Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Meatless Burger

The Impossible Burger: Inside the Strange Science of the Fake Meat That 'Bleeds

Wired Matt Simon 9/20/17

The cook, complete with hair net, lays the red patty down on the grill and gives it a press with a spatula. And there, that unmistakable sizzle and smell. She flips the patty and gives it another press, lets it sit, presses it, and pulls it off the grill and onto a bun.

This is no diner, and this is no ordinary cook. She's wearing not an apron, but a lab coat and safety goggles, standing in a lab-kitchen hybrid in a Silicon Valley office park. Here a company called Impossible Foods has over the last six years done something not quite impossible, but definitely unlikely: Engineering a plant-based burger that smells, tastes, looks, and even feels like ground beef.
There are other veggie burgers on the market, of course, but Impossible Foods wants to sell consumers a real meat analog—one that requires a very different kind of engineering than your Boca or black bean burgers. So WIRED wants to take you on the deepest dive yet into the science behind the Impossible Burger.

Biting into an Impossible Burger is to bite into a future in which humanity has to somehow feed an exploding population and not further imperil the planet with ever more livestock. Because livestock, and cows in particular, go through unfathomable amounts of food and water (up to 11,000 gallons a year per cow) and take up vast stretches of land. And their gastrointestinal methane emissions aren’t doing the fight against global warming any favors either (cattle gas makes up 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide).

This is the inside story of the engineering of the Impossible Burger, the fake meat on a mission to change the world with one part soy plant, one part genetically engineered yeast—and one part activism. As it happens, though, you can’t raise hell in the food supply without first raising a few eyebrows.

The Lean, Mean Heme Machine


What makes a burger a burger? The smell, for one, and taste and texture, all working in concert to create something animal. It’s loaded with all manner of proteins that interact with each other in unique ways, creating a puzzle of sorts. But Impossible Foods thinks the essence of a meat lies in a compound called heme, which gives ground beef its color and vaguely metallic taste—thanks to iron in the heme molecule. In blood, heme lives in a protein called hemoglobin; in muscle, it's in myoglobin.

Interestingly, you’ll find globins (a class of proteins) not just across the animal kingdom, but in plants as well. Soy roots, for example, carry a version called leghemoglobin, which also carries heme. Leghemoglobin in soy and myoglobin in meat share a similar 3-D structure consisting of what's known as an alpha helical globin fold, which wraps around the heme.

So what if you could extract the heme from a plant to obtain that secret ingredient in ground beef? Well, the main problem, Impossible Foods found, is that you'd need a heck of a lot of soy: One acre of soybeans would yield just a kilogram of soy leghemoglobin.

Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown figured out how to hack together a better way. Technicians take genes that code for the soy leghemoglobin protein and insert them into a species of yeast called Pichia pastoris. They then feed the modified yeast sugar and minerals, prompting it to grow and replicate and manufacture heme with a fraction of the footprint of field-grown soy. With this process, Impossible Foods claims it produces a fake burger that uses a 20th of the land required for feeding and raising livestock and uses a quarter of the water, while producing an eighth of the greenhouse gases (based on a metric called a life cycle assessment).

Now, engineering a “beef” burger from scratch is of course about more than just heme, which Impossible Foods bills as its essential ingredient. Ground beef features a galaxy of different compounds that interact with each other, transforming as the meat cooks. To piece together a plant-based burger that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, you need to identify and recreate as many of those flavors as possible.

To do this, Impossible Foods is using what's known as a gas chromatography mass spectrometry system. This heats a sample of beef, releasing aromas that bind to a piece of fiber. The machine then isolates and identifies the individual compounds responsible for those aromas. “So we will now have kind of a fingerprint of every single aroma that is in beef,” says Celeste Holz-Schietinger, principal scientist at Impossible Foods. “Then we can say, How close is the Impossible Burger? Where can we make improvements and iterate to identify how to make each of those particular flavor compounds?”

This sort of deconstruction is common in food science, a way to understand exactly how different compounds produce different flavors and aromas. "In theory, if you knew everything that was there in the right proportions, you could recreate from the chemicals themselves that specific flavor or fragrance," says Staci Simonich, a chemist at Oregon State University.

Then there’s the problem of texture. Nothing feels quite like ground beef. So Impossible Foods isolates individual proteins in the meat. “Then as we identify what those particular protein properties are, we go and look at plants for plant proteins that have those same properties,” says Holz-Schietinger. Plant proteins tend to taste more bitter, so Impossible Foods has to develop proteins with a cleaner taste.

What they’ve landed on in the current iteration is a surprising mix. Ingredients include wheat protein, to give the burger that firmness and chew. And potato protein, which allows the burger to hold water and transition from a softer state to a more solid state during cooking. For fat, Impossible Foods uses coconut with the flavor sucked out. And then of course you need the leghemoglobin for heme, which drives home the flavor of “meat.”

For something that so accurately mimics the taste and look and feel and smell of meat (and trust us, it does), the Impossible Burger is actually not all that complex. “Earlier iterations were much more complex because we didn't fully understand it,” says Holz-Schietinger (experiments with cucumber and the famously smelly durian fruit didn't ... pan out, nor did trying to replicate the different connective tissues of a cow). “Now we understand which each component drives each sensory experience.”

At the moment, the Impossible Burger is only available in select restaurants, though Impossible Foods just opened a plant with the idea of increasing production from 300,000 pounds a month to a million. But as they focus on expansion, some critics are raising questions about the burger of tomorrow.

Government, Meet the Future. The Future, Government


In 2014, Impossible Foods filed what’s known as a GRAS notice, or “generally recognized as safe,” with the FDA. In it, the company listed the reasons it considered soy leghemoglobin safe for humans to consume. Leghemoglobin, they argued, is chemically similar to other globins considered safe, so it should carry the same confidence with consumers. Food companies aren’t required to tell the FDA when they’re introducing new ingredients, and filing this sort of self GRAS determination is not mandatory, but Impossible Foods says it did so in the name of transparency.

“Leghemoglobin is structurally similar to proteins that we consume all the time,” says Impossible Foods’ chief science officer David Lipman. "But we did the toxicity studies anyway and they showed that that was safe.” They compared the protein to known allergens, for instance, and found no matches. The company also got the OK from a panel of experts, including food scientist Michael Pariza at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

But the company didn't get the blessing it was looking for from the FDA. As detailed in documents FOIA'ed by environmental groups and published by The New York Times in August, the FDA questioned the company’s conclusions. “FDA believes that the arguments presented, individually and collectively, do not establish the safety of SLH [soy leghemoglobin] for consumption, nor do they point to a general recognition of safety…,” the FDA wrote in a memo. That is not to say the FDA concluded leghemoglobin to be unsafe, just that it had questions.

The FDA also noted that the company's engineered yeast doesn't just produce leghemoglobin—it also produces 40 other normally occurring yeast proteins that end up in the burger, which "raises further question on how the safety argument could be made based solely on SLH." Impossible Foods insists these proteins are safe, and notes that the yeast it has engineered is non-toxic, and that its toxicity studies examined the whole leghemoglobin ingredient.

Impossible Foods withdrew its GRAS notice in November 2015 to perform a new study. They fed rats more than 200 times the amount of the leghemoglobin ingredient than the average American would consume if the ground beef in their diet—an average of 25 grams a day—was replaced with Impossible's fake meat (adjusted for weight). They found no adverse effects.

Meanwhile, the Impossible Burger is on the market, which has some environmental groups peeved. That and there's the larger question of whether GRAS notifications should be voluntary or mandatory. “The generally recognized as safe exception was meant for common food ingredients, not for the leading-edge products, especially the innovative like the leghemoglobin,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, which was not involved in the FOIA. “We don't think it should be a voluntary review, we don't think the law allows it.” Accordingly, the group is suing the FDA over the agency’s GRAS process.

Others are concerned that leghemoglobin—again, a new ingredient in the food supply, since humans don't typically eat soy roots—hasn’t gone through enough testing to prove it’s safe, and agree with the FDA that Impossible Foods’ GRAS notification came up short. “The point of some of us that are being critical of this is not that everything that's engineered is unsafe or anything like that,” says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union, which was also not involved in the FOIA. “It's like, look, any new food ingredient, some new food additive, of course it should go through a safety assessment process.”

Hansen takes issue with the idea that leghemoglobin is similar to other edible globins are therefore safe. “As the FDA pointed out in their response, just because proteins have similar functions or similar three-dimensional structures, doesn't mean that they're similar," Hansen says. "They can have a very different amino acid sequence, and just slight changes can have impacts."

This is what happens when the future of food lands on the government’s plate. The central question: Should Americans trust companies to do their own food safety testing, or should that always be the job of the feds?

The reality is, different kinds of modified foods attract different levels of regulatory attention. "It is a patchwork system with little rhyme or reason," says crop scientist Wayne Parrott of the University of Georgia. "It depends on what is done, how it is done, and its intended use." You hear plenty about the crops, and most certainly about the long hullabaloo over that GM salmon. But not engineered microorganisms, which are extremely common. Why?

"Out of sight, out of mind," says Parrott. "And people also get more emotional over animals than they do over other things. With the salmon it was political. Very, very political."

Really, there's no inherent danger in genetically modifying a food. After all, the FDA wasn't raising its voice about soy leghemoglobin because it comes from genetically engineered yeast. The agency's job is to determine the safety of foods. "Any risk that's associated comes from traits," Parrott says. "It doesn't come from the way you put those traits in there."

This is only the beginning of a new era of high-tech, genetically engineered foods. Because if we want to feed a rapidly expanding species on a planet that stays the same size, we’re going to need to hack the food supply. Our crops will have to weather a climate in chaos. "We want to improve efficiency so we can feed 9 billion people without more land, without more water, without more fertilizer or pesticides," says Parrott.

And humanity will sure as hell have to cut back on its meat consumption. “We'll change the world more dramatically than any company possibly in history has ever done it,” says Impossible Foods founder Brown. “Because when you look at the impact of the system we're replacing, almost half of the land area of Earth is being occupied by the animal farming industry, grazing, or feed crop production.” That system, of course, will not give up ground quietly.

But who knows. Maybe shocking the system isn’t so impossible after all.

The Great Nutrient Collapse

The atmosphere is literally changing the food we eat, for the worse. And almost nobody is paying attention.
 Geoff Johnson for POLITICO
Irakli Loladze is a mathematician by training, but he was in a biology lab when he encountered the puzzle that would change his life. It was in 1998, and Loladze was studying for his Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Against a backdrop of glass containers glowing with bright green algae, a biologist told Loladze and a half-dozen other graduate students that scientists had discovered something mysterious about zooplankton.

Zooplankton are microscopic animals that float in the world’s oceans and lakes, and for food they rely on algae, which are essentially tiny plants. Scientists found that they could make algae grow faster by shining more light onto them—increasing the food supply for the zooplankton, which should have flourished. But it didn’t work out that way. When the researchers shined more light on the algae, the algae grew faster, and the tiny animals had lots and lots to eat—but at a certain point they started struggling to survive. This was a paradox. More food should lead to more growth. How could more algae be a problem?

Loladze was technically in the math department, but he loved biology and couldn’t stop thinking about this. The biologists had an idea of what was going on: The increased light was making the algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving.

Loladze used his math training to help measure and explain the algae-zooplankton dynamic. He and his colleagues devised a model that captured the relationship between a food source and a grazer that depends on the food. They published that first paper in 2000. But Loladze was also captivated by a much larger question raised by the experiment: Just how far this problem might extend.

“What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze recalled in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

In the outside world, the problem isn’t that plants are suddenly getting more light: It’s that for years, they’ve been getting more carbon dioxide. Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow. If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae—junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack—then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?

What Loladze found is that scientists simply didn’t know. It was already well documented that CO2levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat. For the next 17 years, as he pursued his math career, Loladze scoured the scientific literature for any studies and data he could find. The results, as he collected them, all seemed to point in the same direction: The junk-food effect he had learned about in that Arizona lab also appeared to be occurring in fields and forests around the world. “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

He published those findings just a few years ago, adding to the concerns of a small but increasingly worried group of researchers who are raising unsettling questions about the future of our food supply. Could carbon dioxide have an effect on human health we haven’t accounted for yet? The answer appears to be yes—and along the way, it has steered Loladze and other scientists, directly into some of the thorniest questions in their profession, including just how hard it is to do research in a field that doesn’t quite exist yet.

IN AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH, it’s been understood for some time that many of our most important foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has measurably dropped over the past 50 to 70 years.

Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.

In 2004, a landmark study of fruits and vegetables found that everything from protein to calcium, iron and vitamin C had declined significantly across most garden crops since 1950. The researchers concluded this could mostly be explained by the varieties we were choosing to grow.

Loladze and a handful of other scientists have come to suspect that’s not the whole story and that the atmosphere itself may be changing the food we eat. Plants need carbon dioxide to live like humans need oxygen. And in the increasingly polarized debate about climate science, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. Before the industrial revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century—essentially twice the amount that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors.

If you’re someone who thinks about plant growth, this seems like a good thing. It has also been useful ammunition for politicians looking for reasons to worry less about the implications of climate change. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, recently argued that people shouldn’t be so worried about rising CO2 levels because it’s good for plants, and what’s good for plants is good for us.

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth,” the Texas Republican wrote. “This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food.”

But as the zooplankton experiment showed, greater volume and better quality might not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they might be inversely linked. As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc.

In 2002, while a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, Loladze published a seminal research paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a leading journal, arguing that rising CO2 and human nutrition were inextricably linked through a global shift in the quality of plants. In the paper, Loladze complained about the dearth of data: Among thousands of publications he had reviewed on plants and rising CO2, he found only one that looked specifically at how it affected the balance of nutrients in rice, a crop that billions of people rely on. (The paper, published in 1997, found a drop in zinc and iron.)
Loladze’s paper was first to tie the impact of CO2 on plant quality to human nutrition. But he also raised more questions than he answered, arguing that there were fundamental holes in the research. If these nutritional shifts were happening up and down the food chain, the phenomenon needed to be measured and understood.

Part of the problem, Loladze was finding, lay in the research world itself. Answering the question required an understanding of plant physiology, agriculture and nutrition―as well as a healthy dollop of math. He could do the math, but he was a young academic trying to establish himself, and math departments weren't especially interested in solving problems in farming and human health. Loladze struggled to get funding to generate new data and continued to obsessively collect published data from researchers across the globe. He headed to the heartland to take an assistant professor position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was a major agricultural school, which seemed like a good sign, but Loladze was still a math professor. He was told he could pursue his research interests as long as he brought in funding, but he struggled. Biology grant makers said his proposals were too math-heavy; math grant makers said his proposals contained too much biology.

“It was year after year, rejection after rejection,” he said. “It was so frustrating. I don’t think people grasp the scale of this.”

It’s not just in the fields of math and biology that this issue has fallen through the cracks. To say that it’s little known that key crops are getting less nutritious due to rising CO2 is an understatement. It is simply not discussed in the agriculture, public health or nutrition communities. At all.

When POLITICO contacted top nutrition experts about the growing body of research on the topic, they were almost universally perplexed and asked to see the research. One leading nutrition scientist at Johns Hopkins University said it was interesting, but admitted he didn’t know anything about it. He referred me to another expert. She said they didn’t know about the subject, either. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an association representing an army of nutrition experts across the country, connected me with Robin Foroutan, an integrative medicine nutritionist who was also not familiar with the research.

“It’s really interesting, and you’re right, it’s not on many people’s radar,” wrote Foroutan, in an email, after being sent some papers on the topic. Foroutan said she would like to see a whole lot more data, particularly on how a subtle shift toward more carbohydrates in plants could affect public health.

"We don't know what a minor shift in the carbohydrate ratio in the diet is ultimately going to do,” she said, noting that the overall trend toward more starch and carbohydrate consumption has been associated with an increase in diet-related disease like obesity and diabetes. "To what degree would a shift in the food system contribute to that? We can't really say.”

Asked to comment for this story, Marion Nestle, a nutrition policy professor at New York University who’s one of the best-known nutrition experts in the country, initially expressed skepticism about the whole concept but offered to dig into a file she keeps on climate issues.

After reviewing the evidence, she changed her tune. “I’m convinced,” she said, in an email, while also urging caution: It wasn’t clear whether CO2-driven nutrient depletion would have a meaningful impact on public health. We need to know a whole lot more, she said.

Kristie Ebi, a researcher at the University of Washington who’s studied the intersection of climate change and global health for two decades, is one of a handful of scientists in the U.S. who is keyed into the potentially sweeping consequences of the CO2-nutrition dynamic, and brings it up in every talk she gives.

"It's a hidden issue,” Ebi said. “The fact that my bread doesn't have the micronutrients it did 20 years ago―how would you know?"

As Ebi sees it, the CO2-nutrition link has been slow to break through, much as it took the academic community a long time to start seriously looking at the intersection of climate and human health in general. “This is before the change,” she said. “This is what it looks like before the change."
LOLADZE'S EARLY PAPER raised some big questions that are difficult, but not impossible, to answer. How does rising atmospheric CO2 change how plants grow? How much of the long-term nutrient drop is caused by the atmosphere, and how much by other factors, like breeding?
It’s also difficult, but not impossible, to run farm-scale experiments on how CO2 affects plants.

Researchers use a technique that essentially turns an entire field into a lab. The current gold standard for this type of research is called a FACE experiment (for “free-air carbon dioxide enrichment”), in which researchers create large open-air structures that blow CO2 onto the plants in a given area. Small sensors keep track of the CO2 levels. When too much CO2 escapes the perimeter, the contraption puffs more into the air to keep the levels stable. Scientists can then compare those plants directly to others growing in normal air nearby.

These experiments and others like them have shown scientists that plants change in important ways when they’re grown at elevated CO2 levels. Within the category of plants known as “C3”―which includes approximately 95 percent of plant species on earth, including ones we eat like wheat, rice, barley and potatoes―elevated CO2 has been shown to drive down important minerals like calcium, potassium, zinc and iron. The data we have, which look at how plants would respond to the kind of CO2 concentrations we may see in our lifetimes, show these important minerals drop by 8 percent, on average. The same conditions have been shown to drive down the protein content of C3 crops, in some cases significantly, with wheat and rice dropping 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Earlier this summer, a group of researchers published the first studies attempting to estimate what these shifts could mean for the global population. Plants are a crucial source of protein for people in the developing world, and by 2050, they estimate, 150 million people could be put at risk of protein deficiency, particularly in countries like India and Bangladesh. Researchers found a loss of zinc, which is particularly essential for maternal and infant health, could put 138 million people at risk. They also estimated that more than 1 billion mothers and 354 million children live in countries where dietary iron is projected to drop significantly, which could exacerbate the already widespread public health problem of anemia.

There aren’t any projections for the United States, where we for the most part enjoy a diverse diet with no shortage of protein, but some researchers look at the growing proportion of sugars in plants and hypothesize that a systemic shift in plants could further contribute to our already alarming rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Another new and important strain of research on CO2 and plant nutrition is now coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the Agricultural Research Service headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland, is drilling down on some of the questions that Loladze first raised 15 years ago with a number of new studies that focus on nutrition.
Ziska devised an experiment that eliminated the complicating factor of plant breeding: He decided to look at bee food.

Goldenrod, a wildflower many consider a weed, is extremely important to bees. It flowers late in the season, and its pollen provides an important source of protein for bees as they head into the harshness of winter. Since goldenrod is wild and humans haven’t bred it into new strains, it hasn’t changed over time as much as, say, corn or wheat. And the Smithsonian Institution also happens to have hundreds of samples of goldenrod, dating back to 1842, in its massive historical archive—which gave Ziska and his colleagues a chance to figure out how one plant has changed over time.

They found that the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution—and the change closely tracks with the rise in CO2. Scientists have been trying to figure out why bee populations around the world have been in decline, which threatens many crops that rely on bees for pollination. Ziska’s paper suggested that a decline in protein prior to winter could be an additional factor making it hard for bees to survive other stressors.

Ziska worries we’re not studying all the ways CO2 affects the plants we depend on with enough urgency, especially considering the fact that retooling crops takes a long time.

“We’re falling behind in our ability to intercede and begin to use the traditional agricultural tools, like breeding, to compensate,” he said. “Right now it can take 15 to 20 years before we get from the laboratory to the field.”

AS LOLADZE AND others have found, tackling globe-spanning new questions that cross the boundaries of scientific fields can be difficult. There are plenty of plant physiologists researching crops, but most are dedicated to studying factors like yield and pest resistance—qualities that have nothing to do with nutrition. Math departments, as Loladze discovered, don’t exactly prioritize food research. And studying living things can be costly and slow: It takes several years and huge sums of money to get a FACE experiment to generate enough data to draw any conclusions.

Despite these challenges, researchers are increasingly studying these questions, which means we may have more answers in the coming years. Ziska and Loladze, who now teaches math at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Lincoln, Nebraska, are collaborating with a coalition of researchers in China, Japan, Australia and elsewhere in the U.S. on a large study looking at rising CO2 and the nutritional profile of rice, one of humankind’s most important crops. Their study also includes vitamins, an important nutritional component, that to date has almost not been studied at all.

USDA researchers also recently dug up varieties of rice, wheat and soy that USDA had saved from the 1950s and 1960s and planted them in plots around the U.S. where previous researchers had grown the same cultivars decades ago, with the aim of better understanding how today’s higher levels of CO2 affect them.
In a USDA research field in Maryland, researchers are running experiments on bell peppers to measure how vitamin C changes under elevated CO2. They’re also looking at coffee to see whether caffeine declines. “There are lots of questions,” Ziska said as he showed me around his research campus in Beltsville. “We’re just putting our toe in the water.”

Ziska is part of a small band of researchers now trying to measure these changes and figure out what it means for humans. Another key figure studying this nexus is Samuel Myers, a doctor turned climate researcher at Harvard University who leads the Planetary Health Alliance, a new global effort to connect the dots between climate science and human health.

Myers is also concerned that the research community is not more focused on understanding the CO2-nutrition dynamic, since it’s a crucial piece of a much larger picture of how such changes might ripple through ecosystems. "This is the tip of the iceberg," said Myers. "It's been hard for us to get people to understand how many questions they should have."

In 2014, Myers and a team of other scientists published a large, data-rich study in the journal Nature that looked at key crops grown at several sites in Japan, Australia and the United States that also found rising CO2 led to a drop in protein, iron and zinc. It was the first time the issue had attracted any real media attention.

“The public health implications of global climate change are difficult to predict, and we expect many surprises,” the researchers wrote. “The finding that raising atmospheric CO2 lowers the nutritional value of C3 crops is one such surprise that we can now better predict and prepare for.”

The same year―in fact, on the same day―Loladze, then teaching math at the The Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, published his own paper, the result of more than 15 years of gathering data on the same subject. It was the largest study in the world on rising CO2 and its impact on plant nutrients. Loladze likes to describe plant science as ““noisy”―research-speak for cluttered with complicating data, through which it can be difficult to detect the signal you’re looking for. His new data set was finally big enough to see the signal through the noise, to detect the “hidden shift,” as he put it.
What he found is that his 2002 theory—or, rather, the strong suspicion he had articulated back then—appeared to be borne out. Across nearly 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected from experiments over the past three decades, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron had dropped by 8 percent on average. The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals was going up. The plants, like the algae, were becoming junk food.

What that means for humans―whose main food intake is plants―is only just starting to be investigated. Researchers who dive into it will have to surmount obstacles like its low profile and slow pace, and a political environment where the word “climate” is enough to derail a funding conversation. It will also require entirely new bridges to be built in the world of science―a problem that Loladze himself wryly acknowledges in his own research. When his paper was finally published in 2014, Loladze listed his grant rejections in the acknowledgements.

Helena Bottemiller Evich is a senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro.

The Literary Beat

Takeshi Kitano puts fun and guns aside to pen romantic novel
The Asahi Shimbun  by CHIAKI YOSHIMURA/ Senior Staff Writer  September 20, 2017

Beat Takeshi talks about his novel "Analog" in Tokyo on Sept. 19. (Naoko Kawamura)

Beat Takeshi may be a comedian, and this is no joke: He has penned a romantic novel.

Takeshi Kitano, his real name, is also an acclaimed film director specializing in violent yakuza flicks. 

But he says his novel is at the other end of the spectrum, a perfect love story.

Kitano, 70, who started out as one half of a popular "manzai" comic duo, has titled his novel "Analog."
He was partly inspired to write it by the award-winning debut novel of another celebrity with roots in stand-up comedy, Naoki Matayoshi, Kitano said at a news conference in Tokyo on Sept. 19.

Matayoshi won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for his novel "Hibana" (Spark).

The book revolves around a thirtysomething interior designer who falls in love with a woman he meets by chance. To continue their relationship, the couple must meet at the same place at the same time every week. As often happens in such stories, an unexpected development threatens to tear them apart.

As a movie director, Kitano's most recent films include the "Outrage" series, which is packed with violent scenes.

But, he admitted that he always had an interest in "pure love" and wanted to write a novel along those lines.

He added that writing a novel was much more difficult than filmmaking in which the season, setting and characters can be expressed in an instant.

"In novels, words have to be used to allow the reader to imagine everything," Kitano said. "Unlike manzai or movies, there are no limits in terms of time and number of words."

He added that he felt he had to write now before it was too late.

"I wanted to apply a greater burden on myself," he said. "If I don't snatch opportunities when they arise, I'd never start something new."

Kitano explained the title of the novel captures his feelings about the present world.

"I hate smartphones," he said. "I feel the information technology industry is chaining all the people of the world. While it may be convenient, I feel it has an effect in widening the gap between the rich and poor. I want to continue in an analog manner as much as possible."

He also has plans to write a suspense story and is aiming to win another prestigious literary prize, the Naoki Prize, named in honor of novelist Sanjugo Naoki (1891-1934).

Referencing famous novelist Osamu Dazai's lobbying attempt to win the Akutagawa Prize, Kitano jokingly said he might approach some of those on the Naoki Prize jury to urge them to vote for his novel.

"Analog" is published by Shinchosha Publishing Co. and goes on sale Sept. 22.

Speaking Up for Trees

Call that progress?: In the city of Kumamoto, a Meiji Era house and its beautiful old Japanese-style wall were knocked down recently, with 90 percent of its trees torn down too. The small area left at the back gives an idea of what the trees were like in the main garden. The plot is now a car park. | SEAN MICHAEL WILSON

With every new construction in Japan, less trees

by   Special To The Japan Times
To Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa,

One surprising thing about Japan, given that its people are said to have a deep love and respect for nature, is that there appears to be little thought given to some basic environmental issues in this country. The example I would like to focus on here: When new houses are constructed, all the trees that were growing on the site are usually knocked down!

When houses are demolished, there is a very bad habit here of cutting down all the trees in the former garden, leaving the ground 90-100 percent cleared and empty, ready for new construction. This seems to happen as a matter of course, in almost all cases, even when the trees in the garden are very old.

The usual practice is to build a new house or apartment blocks with only one or two trees within the plot — or in many cases, none at all. This habit seems to fly in the face of environmental sense, and to display a total lack of concern for maintaining the physical culture and beauty of Japan.

I’ve researched this trend and conferred with figures well-known for their environmental concerns, such as the writer Alex Kerr, professor Stephen Hesse and Junko Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability. The consensus appears to be that although there is plenty of data on the cutting down of trees on industrial and governmental land, there is no data for trees felled in private gardens. It appears not to be collected at all. The dearth of data is worth noting in itself. A lack of records can speak volumes about what is hidden or unconsidered.

As for laws in this area, various regulations exist, such as the 1962 Law on Tree Preservation for Maintaining Scenic Beauty of Cities, which allows local governments to designate valuable trees for conservation. There’s also the Urban Green Space Law of 1973, which encourages “green-space conservation districts.” However, these regulations seem only to be loosely applied, if at all, when it comes to how construction companies deal with trees in private gardens.

Given the lack of data on this subject, I decided to do a bit of primary research myself here in Kumamoto. By making notes and taking photographs of the number of trees and bushes around old houses due for demolition over the past three years, I have been compiling a rough “before and after” comparative study. Here are some of the findings for the area around Kumamoto University:
House 1, behind the sports ground, replaced by two small apartment blocks: trees before = about 20; trees now = 0

House 2, directly opposite the Faculty of Letters, replaced by large apartment blocks: trees before = about 5; trees now = 0

House 3, behind the high school, replaced by small apartment blocks: trees before = 5; trees now = 0
House 4, behind the sports ground, replaced by medium-size apartment blocks: trees before = about 10; trees now = 0

House 5, opposite the Faculty of Education, replaced by large apartment blocks: trees before = about 10; trees now= 1

Total trees in the five plots three years ago = about 50; total trees now = 1

From 50 trees to just one in only three years, all within five minutes’ walk! Only one left out of all those beautiful old trees that made the area look so nice, provided homes for wildlife, shade in the sun and added to the health of the environment. This wouldn’t be a disaster if it were just that one area, perhaps, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the same kind of thing is going on elsewhere. If this is occurring across Japan, it means hundreds of thousands of trees lost every year.

Why, we may wonder, do Japanese people allow this destruction? I have spoken to a number of people in my area, and it seems that it is quite common to see trees as troublesome — they drop slippery leaves, extend into other gardens in a way that causes trouble and, perhaps most of all, attract insects.
All of these complaints are clearly grounded in fact. But a further question, then, is when and why did these annoyances become more important than the beauty of trees, than the admiration of nature, than a concern for the environment?

It appears to be a recent trend. While the Japanese have been struggling to tame nature for hundreds of years, there has also been a general tendency to have a lot of trees in gardens. If you look around you at the few surviving houses built before the 1950s, you’ll find that there are normally a wealth of trees and bushes, and often a pond in the garden too. Even those built in the ’60s and ’70s have several trees, though ponds are less common. Houses built over the past 20 years rarely have more than a couple of trees and almost never have ponds. There has been a marked changed in garden style over the years.

However, for the sake of Japan’s history, beauty and natural environment, surely a policy should be implemented that requires construction companies to keep or replant a certain percentage of the trees in any house demolition, with a minimum of 25 percent as the basic rule.

Of course, some people of a neo-liberal persuasion may not see this as a good thing: “Why should the government have a say in what I do with my own garden?” (or, more often, “my granny’s old garden”).
That is an ideological point to be debated. But government rules are not the only thing to consider here. We also need to take into account the physical history of Japan, natural beauty, the environment and our health. Surely even the most rampant capitalist thinks those things are of some importance?


Sean Michael Wilson is a professional comic-book writer based in Japan ( Send your comments or submissions (addressed to local or national politicians, officials or other authorities) to

'Do Animals Reason'

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I posted this article on The Border Collie Boards and received this reply (by PM).

Interesting article, and it states explicitly what so many herding dog handlers intuitively know. It emphasizes the communication from handler to dog, but inexplicably to me, is suspect of the reverse.

My border collie Josie is almost 13 now, and we do not have ready access to stock any longer, so most of our activity is throwing frisbee in backyard, long walks, and accompanying me on day to day errands. For many years it was pretty much one-way directions to her in the field to manage sheep and cattle. But now I am more in tune with her messages to me. C'mon, who can be skeptical about a dog whining to go outside, or for dinner, or to play? My dog tells me when she wants to go to bed. Dogs clearly tell owners/handlers what they want.

Aside from those common occurrences observed by, I imagine many dog owners, I am now becoming sufficiently sensitive to see other more complex behaviors. Ever seen somebody point with their chin, when they want to secretly/nonverbally tell another to look in a certain direction? It's a series of subtle chin raises in the desired direction. My dog normally barks at strange things/people/animals, but on occasion when she does not want to cause a stir, she quietly points out things I would not otherwise see with the nuanced chin/muzzle movements.

Josie, like many dogs will turn and look directly in my eyes when something unusual occurs, as if to say, "What do you think about that?" It's a question. She is looking for my reaction. She tells me with a special type of bark when she is extremely frustrated with my slow pace, ineptness or wishing to rest. She often waits for me (IMO not for her needs) before rounding a sharp bend in trail, or going out-of-sight over hill crest. Other examples too numerous to mention.

I depend on Josie when walking in natural/wild areas. If she suddenly stops and stares intently, puts her nose up to scent the air, excitedly smells the ground, or perks her ears, I take it seriously. She knows what she is talking about. I realize these particular cases may be primarily explained by instinct, yet watching her tells me important details about my surroundings. Frequently her alerts have provided tangible knowledge.

It feels good to do things for/with your dog, and to give it cues for certain behaviors. A dog's simple companionship should never be trivialized. However, I believe a dog's company becomes more rich and meaningful when the handler understands all that his/her dog is doing in return via such things as: security by messaging subtle changes in environment, communicating its wants, and telling you what dog thinks of your own behavior.

IMO the dog to owner communication is more extensive than most realize. -- TEC



All right on point. I'm amazed when I run into someone who asks about my dog - and I use her name in conversation. She will turn and look inquiringly at me, and the new person will sometimes respond, "Oh look! She knows her name!" Oi!

One time I was collecting garbage - mostly candy wrappers and newspapers - in a field where I exercised my dog. I did the whole field, filling 3 leaf bags. When I reached the edge of the field, I tied off the bag I had been filling and motioned to the others across the field and said to my Collie (Lassie type) "Go get it, Sensei." Sensei immediately set out and grabbed the bags one at a time - they were very large, but not very heavy - and brought them to me.

A woman had stopped to watch this "performance" and she said with absolute wonder in her voice, "I thought they only did that in the movies!" I told her that almost any dog could learn to that, and dozens of other useful things, if only someone would take the trouble to teach them. And really, it's very little trouble if you have any sort of relationship with your dog.




You under-value your dog bringing the leaf bags back to you. That takes training and strong bond. I agree that many, many dog owners have never learned or taken the time to do even basic pet training, which begins the process of forming deep/strong bonds. They do not understand what their own dogs can do.

I have similar stories which I will not bore you with. I can easily get my spirits lifted just taking my dog for a walk. She routinely gets compliments for her behavior and attention to my cues. Most have never seen a dog that can follow commands at extreme distances. They have no idea that her performance is just a natural extension of work on sheep and cattle.

Well, I cannot resist one story. Used to graze a friend's sheep when he was away at sheep dog trials. Place was near a golf course, and cart paths skirted his fields. Perfect opportunity to get a little attention from golfers. They would stop and admire. They always shared their stories of remembering such dogs on their GP's or friends' farms. I swear Josie loves the lime-light. She always did an almost perfect job.

There are so many examples: sled dogs, earth dogs, herding dogs, service dogs, guard dogs, drug and explosive dogs, dogs/pets having exceptional owners, and the list goes on. Lots of two way communication, and an entirely different level of bond than the typical pet and owner.

Thanks for sharing the article and for this nice conversation. TEC