- Should we stop eating meat to combat climate change? Maybe not. White and Hall worked out what happened if the US stopped using farm animals:
The modeled system without animals (…) only reduced total US greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percentage units. Compared with systems with animals, diets formulated for the US population in the plants-only systems (…) resulted in a greater number of deficiencies in essential nutrients. (source: PNAS)
Of concern when considering farm animals are methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with the caveat that it is short-lived in the atmosphere unlike CO2. Should we be worried about methane despite its short life? According to the American EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), total methane emissions have been falling consistently for the last 20 years. That should not surprise us: greenhouse gas emissions in most developed countries (including the US) have peaked some time ago. Not emissions per capita, but total emissions.
So beef, at least in the US, is not a major contributor to climate change. But we could do even better. Several studies like Stanley et al. report that well managed grazing can lead to carbon sequestration in the grassland. Farming in general could be more environmentally effective.
Of course, if people consume less they will have a smaller environmental footprint, but going vegan does not imply that one consumes less. If you save in meat but reinvest in exotic fruits and trips to foreign locations, you could keep your environmental footprint the same.
There are certainly countries were animal grazing is an environmental disaster. Many industries throughout the world are a disaster and we should definitively put pressure on the guilty parties. But, in case you were wondering, if you live in a country like Canada, McDonald’s is not only serving only locally-produced beef, but they also require that it be produced in a sustainable manner.
In any case, there are good reasons to stop eating meat, but in the developed countries like the US and Canada, climate change seems like a bogus one.
There also good reasons to keep farm animals. For example, it is difficult to raise an infant without cow milk and in most countries, it is illegal to sell human milk. Several parents have effectively killed their children by trying to raise them vegan (1, 2). It is relatively easy to match protein and calories with a vegan diet, but meat and milk are nutrient-dense food: it requires some expertise to do away with them.
Further reading: No, giving up burgers won’t actually save the planet (New York Post).
(Special thanks to professor Leroy for providing many useful pointers.)
- News agencies reported this week that climate change could bring back the plague and the black death that wiped out Europe. The widely reported prediction was made by Professor Peter Frankopan while at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Frankopan is a history professor at Oxford.
- There is a reverse correlation between funding and scientific output, meaning that beyond a certain point, you start getting less science for your dollars.
(…) prestigious institutions had on average 65% higher grant application success rates and 50% larger award sizes, whereas less-prestigious institutions produced 65% more publications and had a 35% higher citation impact per dollar of funding. These findings suggest that implicit biases and social prestige mechanisms (…) have a powerful impact on where (…) grant dollars go and the net return on taxpayers investments.
It is well documented that there is diminishing returns in research funding. Concentrating your research dollars into too few individuals is wasteful. My own explanation for this phenomenon is that, Elon Musk aside, we have all have cognitive bottlenecks. One researcher might carry fruitfully two, three major projects at the same time, but once they supervise too many students and assistants, they become a “negative manager”, meaning that make other researchers no more productive and often less productive. They spend less and less time optimizing the tools and instruments.
If you talk with graduate students who work in lavishly funded laboratories, you will often hear (when the door is closed) about how poorly managed the projects are. People are forced into stupid directions, they do boring and useless work to satisfy project objectives that no longer make sense. Currently, “success” is often defined by how quickly you can acquire and spend money.
But how do you optimally distribute research dollars? It is tricky because, almost by definition, almost all research is worthless. You are mining for rare events. So it is akin to venture capital investing. You want to invest into many start ups that have a high potential.
- A Nature columns tries to define what makes a good PhD student:
the key attributes needed to produce a worthy PhD thesis are a readiness to accept failure; resilience; persistence; the ability to troubleshoot; dedication; independence; and a willingness to commit to very hard work — together with curiosity and a passion for research. The two most common causes of hardship in PhD students are an inability to accept failure and choosing this career path for the prestige, rather than out of any real interest in research.