Lab Grown Meat Gets A Lot Cheaper

Given the vast ethical and environmental problems involved in the raising and slaughtering of livestock, alternatives to meat consumption are sorely needed. Since most people still have a hard time getting on board with vegetarianism, much less veganism, alternatives like like lab-grown meat provide an ideal solution: something as close to the real stuff as possible without all the suffering, pollution, and waste required by factory farms (moreover, the amount of water and grain saved would now go to the millions of humans who need it).

Given the considerable amount of technology involved in cultivating flesh from scratch, early versions of artificial meat were prohibitively expensive, as more $250,000 dollars per pound. But a recent report in Popular Mechanics finds that this idea has gone from proof-of-concept to commercial viability:

There are still serious roadblocks that will keep lab-grown meat from coming to supermarkets anytime soon, but according to experts, the cost of producing it is dropping drastically. According to CNET, the not-quite-vegetarian lab-grown hamburger could now be made for about $27 per pound if production were scaled up to the industrial level.

Still, the taste is … not quite there, and the burgers (built by stem cells) are slow to grow without the use of growth hormones. But as the technology improves, the meat will become closer and closer to market-ready. And unlike a veggie burger, it’s real beef. It just happened to be grown in a petri dish instead of a cow.

While nearly $30 a pound is too steep for most of us, it’s not far off from a point at which a lot of people could seriously consider whether they could, or should, buy lab-grown beef for their next BBQ rather than the old-fashioned grown-on-a-cow stuff.

Again, this is hardly a catch-all solution to all the problems associated with meat production, especially as there will always be purists who distrust or reject the very idea of synthetic meat. But given the strain on our resources and environment — which is likely to grow exponentially as more people add meat to their diets — we may not have a choice but to continue building upon this solution.

What are your thoughts?

Lessons From The World’s Blue Zones

One of the major motivations to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and engage in healthy lifestyles is to enjoy a long and quality life. Most people want to enjoy as many fruitful and productive years as possible, and thankfully advances in medicine and nutrition are making it easier than ever.

But the key to longevity and productive old age may be a lot simpler and more accessible, if the world’s “Blue Zones” are any indication. These are regions in the world – Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – that are known for having the highest number of centenarians (those living at or past 100) in the world.

In fact, not only do these Blue Zoners live long lives, but perhaps more importantly, they enjoy fairly robust mental and physical faculties: despite their advanced age, they are active, alert, happy, and lacking the diseases and disabilities that usually afflict people decades younger, let alone at or near 100.

So what do people in these communities – which span different cultures, climates, and environments – do to stay so healthy for so long?

Well, they each have their differences: for example, Sardinians consume a lot of fava beans and red wine, residents of Loma Linda, California are known for eating copious amounts of nuts and legumes, and Okinawans heavily utilize the spice turmeric in their diet.

This suggests that there are different paths to having a long and healthy life. But the similarities are what are especially informative. Here is a breakdown from NPR:

Ikaria, Greece

You may remember this Blue Zone from Buettner’s wonderful 2012 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Island Where People Forget To Die.”

As we’ve reported, health researchers have long praised the Mediterranean diet for promoting brain and physical health and keeping chronic diseases at bay. So what makes the diet of the people on Ikaria, a small island in the Aegean Sea, so special?

“Their tradition of preparing the right foods, in the right way, I believe, has a lot to do with the island’s longevity,” writes Buettner.

And “what set it apart from other places in the region was its emphasis on potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit and relatively small amounts of fish.”

Ikaria has a few more “top longevity foods:” feta cheese, lemons and herbs like sage and marjoram that Ikarians use in their daily tea. What’s missing that we usually associate with Greece? Lamb. The Ikarians do eat some goat meat, but not often.

Okinawa, Japan

Buettner calls the islands of Okinawa a kind of “Japanese Hawaii” for their laid-back vibe, beaches and fabulous weather. Okinawa also happens to have one of the highest centenarian ratios in the world: About 6.5 in 10,000 people live to 100 (compare that with 1.73 in 10,000 in the U.S.)

Centenarians on Okinawa have lived through a lot of upheaval, so their dietary stories are more complicated than some of the other Blue Zones. As Buettner writes, many healthful Okinawan “food traditions foundered mid-century” as Western influence brought about changes in food habits. After 1949, Okinawans began eating fewer healthful staples like seaweed, turmeric and sweet potato and more rice, milk and meat.

Still, Okinawans have nurtured the practice of eating something from the land and the sea every day. Among their “top longevity foods” are bitter melons, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea and shitake mushrooms.

Sardinia, Italy

On this beautiful island in the middle of the Mediterranean, the ratio of centenarian men to women is one to one. That’s quite unusual, because in the rest of the world, it’s five women to every one man who live that long.

The sharp pecorino cheese made from the milk of grass-fed sheep in Sardinia, has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Buettner writes that the Sardinians explain their exceptional longevity with their assets such as “clean air,” “locally produced wine,” or because they “make love every Sunday.” But when Buettner brought along a researcher to dig deeper, they found that pastoralism, or shepherding livestock from the mountains to the plains, was most highly correlated with reaching 100.

So what are those ancient Sardinian shepherds eating? You guessed it: goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese — some 15 pounds of cheese per year, on average. Also, a moderate amount of carbs to go with it, like flat bread, sourdough bread and barley. And to balance those two food groups out, Sardinian centenarians also eat plenty of fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea and wine from Grenache grapes.

Loma Linda, Calif.

There’s a Blue Zone community in the U.S.? We were as shocked to learn this as you may be. Its members are Seventh-day Adventists who shun smoking, drinking and dancing and avoid TV, movies and other media distractions.

Tofu links sold in Loma Linda, Calif. The Blue Zones research shows that adherents of the Adventist diet, which is mostly plant-based, have lowest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. and very low rates of obesity.
David Mclain/Courtesy of Blue Zones

They also follow a “biblical” diet focused on grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, and drink only water. (Some of them eat small amounts of meat and fish.) Sugar is taboo, too. As one Loma Linda centenarian tells Buettner: “I’m very much against sugar except natural sources like fruit, dates or figs. I never eat refined sugar or drink sodas.”

Gary Fraser, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Loma Linda University and an Adventist himself, has found in studies that Adventists who follow the religion’s teachings lived about 10 years longer than people who didn’t. Another key insight? Pesco-vegetarians in the community, who ate a plant-based diet with up to one serving of fish a day, lived longer than vegan Adventists.

Their top foods include avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and soy milk.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

We’d love to be invited for dinner by a centenarian here, where they #putaneggonit all the time. One delicious-sounding meal Buettner was served by a 99-year-old woman (who’s now 107) consisted of rice and beans, garnished with cheese and cilantro, on corn tortillas, with an egg on top.

As Buettner writes, “The big secret of the Nicoyan diet was the ‘three sisters’ of Mesoamerican agriculture: beans, corn and squash.” Those three staples, plus papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms (a small Central American oval fruit high in vitamins A and C), are what fuel the region’s elders over the century.

Here is a visual of the data from three of the earliest discovered Blue Zones (absent Nicoya and Ikaria, though they too meet at the middle):

Source: Wikimedia

So to recap: people in Blue Zones tend to enjoy varied diets made up of fresh and whole foods, particularly greens, nuts, herbs, and seafood; they consume portions that are often smaller than average, with an emphasis on eating only enough to be satiated (rather than stuffed); and they tend to eat little meat proportionally, aside from lean cuts and seafood.

Beyond diet, Blue Zone residents engage in regular moderate exercise – usually walking, gardening, or yard work – and also maintain active social and community lives, especially with their families. They maintain an easy-going and slow pace of life, often setting aside time to relax and de-stress. Smoking is also virtually nonexistent.

In short, the people living in Blue Zones work on all dimensions of a healthy life: not just a healthy diet, but a modest and light one; strong social ties with an even stronger, life-affirming dedication to family and the community; and an appreciation of the finer things in life, like a nice walk or time to unwind, which does wonders for mental health.

Though there is still a lot of research to be done, the evidence seems clear: a long and healthy life doesn’t require anything fancy or technological, but the sort of diet and values that are accessible to most of us — at least up to a point.

It is telling that among the handful of similarities common to all the Blue Zones was strong family and social ties and healthy community life. I think it says as much about the importance of building a good and generous society, and what such a relatively prosperous society may look like, then its does about the importance diet (which is just one dimension of overall health and wellness).

Just as physical and mental health are intricately intertwined, so too are individual and community health. It is much easier and more feasible to live a long and healthy life when your society provides the sort of stability, socioeconomic support, and environment to facilitate it all.

When your economic system requires you to work long, punishing hours at too fast of a pace to relax; when your food distribution system makes fresh produce expensive or inaccessible, and conversely makes less healthy processed food plentiful in its place; and when your society lacks mutually beneficial values of generosity and altruism, it is a lot harder for most people to maximize the potential of their minds and bodies.

Here is hoping that Blue Zones become less of an anomaly and more of a model to emulate and expand elsewhere. We see clear examples of the sorts of behaviors and

Some Consolation This Tax Season

Well, that depends on your point of view. While tax season has come and gone in the United States, if you are still feeling the sting and contempt wrought by taxes — as so many Americans do year-round — perhaps you will feel more fortunate following the recent findings by Pew Research Center, which found that U.S. citizens are among the least-taxed of the developed world.

Here is a quick analysis from the Washington Post

The graph above shows where Americans rank in terms of average income taxes and mandatory social insurance contributions as a percentage of gross income. It compares the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, excluding Mexico and adding in Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania Malta and Romania.

The U.S. consistently ranks toward the bottom of the group, indicating that Americans spend a smaller portion of their income on taxes than people in many advanced countries.

Only South Korea and Chile have a lower tax rate than the U.S. (Mexico, if included, would be dead-last in tax rates).

Here is the more comprehensive assessment of the data by Pew itself, which notes some caveats as well:

Much of the difference in relative tax burdens among different countries is due to the taxes that fund social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. These taxes tend to be higher in other developed nations than they are in the U.S. Take that married couple referred to above: In 20 of the 39 countries studied, they paid more in social-insurance taxes than in income taxes. The U.S. had the 11th-lowest social-insurance tax rate for such couples among the countries we examined.

Like pretty much anything about taxes, there are caveats with the OECD data. The biggest caveat, of course, is that our comparisons don’t take into account what citizens receive from their governments in either direct or indirect benefits as a result of these different tax structures. We’re only looking at what citizens pay into the system – and even then, just a portion.

For instance, these figures don’t include taxes paid at the state, provincial or local level (such as sales and property taxes in the U.S.), nor do they include other national taxes, such as gasoline and cigarette taxes in the U.S. or value-added taxes in dozens of other countries. And they include only the individual portion of social-insurance taxes, not anything paid by employers. (In the U.S., for instance, employers and workers both pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.)

Granted, all this is only consoling when you ignore the fact that while Americans are under-taxed by global standards, the system is nonetheless widely perceived to be unfair and unequal.

None of this is likely to shift Americans’ opinions about the fairness, or lack thereof, of their own tax system. In the Pew Research Center report, for instance, some six-in-ten Americans said they were bothered a lot by the feeling that “some wealthy people” and “some corporations” don’t pay their fair share. And in a prior Fact Tank post we discussed the data behind the U.S.’s progressive income tax system: A small number of high earners pay the most income tax. According to IRS data, taxpayers with $250,000 or more in adjusted gross income (AGI) accounted for 2.4% of all individual tax returns, 25.9% of total AGI, 32.2% of total taxable income, and 48.9% of total individual tax receipts.

Indeed, this perception is grounded in reality: once one factors in state and local taxes, the system overall is quite regressive (that is, it disproportionately impacts the poor and middle class).

Needless to say, this is hardly comforting in a country facing high inequality, growing poverty, soaring tuition and healthcare costs, and numerous other socioeconomic ills resulting, in part, from a lack of public investment in such services.

How Machines Will Conquer The Economy

From Zeynep Tufecki over at the New York Times:

But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis.

Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace is as much about power and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.

This is the way technology is being used in many workplaces: to reduce the power of humans, and employers’ dependency on them, whether by replacing, displacing or surveilling them. Many technological developments contribute to this shift in power: advanced diagnostic systems that can do medical or legal analysis; the ability to outsource labor to the lowest-paid workers, measure employee tasks to the minute and “optimize” worker schedules in a way that devastates ordinary lives. Indeed, regardless of whether unemployment has gone up or down, real wages have been stagnant or declining in the United States for decades. Most people no longer have the leverage to bargain.

I can think of no better a justification for implementing a guaranteed basic income than this trend. How much longer until we run out of sustainable employment to support our population? Already, in the United States and elsewhere, most fast-growing sectors are low paying service jobs like fast-food and retail; even the professions that should ostensibly pay well, such as those requiring degrees or experience, increasingly do not.

Most people are already running out of alternatives for liveable, meaningful work — and now mechanization and automation threaten to undermine what comparatively little remains. I think this says a lot more about the social, economic, and moral failings of our society than it does about technology.

Why should everything be hyper-efficient at the expense of workers — who are also consumers and thus drivers of the economy? Why should we have a business culture, or indeed an economic and social structure, whereby those at the top must ruthlessly undercut the leverage and well-being of everyone else, whom they nonetheless depend on? If we want to optimize production and cost-effectiveness, which are of course not bad aims, then why not do so while providing some alternative means of survival for those who get displaced?

How we respond to this trend will speak volumes about our values, priorities, and moral grounding.

A Vivid Visualization of Inequality in America

The rise of wealth and income inequality is a (thankfully) widespread topic in media and public discourse, so by now most readers will no doubt be familiar with the various charts, videos, and graphs that translate it for our viewing pleasure.

But the Washington Post, citing an NPR column, presents an even more dramatic approach to showing the growth of inequality in the United States:

Source: Quoctrung Bui/NPR

Columnist Matt O’Brien breaks down what the data mean and the context of this sobering development:

It compares how much, in inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars, average households in the bottom 90 and top 1 percent have made each year. Now, it’s hard to tell because everyone was making less back then, but inequality really was high during the 1920s. The bottom 90 didn’t make much progress then, while the top 1 rode the, well, roaring stock market to even higher highs. All that was erased, though, during the Great Depression. The top 1 got wiped out when stocks fell almost 90 percent, and the bottom 90 did too when unemployment shot up to 25 percent. It was a bad time to be rich or poor, but mostly poor.

But the New Deal set the stage for a new society. FDR made it easier for workers to unionize, and started taxing the rich at confiscatory levels. It didn’t hurt that first the war and later the baby boom put everyone back to work. The result, as you can see above, was the creation of the American middle class. Between 1940 and 1970, the bottom 90 percent went from making, on average, $12,000 to $33,000. The top 1 percent, meanwhile, were stuck making “only” $300,000 this whole time. It’s what economists call the “Great Compression,” and it was a story about workers having the bargaining power to ask for higher wages and the rich not having much reason to ask for higher wages themselves. That’s because top marginal tax rates were so high—at their peak, 94 percent—that it wasn’t worth it for CEOs to pay themselves that much more. Besides, that was just something executives didn’t do back then. George Romney, for example, turned down a $100,000 bonus in 1960—and those are unadjusted dollars—because he didn’t think anyone needed to make that much more.

This didn’t last. It all started to unravel in the 1970s. Inflation ate up everyone’s pay, so that incomes for the top 1 and bottom 90 percent both stagnated. But it wasn’t just a monetary problem. It was an educational one, too. Starting in the 1930s, America had led the way with universal high school, but by the 1970s this progress had petered out. Making matters worse was that the rest of the world was already catching up—especially Germany and Japan—and forcing our workers to compete against theirs.

Ronald Reagan’s answer to all this was to cut taxes for the rich and deregulate the economy. The idea was to give the top 1 percent the freedom and incentive to work more and invest more, which was supposed to make the economy grow more—and, yes, trickle down to everybody else. It didn’t. Now part of that was because U.S. workers had to compete against even more low-wage workers overseas after the Berlin Wall came down and billions of people joined the global economy. Another was that new technologies like the internet helped the people at the top more than those at the bottom by creating winner-take-all markets. But a big part of it, like we said, was policy. Wall Street, in particular, went from being a relatively sleepy sector to a wheeling-and-dealing one where a couple of good bonuses could make you set for life. Indeed, more than 60 percent of the increasing share of income going to the top 1 percent came from CEOs and financiers who make most of their money in the markets.

It turns out, though, that even if a rising tide lifts all boats, most people can’t afford a boat. The bottom 90 percent, in other words, haven’t done much better the last 30 years, even as the top 1 percent have created a second Gilded Age. The only exception was the late 1990s—highlighted in yellow—when a tight labor market gave workers the bargaining power that unions used to. But other than that, it’s been a tale of two economies. There’s the financial one, where the top 1 percent have tied their fortunes to the booming stock market, and the real one, where everyone else is struggling not to fall behind. Now it’s true that the picture isn’t as bleak if you account for the fact that, as people marry later and have fewer kids, households aren’t as big as they used to be. And it’s also true that government benefits from Social Security to Medicare to food stamps and unemployment insurance help out the bottom 90 percent too. But it’s also true that even with these caveats, a growing economy hasn’t really translated into growing incomes for median households the last 15 years.

The change in fortunes between the bulk of society and a relative handful of families could not be more stark.

The 20th Century’s First Genocide

If you ask most people what the first modern genocide was, they would point to either the Holocaust carried out over the course of the 1940s, or the increasingly better-known Armenian Genocide of that began in 1915.

But the first systematic mass murder of an entire people to kick off an unfortunate slew of others began in a backwater German colony in southeast Africa: the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, also known as the Namibian Genocide.

As The Guardian points out, not only did this extermination campaign have all the characteristics of its successors (though the term genocide would not be invented until decades later), but it was disturbing prescient:

The Namibian genocide, 1904-1909, was not only the first of the 20th century; in so many ways, it also seemed to prefigure the later horrors of that troubled century. The systematic extermination of around 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama was the work both of German soldiers and colonial administrators; banal, desk-bound killers. The most reliable figures estimate 90,000 people were killed.

In the case of the Herero, an official, written order – the extermination order – was issued by the German commander, explicitly condemning the entire people to annihilation. After military attempts to bring this about had been thwarted, the liquidation of the surviving Herero, along with the Nama people, was continued in concentration camps, a term that was used at the time for the archipelago of facilities the Germans built across Namibia. Some of the victims of the Namibian genocide were transported to those camps in cattle trucks and the bodies of some of the victims were subjected to pseudoscientific racial examinations and dissections.

Granted, the eradication of entire peoples is a sadly regular occurrence in human history: though a modern phenomenon both conceptually and etymologically, one could find genocide-style killings going back millennia, from the Assyrian Empire‘s conquests in the first half of the first millennium BCE, to the complete destruction of Carthage by Rome following the Third Punic War, the consequences of the Mongol invasions, and the various resettlements and forced migrations of indigenous inhabitants during the age of colonization; some have suggested that even Neanderthals were driven into extinction, in part, by human violence.

It appears genocide is less a 20th century development and more a result of an inherently human moral failing. If the 21st century is any indication, this scourge upon our species has yet to disappear, even if we have gotten better at identifying at condemning it on principle.

Video: How Cinnamon is Harvested

Like so many other staple foodstuffs, cinnamon (also known as cassia) is taken for granted. Most people have no idea that two-thirds of the world supply comes from Indonesia, specifically the Kerinci Valley on the island of Sumatra.

This short two-minute video shows how this sustainable crop is harvested, in traditional means unchanged for centuries.

There is a lot of artistry involved in the whole process, not to mention a tremendous amount of time and hard work. In addition to making me crave cinnamon (which may have several positive health benefits to boot), the video made me appreciate how much human labor goes into all the food, spices, and other commodities we see as plentiful and widely accessible.

Hat tip to Gizmodo for sharing the video.

Iran’s Ancient Ice Houses

A yakhchal (“ice pit”) is an ancient type of cooler invented in Iran around 400 B.C.E. to store ice for the summer. The ice would either be brought in from nearby mountains during the winter, or more commonly would be channeled through a qanat (aqueduct) that would run along a wall built close to the yakhchal.

Credit: John Moore / Getty / Business Insider

During the cool winter season, the shadow of the wall would freeze the water more quickly, and the ice would be taken to the yakhchal, which had thick walls composed of a special mortar call sarooj (composed of specific proportions of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash). This substance was resistant to heat transfer and almost impenetrable to water. Some yakhchal had windcatchers built at the top to bring down the temperature inside on hot days.

The stored ice would be used to chill treats make a special dessert called faloodeh, one of the world’s earliest kinds of ice cream (made of thin corn starch noodles mixed in a semi-frozen syrup made from sugar and rose water, sometimes with lime or ground pistachios added).

As a testament to their superb engineering, many yakhchal built hundreds of years ago are still around today, like the one pictured above from the town of Abarqu, or the following from Meybod.

Credit: Wikimedia

The World’s Best Passports

Well, by best, I mean in terms of providing visa-free access (although you can see a discussion regarding stylistic and aesthetic appeal here).

As seasoned travellers know better than anyone, certain countries require you to obtain a visa in order to enter; this document is separate from a passport, which is issued by governments to certify the identity and nationality of an individual for international travel.

Thus, the most convenient and desirable passports are those that do not necessitate a visa for permission to enter another country; in essence, the nation that the passport represents has special privileges to come and go without needing to obtain any additional documents (the difficulty or ease of which varies from government to government)

Arton Capital, a financial advisory firm, has created a colorful and interactive “Passport Index” that ranks passports by how many countries they give you access to without a visa.

Here is a brief breakdown of the results by the Washington Post (Note that there are a total of 193 recognized countries (not including a dozen or so entities whose sovereignty or recognized independence is disputed):

The ranking puts the U.S. and U.K. passports first, giving access to 147 countries without an advanced visa. France, South Korea and Germany are second, with access to 145 countries, followed by Italy and Sweden in third; Denmark, Singapore, Finland, Japan, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in fourth; and Switzerland in fifth.

Advanced economies dominate the top of the list. Hong Kong comes in at 11, while Argentina and Israel are ranked 16th. Brazil ranks 17th, Mexico 22nd, the Russian Federation 35th, and China 45th.

The least desirable passports according to this ranking are from the Solomon Islands, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sao Tome and Principe and the Palestinian Territories. They rank in 80th place, giving access to just 20 countries each without an advance visa.

Perhaps it is not surprising that countries with the most economic and diplomatic heft on the world stage have managed to provide their citizens with the easiest means to travel.

Indeed, as the Post observes, whether or not a country’s citizens need visas to travel says a lot about the state’s influence or international likeability.

Countries that are allies often offer each others’ citizens a quick visa on arrival. For countries that are not so friendly, a visitor may have to provide entry and exit information, a letter of invitation, and even list all of the clubs they belonged to in high school — as well as paying a hefty fee.

Indeed, it is not unusual for nationals of one country to seek the citizenship of another country, if only because it may help open door to other countries that might not otherwise be as accessible.

Aside from being a nifty guide, the Passport Index also has a nice aesthetic quality to it, as you can view what each passport looks like in terms of color and design. There is also something neat about organizing the world’s passports by color (red, green, blue, and black).