Category Archives: The Conversation

Misinformation is a common thread between the COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS pandemics – with deadly consequences


Disinformation can derail public health measures vital to controlling the spread of infectious disease. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Cristian Apetrei, University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences

Since health officials confirmed the first COVID-19 cases, misinformation has spread just as quickly as the virus. Social media may have made the amount, variety and speed of misinformation seem unprecedented, but COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic where false and harmful information has set back public health.

Misinformation altered how people trusted their governments and doctors during the 1918 influenza pandemic. It fueled the 19th century smallpox anti-vaccine movements through some of the same arguments as those currently used against the COVID-19 vaccine.

What sets the COVID-19 pandemic apart, however, is the sheer magnitude of damaging disinformation put in circulation around the world. Data shows that regions and countries where disinformation thrived experienced more lethal pandemic waves despite vaccine availability. In the U.S., for example, viewership of a Fox News program that downplayed the pandemic is associated with increased COVID-19 cases and deaths. Similarly in Romania, disinformation is a contributing factor to the country’s disastrous fourth wave of COVID-19. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Xl9zgDGko5U?wmode=transparent&start=0 The COVID-19 infodemic began as soon as the first few cases of infections were confirmed.

The problem of misinformation has been so widespread that it has its own word: “infodemic,” a portmanteau of “information” and “epidemic.” Coined by journalist David Rothkopf during the 2003 SARS outbreak, it describes a situation where “a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, are amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies.”

Infodemics can affect economies, politics, national security and public health. The COVID-19 infodemic became such a problem that the Royal Society and the British Academy released an October 2020 report noting its significant impact on vaccine deployment, endorsing legislation that prosecutes those who spread misinformation.

As a researcher who studies HIV and lived through the AIDS pandemic, I felt a sense of déjà vu as COVID-19 disinformation spread. In the 40 years since the emergence of AIDS, society has learned how to cope with the disease with more effective diagnostics, treatments and preventive strategies, transforming AIDS from a lethal condition to a chronic disease.

However, there are striking parallels between the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics that show the dire consequences disinformation can have on both patients and society as a whole.

Denying the existence of a virus or a pandemic

There are people who deny the existence of COVID-19. There are abundant claims on social media that the virus that causes COVID-19 has never been isolated, or it is insufficiently characterized. Others do not contest the existence of COVID-19, but ignore the severe consequences of infection.

In general, these groups tend to also deny germ theory, claiming that infectious diseases are not caused by pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Instead, they promote the idea that pathogens don’t cause disease, but rather are a consequence of it. https://www.youtube.com/embed/J0UTqngnsuY?wmode=transparent&start=0 Misinformation is just one common theme between the COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS pandemics.

Likewise, some denied the role of the HIV virus in AIDS infection. AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg was one person who disseminated this misinformation, which had been refuted by the scientific community at large. But his erroneous claim still reached the then president of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who banned the use of lifesaving antiretrovirals in public hospitals. This decision resulted in the deaths of over 330,000 people from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005.

Mbeki’s decision was considered so damaging that scientists and physicians worldwide signed the Durban Declaration, reiterating that HIV indeed causes AIDS and urging Mbeki to reconsider his decision. While the government did reverse the ban after strong international political pressure, the damage had been done.

Gain of function claims

Gain of function experiments involve manipulating a pathogen to understand what contributes to its ability to cause disease. At the same time, such experiments can give pathogens new abilities, such as making viruses more transmissible or more dangerous to humans. Conspiracy theorists have made claims that the COVID-19 virus resulted from alterations to a bat version of the virus that gave it the ability to replicate in human cells.

But these claims ignore several key facts about the COVID-19 virus, including that all coronaviruses from bats can infect humans without additional adaptation. The mutations that increased the transmissibility of COVID-19 occurred after it started circulating in people, resulting in even more infectious variants.

HIV also saw conspiracy theories claiming that it was created in a lab for genocide. But research has shown that HIV also naturally evolved from an animals. African non-human primates are natural hosts to a vast group of viruses collectively called simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIV). Despite their high rates of SIV infection in the wild, these primate hosts typically don’t experience symptoms or progress to AIDS. Throughout the evolutionary history of SIV, jumping to a new host species involved naturally occurring genetic changes over the course of thousands of years.

Miracle cures

During a public health crisis, researchers and health officials are learning about a disease in real time. While missteps are expected, these can be perceived by the public as hesitation, incompetence or failure. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Sg3-KxH9iqc?wmode=transparent&start=0 There are some steps you can take to identify misinformation.

As researchers looked for possible COVID-19 treatments, others were offering their own unproven drugs. Multiple treatments for COVID-19, including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, were tested and abandoned. But not before large amounts of time, effort and money were spent on disproving claims that these were supposed miracle treatments. Similarly for HIV, frustration and anxiety from a continued lack of available treatments amid rising deaths led to fraudulent cures, with price tags of tens of thousands of dollars.

Even though treatment delays and changing guidelines are a natural process of learning about a new diseases as it unfolds, they can open the door to disinformation and generate distrust in doctors even as they care for infected patients.

Preventing misinfodemics

The next pandemic is not a question of if but when and where it will occur. Just as important as devising ways to detect emerging viruses is developing strategies to address the misinfodemics that will follow them. The recent monkeypox outbreak has already seen similar spread of mis- and disinformation about its source and spread.

As author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, “A lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth.” Countering misinformation is difficult, because there are reasons other than ignorance for why someone believes in a falsehood. In those cases, presenting the facts may not be enough, and may sometimes even result in someone doubling down on a false belief. But focusing on urgent scientific and medical needs to the exclusion of rapidly addressing misinformation can derail pandemic control. Strategies that take misinformation into account can help other pandemic control measures be more successful.

Cristian Apetrei, Professor of Immunology, Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reducing gun violence: A complicated problem can’t be solved with just one approach, so Indianapolis is trying programs ranging from job skills to therapy to violence interrupters to find out what works


Participants in ‘violence prevention’ programs seek to deescalate conflicts before they turn deadly. Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Thomas D. Stucky, IUPUI

Indianapolis is no stranger to gun violence. The city is also trying many promising approaches to reducing violence that – if proven successful – could benefit other urban areas across the U.S.

The city’s homicide rate in 2020, at 24.4 per 100,000 residents, was approximately triple the national average, and the city’s highest on record. Approximately 80% of those homicides were perpetrated using firearms.

Gun homicides ended about 240 lives there in a recent two-year period, according to a study regarding this city of 900,000 people. The number of people who were shot but survived was far higher, and firearms account for a significant number of suicide deaths.

I’m a former police officer who has studied policies and programs that seek to prevent gun violence since the late 1990s. I have periodically partnered with Indianapolis officials and community agencies on anti-violence initiatives coordinated by the local government with many private- and nonprofit-sector partners since 2004.

Though some approaches developed in other places have worked here, and Indianapolis has implemented many programs that have been shown to make a difference elsewhere, there’s still not enough data to pinpoint which specific programs are the most effective.

But given the urgency of the problem, I believe it’s important to keep test-driving promising methods based on the information available so far. And because Indianapolis experiences many of the same gun violence issues that other medium and large cities face, what’s learned here can apply in many other places.

Stepping up efforts to reduce gun violence

Indianapolis intensified its efforts to reduce gun violence in 2006, when 144 people died by homicide – up 27% from a year earlier.

That year Bart Peterson, then serving as the city’s mayor, created the Community Crime Prevention Task Force, in which I played a role. Its mission was to seek evidence-based recommendations to reduce violence.

After reviewing the relevant academic research, I identified best practices and the most promising violence-prevention strategies. The task force, in turn, made recommendations to the Indianapolis City-County Council.

The city subsequently began to increase funding for efforts to reduce gun violence in coordination with the Indianapolis Foundation, a local charity.

This private-public partnership has been supporting nonprofits engaged in several approaches to reducing gun violence ever since.

The overarching purpose of all these programs is to help the people who are the most likely to be wounded or killed by a gun to obtain services, such as job training and health care, in their communities and change norms away from gun violence to reduce that risk.

Because people killed by guns in Indianapolis are most likely to be male, young and Black, young Black men are a major focus for all the programs. Researchers have also determined that 3 in 4 gun homicide victims and suspects in the city were known to law enforcement through prior investigation, arrests or convictions. So that is another factor in terms of determining who gets these services.

Employing formerly incarcerated people

Other grants from the private-public partnership in Indianapolis have funded cognitive behavioral therapy for people at risk of engaging in or being victims of gun violence. This is a method in which people get help identifying and pushing back on their negative thoughts and behaviors, making it easier to resolve disputes without resorting to violence.

The city has also partnered with several community organizations to prevent gun violence.

One such group is Recycleforce, which hires formerly incarcerated people to recycle old electronic goods. It’s among several enhanced transitional job programs that provide services and training to the recently incarcerated.

One study showed that Recycleforce participants were 5.8% less likely to be arrested and 4.8% less likely to be convicted of a crime in the first six months of the period reviewed. However, in the second six months, the benefits were no longer statistically significant.

A second study used in-depth interviews to assess the program. It suggested that the peer-mentor model Recycleforce follows works well.

Preventing future gunshots

A large Indianapolis hospital, Eskenazi, also runs several important anti-violence programs. One, called Prescription for Hope, assists people treated there for gunshot wounds.

Like similar hospital-based programs around the country, the one based at Eskenazi helps participants develop effective life skills and connects them with community resources to reduce criminal and risky behaviors.

An initial study of the program showed that only about 3% of participants returned to the emergency department with a repeat violent injury within the first year, compared with an 8.7% rate when the program wasn’t underway. This translates to a two-thirds reduction in the likelihood that someone with a violent injury will need similar emergency medical assistance in the future.

‘Violence interruption’

In 2021, Indianapolis began to hire “violence interrupters” to calm contentious situations and reduce the risk of violent retaliation.

The “violence interruption” method connects people with personal ties to those most at risk of becoming involved in gun violence as victims or perpetrators.

Violence interrupters try to mediate disputes and calm things down on the streets, at parties and during funerals before any shooting starts. They have credibility with violence-prone people because of their past experiences.

The interrupters also help at-risk people to obtain services and to change gun violence norms in their communities.

Violence interruption, part of a growing public health approach to reining in violence, originated in Chicago in 2000. Now called the “cure violence model,” it has spread quickly amid generally positive research results.

Indianapolis was employing about 50 violence interrupters as of mid-2022.

More federal funding

Most of the city’s violence-prevention grants funding these efforts have been relatively small until now, ranging from US$5,000 to $325,000.

But U.S. cities, including Indianapolis, now have have until 2024 to tap into a comparatively large stream of federal funding for community-based violence intervention. That money was included in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package enacted in 2021.

Using these federal funds, the city is partnering with the Indianapolis Foundation to award grants totaling $45 million from 2022 through 2024 for local efforts to reduce gun violence.

Fortunately, Indianapolis’ homicides appear to be declining in 2022 compared with a year earlier.

As a local resident, I certainly welcome this news. But as researcher, I consider it to be too soon to tell whether this trend will continue or what the many public and private efforts to reduce gun violence underway will accomplish.

Thomas D. Stucky, Professor of Criminal Justice, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate pioneers: how small farmers could be leading the way towards sustainable agriculture


Small farmers in Maza village, Morogoro, Tanzania. US government/Flickr

Zareen Pervez Bharucha, Anglia Ruskin University

Agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, but it is also undeniably affected by it. Farming must therefore change in order to keep up with global demands, while reducing its environmental impact. Without these necessary changes, it’s estimated that by 2030, the impacts of climate change will be even worse, causing yields to decline so much that we will cancel out any progress we have made towards eliminating global hunger.

Some of those worst affected by climate change are small farmers (those working on land under two hectares). There are around 475m small farms around the world, cultivating around 12% of the world’s farmed land. Small farmers in the tropics and poorer agricultural communities will be particularly severely affected by climate change.

However, many of these small farmers are increasingly using innovative ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. They are the true pioneers of climate-smart agriculture, using practices that maintain productivity while decreasing emissions. They are also producing a range of other benefits such as poverty alleviation, better nutrition and biodiversity conservation.

Sustainable but healthy yields

In the 20th century, farmers boosted yields by intensifying production: using more water, land, energy, synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. This model tended to assume that you couldn’t have high yields as well as environmental protection. Now, we understand that this is a false choice, and that sustainable intensification – producing healthy yields and higher incomes while building ecosystems on and around the farm – is possible. And it looks like small farmers are leading the way in implementing such sustainable intensification around the world.

There are three steps towards sustainable intensification. These are increased efficiency (doing more with less), substitution (replacing ineffective or harmful products) and redesign (changing the whole farm to be more sustainable). These steps are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

For example, rice plants are typically planted close together in flooded nurseries. But they can also be grown in nutrient-rich nurseries that aren’t flooded – something that saves around 40% of the water used compared to conventional production methods. However, the system is about more than simple resource efficiency – it actually involves a fundamental redesign of the whole system of rice production.

Rice farmer in Punjab, India. Neil Palmer (CIAT)/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Substitution involves replacing less efficient or harmful inputs such as synthetic pesticides, which can be harmful for wildlife, with better alternatives. You can also replace old crop varieties with new ones that can withstand sudden changes, or which need less water – important for climate resilience. New varieties may also be able to help reduce agricultural emissions. For example, plants with greater root mass could help sequester an estimated 50 to 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Radical approaches

Radical redesign of farms involves techniques such as conservation agriculture – practices that minimise the disruption of the soil’s structure and biodiversity. Integrated pest management, which involves strategies to deal with pests without posing risks to the environment, and agroforestry, using trees in agriculture, are also good examples. A recent assessment estimated that around 163m farms worldwide (29% of the global total) practice some form of redesign.

The evidence shows that these methods are already helping small farmers achieve healthy yields while delivering a range of other benefits, including carbon sequestration, using less energy and synthetic inputs and climate resilience.

One example is the “push-pull integrated pest management”. Push-pull is a method of pest control that was developed in East Africa to help farmers deal with stemborers and striga weeds, which attack crops such as maize. Instead of relying exclusively on synthetic pesticides, farmers grow pest-repelling plants such as desmodium (which push the pests away) in among the main crop. They also plant borders around their fields of other crops such as such as Napier grass, which attracts pests (pull).

This keeps pests away from the main cereal crops, reducing losses. In recent years, push-pull systems have been adapted to include plants such as Brachiaria, which can tolerate hotter and drier climates. Such systems are used across 69,000 small farms across Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Other methods of redesign are also being practised at scale by small farmers in other places. In India, 140,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh and an estimated 100,000 in Karnataka practice “zero budget natural farming”. This is an initiative which promotes the natural growth of crops without adding any synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. In Africa, small farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger have taken up agroforestry and soil and water conservation, and transformed the landscape of around 500,000 hectares of degraded land.

The redesign of agriculture offers the best chances for achieving lower carbon, climate-proof agriculture in the 21st century. But, it requires new partnerships between farmers, development agencies, governments and researchers. Farming is knowledge intensive, and will be increasingly so in a changing world. Sustainable intensification initiatives that have spread to scale have all involved new initiatives to support collaboration and learning. Farmer field schools, training programmes for local farmers, are key to this. So are plant breeding programmes in which participating farmers get opportunities to make decisions at different stages during the process.

Ultimately, climate proofing is best achieved by improving the sustainability of existing systems. Small farmers already know what works. The challenge remains to help them spearhead the global spread of redesigned agriculture.

Zareen Pervez Bharucha, Senior Research fellow, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate crisis: the countryside could be our greatest ally – if we can reform farming


The Yorkshire Dales, England. Jakob Cotton/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Ian Boyd, University of St Andrews

Around 20% of the UK’s farms account for 80% of the country’s total food production, and they do this on about half of all the farmed land there is. At least 80% of farms in the UK don’t produce very much at all.

In England, just 7% of farms produce over half of the country’s agricultural output – on 30% of its farmland. A little under half (42%) of England’s farms produce a meagre 2% of the total agricultural output, working just 8% of the country’s total land.

In an average year, mixed farming, livestock grazing and cereal farms make a financial loss on what they produce, and much of the income on these farms comes from government subsidy. In all these cases, this subsidy forms the majority of income. Livestock farming is the least profitable sector of all while some of the most profitable sectors like horticulture – producing everything from vegetables to soft fruit and tomatoes – receive very little subsidy.

Land is precious, and there are trade offs between designating enough to grow food and reserving it for other vital functions, like natural wilderness for biodiversity, recreation and carbon storage. This is as true in the UK as it is in the rest of the world.

Some farmers argue that they are the custodians of the land and the wildlife that live on it, but much of the evidence suggests that this role is neglected in the UK. Much farmed soil has been drained of its natural nutrients and now relies on artificial inputs like fertiliser. Rather than offering a haven for struggling bird species, it seems little progress has been made in halting declines in wildlife abundance on farmland.

A grey partridge – this species lives on farmland but has declined by more than 80% in the UK since 1970. Marek Szczepanek/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Agriculture is also a major emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for about 10% of total UK emissions. Some estimates suggest that ten “calories” of fossil fuel energy is needed to produce a single calorie of protein.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy protected the right of people to farm unproductive land for the sake of countryside prosperity. But farming contributes only about 4% to the rural economy of England. Overall, UK agricultural production has stagnated in absolute terms since the late 1980s. This has meant unprofitable and environmentally damaging agriculture is maintained through subsidy. It’s time that a new policy shifted the balance.

Rewild, restore and reopen

Agriculture in the UK uses a vast amount of resources – energy, pesticides, water and mineral fertilisers – compared to the amount of goods it produces. For the productivity of agriculture to match other developed sectors of the economy like construction, agriculture would need to produce five to ten times more from the land it consumes.

Much of this inefficiency is caused by the energy used to produce fertilisers and livestock production. Only about 10-20% of vegetable matter fed to livestock is converted into meat for people to eat. Animals are often fed plant-based food produced on land which could also produce human food. Around 75% of the calories fed to livestock in the UK comes from these sources. As much as ten plant-based meals could be produced for the same material cost as it takes to produce one meat-based meal.

So what’s the alternative? If the UK wants to play its part in feeding the world, keeping people healthy and conserving the environment, there is a very simple way forward. Converting the 50% of land that’s mainly used for agriculture – but which only produces 20% of the UK’s total agricultural output – to other functions, including recreation, storing carbon and enhancing biodiversity.

This could be possible over ten years. It would give enough time for people involved in farming relatively unproductive land to adapt. Some of these people will still be paid from public funds but they could be tasked with rewilding their land to forest or other habitats that can lock away CO₂ and expand wildlife habitat. Some will also be rewarded for opening their land for public access. This will be especially important for land near urban areas as access to nature has serious benefits for human health.

Spending just two hours a week in nature has been shown to benefit a person’s health and mental wellbeing. Lukasz Szmigiel/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Growing food in different ways could also make farming more efficient and it would be needed to make up for the small shortfall in production. Vertical farming, hydroponics and aeroponics are all techniques where food is grown according to the principles of manufacturing. This means it’s produced close to where it’s consumed, no pesticides are needed and all nutrients are closely controlled, reducing pollution.

Mobilising British agriculture to help the UK reach net zero emissions would be an incredibly valuable use of the UK’s landscape. But the main challenge to this is convincing the people who currently farm the relatively unproductive land that they need to be a part of this vision. The National Farmers Union – who represent many of these particular farmers – have done much to try and sustain the status quo, especially for livestock agriculture. Overcoming this social inertia will be hard work, but vital.


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Ian Boyd, Professor of Biology, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three ways farms of the future can feed the planet and heal it too


Nature and technology can combine to help farms of the future nourish the earth and its inhabitants. SimplyDay/Shutterstock

Karen Rial-Lovera, Nottingham Trent University

Intensive agriculture may be nourishing most of the Earth’s inhabitants, but it’s doing the opposite to earth itself. Its dependence on singular crops, heavy ploughing machinery, fossil-fuel based fertilisers and pesticides is degrading our soils wildlife and nutrient cycles, and contributing a quarter of the planet’s unwanted extra heat.

But we’re not powerless to change the future of food. Nature and technological innovation are tackling these problems head on – and if the solutions they’re offering are incorporated on a large scale and used together, a new agricultural revolution could be on its way. Here are three of the most exciting developments that can help farms not just feed the planet, but heal it too.

Crops, trees and livestock in harmony

Several UN reports have highlighted agroecology – farming that mimics the interactions and cycles of plants, animals and nutrients in the natural world – as a path to sustainable food.

The approach uses a wide variety of practices. For example, instead of artificial fertilisers, it improves soil quality by planting nutrient-fixing “cover crops” in between harvest crops, rotating crops across fields each season and composting organic waste. It supports wildlife, stores carbon, and conserves water through the planting of trees and wildflower banks.

It also integrates livestock with crops. This may seem counter-intuitive given their inefficient land use and high emissions. But having a small number of animals grazing land doesn’t have to accelerate global heating.

Grassland captures carbon dioxide. Animals eat the grass, and then return that carbon to the soil as excrement. The nutrients in the excrement and the continuous grazing of grass both help new grass roots to grow, increasing the capacity of the land to capture carbon.

Carefully managed grazing can help the environment, not harm it. Millie Olsen/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Keep too many grazing animals in one place for too long and they eat too much grass and produce too much excrement for the soil to take on, meaning carbon is lost to the atmosphere. But if small numbers are constantly rotated into different fields, the soil can store enough extra carbon to counterbalance the extra methane emitted by livestock’s digestive rumblings.

While this doesn’t make them a carbon sink, livestock bring other benefits to the land. They keep soil naturally fertilised, and can also improve biodiversity by eating more aggressive plants, allowing others to grow. And if local breeds are adopted, they generally don’t require expensive feed and veterinary care, as they’re adapted to local conditions.

Pesticides no more

Pests, diseases and weeds cause almost 40% of crop losses globally – and without care, the figure could rise dramatically. Climate change is shifting where pests and diseases thrive, making it harder for farmers to stay resilient.

Many commonly used herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are now also under pressure to be banned because of their negative effects on the health of humans and wildlife. Even if they’re not, growing resistance to their action is making controlling weeds, pests and diseases increasingly challenging.

Nature is again providing answers here. Farmers are starting to use pesticides derived from plants, which tend to be much less toxic to the surrounding environment.

They’re also using natural enemies to keep threats at bay. Some may act as repellents, “pushing” pests away. For example, peppermint disgusts the flea beetle, a scourge to oilseed rape farmers. Others are “pulls”, attracting pests away from valuable crops. Plants that are attractive for egg-laying but that don’t support the survival of insect larvae are commonly used for this purpose.

Nasturtiums are pest magnets – and they’re edible too. Shutova Elena/Shutterstock

Technology is also offering solutions on this front. Some farmers are already using apps to monitor, warn and predict when pest and diseases will attack crops. Driverless tractors and intelligent sprayers that can target specific weeds or nutritional needs have recently entered the market. Agritech companies are now also developing robots that can scan fields, identify specific plants, and decide whether to use pesticide or to remove a plant mechanically.

In combination, these methods can dramatically reduce agriculture’s reliance on herbicides and pesticides without lowering crop yields. This is important, since the world’s population is set to rise by a quarter in the next three decades.

Small tech, big difference

Soon, technology at an almost impossibly small scale could make a big difference to the way we grow our food. Companies have designed nanoparticles 100,000 times smaller then the width of a human hair that release fertiliser and pesticides slowly but steadily, to minimise their use and maximise crop yields.

New gene-editing techniques will also increasingly use nanomaterials to transfer DNA to plants. These techniques can be used to detect the presence of pests and nutrient deficiencies, or simply improve their resistance to extreme weather and pests. Given that increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events due to global heating are putting the very functioning of the global food system at risk, these advancements could be vital for preventing agricultural collapse.

Nanotechnologies aren’t cheap yet and researchers have yet to conduct rigorous tests of how toxic nanomaterials are to humans and plants, and how durable they are. But should they pass these tests, agriculture will surely follow the path of other industries in adopting the technology on a large scale.

Save for nanotechnology and advanced robots, the above solutions are already in use in many small-scale and commercial farms – just not in combination. Imagine them working in synchrony and suddenly a vision of sustainable agriculture doesn’t seem so far away anymore.


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Karen Rial-Lovera, Senior Lecturer in Agriculture, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coal mines can be closed without destroying livelihoods – here’s how


Owen Douglas, University College Dublin and Kieran Harrahill, University College Dublin

Countries across the globe are trying to wind down coal production. While this will help in the battle against climate change, those communities that have specialised in coal mining may see their local job market decline or be eliminated entirely. Most of these places have mined coal for many generations. Given long-standing traditions, such communities will inevitably resist decarbonisation unless they are given appropriate reassurances regarding their economic and social survival.

We recently researched what did – and didn’t – work in coal regions of Canada, Australia and Germany. Our aim was to identify which policies have been most successful in halting the production of coal without placing the economic burden on coal workers and communities. Our results are now published in the journal Energy Policy.

Workers in extractive industries like mining or oil are often presented as the public face of opposition to environmental protection. However, research has shown that workers in “dirty” industries do tend to support environmentally friendly policies once their immediate interests are not negatively affected.

Furthermore, there is clear evidence that environmental protection and transitioning to the low-carbon economy has the potential to create employment just as much as it can cause unemployment.

The European Trade Union Institute has developed various indicators of a “just transition” away from coal – dialogue, retraining, and so on. In our paper, we used these indicators to identify what worked in our three case study areas.

Talk to each other

We found that active dialogue with communities is key. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, policy is jointly formulated by employees and employers, giving workers a voice which is largely equal to that of industrialists. The proportion of employees on supervisory boards is determined by the number of employees, which means there is one-third employee representation if there are more than 500 employees and parity on the supervisory board if there are more than 2,000 employees. This has meant coal mining has been gradually reduced and now nearly eliminated without major social or political upheaval.

In contrast, Hazelwood coal power station and adjoining mine in Victoria, Australia were closed with minimal consultation with unions or government, and after just five months notice.

Where dialogue does occur, it must be genuine and followed by action. In coal villages in Alberta, Canada, such as Forestburg or Wabamun, the industry did attempt to talk to workers and local officials but the structure of the talks was poorly defined, resulting in workers not trusting the decarbonisation processes.

Jobs after coal

We identified re-employment in “clean” industries as a way to maintain livelihoods. The German approach to re-employment has seen North-Rhine Westphalia reinvent itself as a leader in new energy technologies. Central to this has been a bottom-up approach involving co-operation between workers, communities, employers and government.

Essen, Germany, was once known for its coal. In 2017 it was made ‘European Green Capital’. Lukassek / shutterstock

In Victoria, the dominance of the coal industry has hindered the transition towards a lower-carbon economy. However, the establishment of the Earthworker Cooperative has provided a platform for various affected groups to establish sustainable enterprises such as Australia’s first worker-owned factory, making renewable energy appliances and components. This demonstrates how local communities can create employment and maintain profits within their area without relying on coal.

In Alberta, a number of production facilities are simply shifting from coal to gas. While this shift creates jobs outside the coal sector, it does little to secure employment overall, since natural gas extraction and production requires fewer workers than coal. For example, energy company TransAlta is converting its coal-fired Sundance power plant in Wabamun to natural gas, which means the overall workforce will be cut in half when the layoffs are complete.

Investing in people’s futures

Re-training allows workers to develop the necessary skills to work outside of the coal sector. In North Rhine-Westphalia, training programmes have targeted a number of different sectors including engineering, trades, business and technology. The industrial heartland of the Ruhr area – once the centre of Germany’s coal industry – has six new universities, 15 colleges and 60 research facilities since 1961. This Strukturwandel, or structural change, has developed a highly skilled workforce and demonstrates the potential for economic growth and diversification beyond coal.

Education and training has been made more accessible through subsidised retraining – in Alberta, through the Coal and Electricity Transition Tuition Voucher, and in Victoria through the Training Guarantee. This ensures that retraining does not place an additional burden on those facing redundancy.

Make former coal towns great again

Investing in infrastructure is a further means by which to secure sustainable transitions for workers and their families. In North Rhine-Westphalia and Victoria, government funding has primarily focused on roads and rail alongside investment in community infrastructure such as sports and recreational facilities. This ensures that former mining areas do not remain synonymous with coal production, pollution and socio-economic problems, and makes them a more attractive place for other industries to invest.

Moving away from fossil fuels such as coal is central to achieving emissions targets. This doesn’t have to create huge social unrest. With the goodwill of policymakers and through measures such as those we have identified, decarbonisation strategies can be developed and implemented while maintaining livelihoods for those directly affected.


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Owen Douglas, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Environmental Policy, University College Dublin and Kieran Harrahill, PhD Researcher on the Bioeconomy and Society, University College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Elvis’s voice: like Mario Lanza singing the blues


Adrian York, University of Westminster

Much of the mythology that surrounds Elvis Presley, who died 40 years ago, tends to surround his rags to riches story, his film-star looks, his outrageous stage outfits, his marriage to child bride Priscilla and his descent into overindulgence and drug addiction at his Graceland mansion. In death, Elvis has become to millions a kind of cautionary tale of celebrity, sex and scandal that has at times threatened to engulf his legacy. But perhaps the most important part of that legacy is his voice – a voice that has sold more than a billion records.

Etched into the grooves of all those records was the sound of an extraordinary singer with a range of more than two octaves, wonderful control, tone and vibrato and the ability to cross genres effortlessly. Record producer John Owen Williams says of Elvis:

People talk of his range and power, his ability and ease in hitting the high notes. But the real difference between Elvis and other singers was that he could sing majestically in any style, be it rock, country, or R&B – because he had soul. He sang from the heart. And that is what made him the greatest singer in the history of popular music.

Elvis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was 15. He was immersed in the pop and country music of the time as well as the gospel sounds from his church. Beale Street in Memphis was a centre for blues and R&B so those influences would have also have been a major factor in Elvis’ musical development. As Pricilla was to explain years after his death, young Elvis’ eclectic record collection included:

Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, gospel and black music. There was rhythm and blues artist Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, the Righteous Brothers … and even Duke Ellington and Glen Miller.

But it was their shared love of the star American tenor Mario Lanza, she added, “that was really the link between the two of us”. Lanza’s hugely popular “bel canto” classical tenor approach fused with the roots styles surrounding Elvis created the core of his singing style. Opera star Kiri Te Kanawa told Michael Parkinson that the young Elvis had the greatest voice she had ever heard. The tenor Placido Domingo similarly enthused in an interview in Spanish magazine Hola in 1994: “His was the one voice I wish to have had.” Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel told The New York Times in 2007 that Presley was: “… very classically orientated with his voice and diction and very sincere and wanting to get everything perfect.”

Return to sender: Elvis as everyday American hero. Stamptastic via Shutterstock

Learning process

Elvis’ musical career can be divided into four eras: the early years in the 1950s singing rock’n’roll, country and gospel; the transition to pop in 1960; the renaissance years surrounding the 1968 TV Comeback Special and the still glorious melancholy of his final work in the late 1970s. But what was it about his voice that spoke so directly to so many people across this time span? Cathryn Robson, a senior lecturer in voice and music performance at the University of Westminster, said:

Elvis was technically fearless and instinctive in his use of technique. In his early material in particular it is as if his voice is finding and creating the lyrics as he is singing them.

To really understand Elvis’ sound we have to go back to the recordings. One of the hallmarks of Elvis’ vocal approach is a combination of his large range with the unusual ability to move seamlessly between his tenor and baritone voices. Combined with his range, he has great control over the placement of the voice in the different resonant centres such as the chest, head and the pharynx at the back of the mouth which affects the vocal tone. https://www.youtube.com/embed/gj0Rz-uP4Mk?wmode=transparent&start=0

The rock’n’roll classic Jailhouse Rock from 1957 features a distorted high tenor vocal combined with sloppy lyrical articulation in an explosive performance. The contrast with the pure, clean tone of Elvis’ 1960 rendition of the gospel classic Milky White Way with its great blend of resonance between the chest and head voices is clearly apparent.

In Can’t Help Falling in Love from 1961, Elvis explores the richness of his baritone range moving to a gorgeous light baritone in the bridge of the song. Guitar Man from 1967 – the track that gave the first hint of his mid-60s “comeback” – features a “speak-singing” approach described by Robson as a singer’s “technical holy grail”. https://www.youtube.com/embed/DcJac6OykfM?wmode=transparent&start=0

The 1972 song Burning Love, Elvis’s final hit in his lifetime, features another sound altogether – a tight forceful vocal tone with the voice bursting out of his pharynx over a driving rock track.

Technical prowess

Elvis had a brilliant ability to control the attack and ending of each note. If we listen the 1954 Sun Records recording of Blue Moon of Kentucky we can hear Elvis using a technique known as “glottal onset and offset” – a technique in which the vocal folds in the larynx are closed at the start of a note and closed with extra emphasis at the end of the note – to achieve clarity of attack and an amazing rhythmic bounce in his vocal performance. That ability to drive the rhythm is also present in the 1963 hit Viva Las Vegas in which Elvis effortlessly accents the melody to give a rhythmic shape to each phrase. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ui0EgRsFVN8?wmode=transparent&start=0

The 1960 release of It’s Now Or Never marked Elvis’ transition to pop. The song was a reworking with specially commissioned lyrics of O Sole Mio, a signature hit for Mario Lanza. Alongside the operatic “bel canto” approach Elvis sings the song using a technique known as “devoicing” which creates sudden drops in the dynamic of the vocal. This allows Elvis to mark the emotional fragility in the lyric creating as Robson notes “a mix of assertiveness and vulnerability”.

A crucial element in Elvis’ sonic signature was his use of vibrato. The final Battle Hymn of the Republic’ segment of the 1972 recording of An American Trilogy features the sound of his vocal folds vibrating together in all their glory creating a sound that has been much copied in pop music but never bettered.

Elvis was much more than just a collection of vocal techniques – and as a singer had to overcome the sometimes mediocre material he was saddled with. As his legend fades we will be left with the multiple sounds of his voice: tender, aggressive, loving, uncertain, swaggering, pious and sexual – all delivered with a consummate technical virtuosity that was as much assimilated as studied. https://www.youtube.com/embed/WWVMXLSS1cA?wmode=transparent&start=0

But enough of these words. Go and listen to the recordings for yourselves – or, as Elvis sang in the 1968 movie Live A Little, Love A Little, let’s have A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action.

Adrian York, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music Performance, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tobacco re-imagined as a future fuel source


Algal genes are introduced into tobacco cells that grow into plants. Peggy Lemaux/UC Berkeley

Peggy Lemaux, University of California, Berkeley

Tobacco doesn’t immediately conjure up ideas of fuel for cars and planes. But that’s precisely what a three-year, $4.8m project from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E PETRO (Plants Engineered to Replace Oil) program aims to rectify.

The tobacco plant does not naturally produce high levels of oils in its leaves, so researchers are introducing genes from blue-green and green microalgae, plants and bacteria that would allow the plant to use photosynthesis to directly convert carbon dioxide from the air into oils which could be used as fuel.

Rather than adding to the greenhouse gas problem, this approach, if successful, is a zero-sum game – it uses CO2 from the air rather than producing it. Additionally, by creating oil directly in the plant it does away with the costly processing and conversion required in other biofuel approaches used to turn biological matter into fuels.

But why tobacco? One frequent argument against biofuels is that plants grown for fuel compete with plants grown for food, with negative impacts on food security and prices. Using tobacco, which is widely grown but has never been a food crop, side-steps the food versus fuel argument. What’s more, this approach is made more attractive because tobacco is a high biomass plant, producing large amounts of leaf mass. The more biomass produced, the more oil is available. It will also allow farmers who have been growing tobacco for generations to continue that tradition – but for a different, more meaningful, purpose (and after all, tobacco markets in Europe, the US and most other regions are shrinking).

In order to improve the oil generation in tobacco, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, have turned their attention to certain algae that are able to convert energy from sunlight into oil. The aim is then to introduce certain algal genes into the tobacco genome to add to existing pathways to enable plants to produce biofuels. Another aim is to improve photosynthetic efficiency that would allow tobacco to convert sunlight into energy even more efficiently, and thus lead to larger quantities of oil.

To introduce the new genetic material, the researchers use very small pieces of tobacco leaves to introduce the desired genes. A naturally occurring bacterium, Agrobacterium that can inject genetic material into plant cells, is used. The result is that the new genes become a heritable part of the tobacco plant. The small pieces of leaf tissue are then placed on a culture medium where only those cells containing the introduced genes are able to grow. From the seemingly dead leaf tissue arise leaves and roots from the engineered cells, ultimately resulting in a new plant, every cell of which will contain the new genetic material.

Additionally, colleagues at the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center at the University of Kentucky are examining agricultural methods. Large-scale tobacco growing practices and harvesting infrastructure already exist and the KTRDC researchers are examining how these can be improved to generate greater amounts of biomass. Current improvements are focused on increasing the amount of biomass produced per acre of land, which would result in higher oil production.

A year and a half into the project, the researchers have demonstrated that the engineered plants produce the desired oils and have developed techologies to extract the oils using organic solvents. Current thinking is that bio-refineries could purchase the tobacco to extract its oil-rich content. The crude product could then be sold, as is, to existing oil refineries for use as gasoline, kerosene, or biodiesel, processed separately or blended with fossil crude oil for high volume production.

The challenge for this project now is to increase levels of oil to make the process economically competitive with other fuel-generating approaches. Much more research is needed before tobacco plants produce biofuels at commercial levels and will be available to growers – but preliminary results are encouraging. If successful, this approach provides a shortcut to producing fuels by direct conversion of CO2 into energy-dense liquid biofuels, using energy from the sun. The humble tobacco plant could become a future fuel-generating factory.

Peggy Lemaux, Cooperative Extension Specialist, Lemaux Lab, University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.