agreement says that parties “should take action” to preserve forests due to their role as carbon sinks. The problem is the word “should”, which places very little legal obligation on parties.

As part of the Paris Agreement, Brazil pledged to protect the Amazon through the restoration of 12m hectares of forest by 2030 (that’s an area roughly the size of England).

The problem is Bolsonaro himself didn’t agree to the treaty. And although he has indicated Brazil will remain part of it, his policy thus far – strongly pro- development in the Amazon – means there is very little hope he will stick to the reforestation commitment.

In any case, the Paris Agreement lacks enforcement mechanisms – if Bolsonaro simply decides to ignore Article 5 and continue deforesting there is little the other signatories can do. In light of this the Security Council calling for the implementation of the Paris Agreement would have little tangible impact, and so we must consider other possibilities.

Option 2: Force?

It might sounds drastic, but if international peace and security is under threat, this means the UN Security Council could intervene under Article 42 which authorises the use of force to halt those actions causing the menace. Force has been used in the past, for instance to create corridors of protection for people in warzones. Extending this idea, a UN force could be directed to provide a perimeter of protection around the Amazon and halt all deforestation activities.

Send them to Manaus?
Sadik Gulec / Shutterstock

However, tanks and troops on the ground means invading a sovereign nation. It means saying dialogue is over. And crucially it rarely results in a clean resolution. Any intervention would likely be met with a response from the Brazilian military – which has hundreds of thousands of troops and the world’s 12th largest budget – and many lives would likely be lost. UN-backed military intervention must balance all this against the cost of inaction.

Furthermore, military force also comes with massive environmental impacts and logistical challenges. It is not a credible response to deforestation.

Option 3: Sanctions

Under Article 41 of the UN Charter, the Security Council can impose sanctions to maintain or restore international peace and security. These sanctions are intended as non-military steps in order to coerce uncooperative governments or individuals. A comprehensive sanctions scheme can have significant impacts upon the internal situation of a country, forcing compliance with agreed international standards.

But sanctions are not always successful and often have a major humanitarian impact. However the sort of broad brush approach that may have harmed ordinary people in Haiti, for example, is not the only option available – the Security Council could instead introduce targeted sanctions that have less collateral impact.

Angola’s on-off civil war lasted 26 years and left 500,000 civilians dead.
Nathan Holland / shutterstock

In 1998 the UNSC targeted the exploitation of natural resources that was bankrolling conflict in Angola, and introduced Resolution 1173 which meant all states were obliged to ensure that any diamonds imported were sourced from an official certification scheme. Similar restrictions were also imposed on Sierra Leone, and a later resolution endorsed the Kimberly Scheme that aims to regulate the diamond trade.

During the Liberian conflict in the early 2000s, the Security Council recognised that the timber trade was fuelling the situation. Through Resolution 1521 the import of all “round logs and timber products originating in Liberia” was prohibited. The sanction was successful: among other things, it encouraged Liberians with logging licences from the previous Charles Taylor regime to rethink their claim on the forests and begin a national dialogue.

Applying this here, the Security Council could prohibit the sale of all Brazilian timber, and sanction all imports of beef reared in areas of deforestation. Some might argue this interferes with Brazilian sovereignty in a way that the above examples did not. And for all the faults of its current leader, and perhaps even its entire political class, the country remains more stable, and a more mature democracy, than the likes of Liberia or Angola during civil wars. It’s also considerably wealthier and more powerful.

Given all this, and the fact permanent members of the Security Council have veto powers, the introduction of sanctions seems a long way off. That said, history shows us that the Security Council and particularly the permanent members can rapidly change their position in response to a global event.

Could climate change constitute such an event? Maybe, one day. Brazil’s actions indirectly undermine the stability and sovereignty of countries most affected by climate breakdown, and so, yes, sanctions are severe, but they are proportionate. Crucially they might encourage the Brazilian government to rethink its policy on deforestation.

The Conversation

Ash Murphy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

source: The Conversation: Environment