The main conclusion I draw from this week’s selection of goodies that that when you really think about things, they are seldom as simple as others would have you believe.
That is what keeps me going.
Ole Bjørn Rekdal’s Academic urban legends is without a doubt one of the best papers I have read in a long time.
Ostensibly it is about the decimal point error that led people to believe that spinach was a good source of iron. I actually remember reading the paper that pointed the error out, in the BMJ, and may be guilty of having written something about it without having done due diligence, or any diligence at all.
Rekdal does a great job of tracing the “error” as far back as possible, at which point it simply vanishes like the boojum it is. But he also points out all the ways in which academic shortcuts, as he magnanimously calls them, can lead to all sorts of difficulties.
I’d make this paper required reading for almost any undergraduate science course. At the very least, you’ll never look at another claim about food or nutrition in quite the same way again.
I just don’t buy the aggregate analysis. If changes in land use and on-farm practices such as fertiliser management are the biggest factors in beef’s carbon footprint, then beef that has been raised on, say, permanent pasture relatively locally has to be be a better bet than beef from, say, Brazil. Of course, eating less beef is also a good idea, but where I get it from does matter to me.
Having said that, though, attempting to optimise your food choices and maintain a good diet is frankly a nightmare. The same authors have amassed a huge amount of data in Environmental impacts of food production. No sooner had I decided to get all my protein from nuts, for the sake of greenhouse gasses, than I was forced to confront how much scarce water that would require.
What’s a person to do? “Eat less meat: if only it were that simple”
It isn’t often you get not one but two obituaries for a food tree in the same week.
Vancouver (Washington, not British Columbia) said farewell to its Old Apple Tree, an English Greening, apparently. Although the article says cuttings have been distributed far and wide, I couldn’t find it in the US apple variety database. Shoots from the ungrafted rootstock will also live on, with one replacing the original.
At the same time, a famous monkey puzzle tree in Cork, Ireland, fell victim to Storm Ellen. Although the article mentions its seeds in passing, they were an important source of food for the Mapuche people of the southern Andes. Spanish invaders called that part of the world Araucanía, from which the monkey puzzle gets its scientific name Araucaria araucana.
In the interests of ensuring that what goes around comes around, I must connect the dots by retelling the story that the monkey puzzle was introduced to British gardens by Archibald Menzies, who was the ship’s botanist on HMS Discovery, captained by none other than George Vancouver. Menzies, the story goes, pocketed some seeds that he was served at a dinner and successfully germinated them.
Chastened, however, by Ole Bjørn Rekdal’s paper, I decided to check the facts. Conclusion: it’s complicated. Menzies is certainly responsible for the tree’s introduction, but it seems unlikely that he purloined the seeds as the story suggests.
As for my interest in monkey puzzles, I leave that as an exercise for the reader.
When I read this piece about One Tasmanian’s 54-year obsession to catalogue all of the world’s edible plants to end malnutrition all I could think was, “has he never heard of Stephen Facciola’s Cornucopia? I should introduce them.”
And, wouldn’t you know it, after last week’s dearth, this week’s glut. I’m just going to leave these two links here for your possible amusement.
Take care, and stay safe.