Category Archives: food

COVID-19 and Zoonosis – What does it mean for wildlife trade

“Zoonosis”. What does that mean? Turning a wild animal captive and putting it in a zoo? Well, it has something got to do with animals, but not the zoo.

“A zoonosis is any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.” (WHO, 2017). With the incidence of COVID-19 and thanks to the prevalence of social media and the Internet, more people are aware of what zoonotic diseases are. In fact, COVID-19 is not the first zoonotic disease reported. To date, it is estimated that 6 out of 10 infectious diseases in humans have animal origins (NCEZID, 2017), and that includes Dengue, Ebola, SARS, and some influenzas (WHO, 2017).

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Photos from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infections Diseases (NCEZID)

The most likely origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is bats, which was transmitted to pangolins and then to humans (Campbell & Park, 2020). The question now is: how did it get transmitted to humans?

Prolonged contact and exposure to an infected animal increase the chance of a virus spreading to humans. These viruses can also be food-borne, water-borne, or vector-borne (WHO, 2017). In the case of COVID-19, current hypotheses point towards the consumption of exotic animals, including pangolins, (Campbell & Park, 2020) which might have allowed a virus of bat origin which are present in pangolins to be transmitted to humans. The suspected origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus placed an even greater focus on wildlife trade and consumption, a phenomenon prevalent in Asia and specifically, in this case, China.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, China banned all wildlife trade and consumption. However, there were several loopholes. Medicinal use of wildlife is not subjected to the new law, and most traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) still involves the use of wildlife products, such as pangolin scales (Wang, 2020). TCM was also further supported in China, and any criticism against TCM and the associated wildlife use was made illegal (Campbell & Park, 2020). This means that wildlife trade and consumption are not totally banned. Apart from wildlife trade and consumption increasing the rate of zoonosis, what are the other impacts of wildlife trade and consumption?

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Photos from here 

Wildlife trade has been shown to lead to declines in animal populations, especially those already endangered. Hunting and consumption of these species are widespread and largely unregulated (the act of wildlife trade is considered illegal, but it has not been easy to catch and stop such illegal acts of wildlife hunting). By continuing the hunt for already endangered species, their existence is at stake, and this poses a threat to our biodiversity. In Myanmar, for example, a majority of endangered species has been reported to be declining in abundance (McEvoy et al, 2019). This includes pangolins, which are still hunted for TCM purposes, among other reasons.

It is not just about the extinction of one species that is at stake here. Populations in a habitat interact closely together, forming an ecosystem. When one species goes extinct, it is like breaking a single link in a chain, everything else will be affected. When that happens, other species will be affected, and it is hard to say what will happen in the long-term, apart from the fact that we can expect the loss of a few more species.

Wildlife consumption isn’t just risky to human health. The wildlife trade that comes along with it poses an ecological risk to our biodiversity. While wildlife trade is already made illegal, the reason it still goes on is because there is a demand for it. Think back to how fragile the ecosystem is – breaking one link somewhere along the chain will affect everything else. Thus if enforcement and regulation on wildlife trade are not as effective, what we can do to prevent any more wildlife trade is to stop the consumption of wildlife.

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Photos from here 

It’s just like sharks’ fin soup. As more people see the importance their choices and actions have on fuelling the demand for sharks’ fin, they gradually abstain from eating sharks’ fin soup. Greater awareness also led to restaurants removing the dish from their menus. Slowly, but surely, there will be no more reason to hunt for sharks’ fins anymore.

The same thing can happen for such exotic wildlife, if and only if we work towards that goal collectively.

Written by: Ernest

References:

WHO. (2017, July 19). Zoonoses. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.who.int/topics/zoonoses/en/

NCEZID. (2017, July 14). Zoonotic Diseases. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html

WHO. (2017, October 13). Diseases. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.who.int/zoonoses/diseases/en/

Campbell, C., & Park, A. (2020, July 23). Where Did Coronavirus Originate? Inside the Hunt to Find Out. Time. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://time.com/5870481/coronavirus-origins/

Wang, H., Shao, J., Luo, X., Chuai, Z., Xu, S., Geng, M., & Gao, Z. (2020). Wildlife consumption ban is insufficient. Science, 367(6485), 1435-1435. doi:10.1126/science.abb6463

McEvoy, J. et al (2019). Two sides of the same coin – Wildmeat consumption and illegal wildlife trade at the crossroads of Asia. Biological Conservation, 238, 108197. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108197

 

Where the skies are not blue

A field trip! To a farm! That seemed like the kind of things we would only get to experience back in primary school. But the BES freshmen recently had the opportunity to visit a local farm called Sky Greens. Here’s a little bit more about it!

BES students getting a guided tour around the farm

Sky Greens is a vertical farm located in Yio Chu Kang and it was founded in 2010 by Mr Jack Ng. It is the world’s first low carbon and hydraulic driven vertical farm. Woah woah… what does this mean?

Basically, the vegetables are grown on shelves fitted on 9m high structures. How this farm works is that the shelves will rotate throughout the day to ensure that the vegetables on different shelves will receive sufficient sunlight for growth. Rainwater collected on the farm is pumped into the system to allow the shelves to rotate and also irrigate the plants.

Vegetables being grown on shelves

Mr Jack Ng shared that he started this project because he was interested in doing farming after he retired. However, as current farming methods are very labour intensive, he decided to explore better farming methods.

While some farms may use hydroponics, Sky Greens grow their vegetables in nutrient rich compost. The contents of the compost include “Nespresso” recycled coffee grounds, recycled vegetable waste, beneficial microbes, seaweed extract, bean sprout waste, recycled woodchips and chicken manure. It was really amazing how he was able to reuse food waste and incorporated them into his compost, turning waste into something useful instead! Such efforts to reduce waste are truly admirable. In fact, the coffee grounds act as a form of natural insect repellent due to its acidity, thus benefiting the vegetables as well.

More photos pf the farm

The efficiency of this farm also was truly mind-blowing. It required 95% less water, 75% less labour, electricity and 10x more yield compared to an open field vegetable farm.  It honestly sounded too good to be true! Such green solutions are definitely needed, given that the global demand for food is increasing while resources are becoming more scarce. Moreover, the farm produces approximately 500kg of greens per day which are packaged and sold at FairPrice express outlets around the island. The greens sold are mostly what locals consume (Cai Xin, Xiao Bai Cai, Mai Bai etc). In fact, it only takes 4hours for the greens to hit the shelves after being harvested, in comparison to imported produce which can range from 3 days to 3 weeks. (Lim, 2015).

A packet of Nai Bai Cai from sky greens

Mr Jack Ng explained that he wanted to keep his produce organic and not use pesticides to keep the pests away. As such, he resolved this problem by producing “mini vegetables” instead. These mini vegetables are smaller in size than regular vegetables, but also required less time to grow (only 3-4 weeks are required!) By harvesting the vegetables earlier, he would be able to reach the food before the pests, so that no pesticides would be needed. I personally thought that was a pretty genius idea.

Test results proving that the mini-series contained higher levels of Polyphenol, which acts as an                                                                                            antioxidant

Moreover, this mini-series was also found to contain 35% more antioxidants than regular Cai Xin. What struck me as well was his heart behind producing the vegetables this way. Mr Jack Ng shared that he was adamant about not using pesticides as he would only be willing to grow what he would be willing to eat. As a farmer, he had the responsibility over what he was producing, because it was what people were going to consume. Truly, being a farmer is more than just planting crops, but also impacting the health of whoever would be consuming your food!

As a country that imports more than 90% of our food (AVA, 2019), we are heavily dependent on other countries to supply us the food we need. Honestly, that is quite scary, because we definitely cannot sustain ourselves if we were to stop importing food. With urban projects such as Sky Greens, we are certainly heading towards more efficient and sustainable methods of food production and increasing our food security in the long run. What an eye-opening trip!

Written by: Ann Shin

References

LIM, J. (2019). Vertical farming invention wins global award. Retrieved 9 September 2019, from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/vertical-farming-invention-wins-global-award

AVA Vision | AVA Unveils Updated Food Security Roadmap. (2013). Retrieved 7 September 2019, from https://www.sfa.gov.sg/files/avavision/issues3-4_2013/food-security-roadmap.html\

A Vibrant Blue – The Butterfly Pea Flower

If you ever see any of your food coloured a bright blue, there’s a high chance you’re seeing the flower of the butterfly pea (also known as a blue pea) working its magic. Barely having any taste, it is frequently used as natural food colouring in Peranakan, Thai and Malay cuisine, such as in Kueh Salat or Nyonya rice dumplings5.

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Image by Shiokman Eddie. Retrieved from: https://www.shiokmanrecipes.com/2016/11/18/kueh-salat-kuih-seri-muka/

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Image by Angie Liew.

 http://www.huangkitchen.com/nyonya-rice-dumplings/

The butterfly pea flower changes from blue to purple when acid (in lemon) is added, making it visually appealing.

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Image by Cynthea Lam.

https://guide.michelin.com/sg/dining-in/beginners-guide-to-foraging-in-singapore/news

With blue being such a rare colour in nature, it is not hard to spot the bright blue flowers of the butterfly pea along the streets of Singapore. Being a creeper, they are often found to be growing on wire supports or walls, attached by intertwining their thin, slender legumes4. Even though they are so common here, it may be surprising to note that the butterfly pea may not be native to Singapore. In fact, they are so common across all the continents that it is not definite where they originated from; though they were believed to be from South America and Asia before they spread to India, Europe then finally to tropical Southeast Asia6.

To cultivators, the butterfly pea has value in its culinary uses and medicinal purposes, such as being believed to be able to alleviate inflammation in traditional medicine6. Characteristics such as high growth rates, ability to grow in poor soils and drought tolerance making them easy to grow and maintain2.

From here, some of the seeds were dispersed into the wild, and such hardy characteristics allowed them to thrive equally well in the wild. In some places such as Christmas Island, Hawaii and Queensland, they grew so well that they became invasive – threatening the growth of local, native species1. Despite being an introduced species, they can sometimes be beneficial to the environment. Being able to grow in poor quality soil allows them to survive in disturbed habitats such as coal mines. The butterfly pea was then able to increase the nitrogen level of soil and soil fertility, enhancing further revegetation efforts2.

The next time you see blue in your food, hopefully, it will remind you of the butterfly pea flower!

Written by: Shenny Goh

References:

1 Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International. Clitoria ternatea (butterfly-pea). Retrieved from: https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/55416#b69c866b-b16e-49de-b720-1dcade921e6f (last accessed 1 March 2019)

2 Cook BG, Pengelly BC, Brown SD, Donnelly JL, Eagles DA, Franco MA, Hanson J, Mullen BF, Partridge IJ, Peters M, Schultze-Kraft R. (2005). Tropical Forages: an interactive selection tool. Retrieved from: http://www.tropicalforages.info/key/forages/Media/Html/entities/clitoria_ternatea.htm

3 Kwek Yan Chong, Hugh T. W. Tan and Richard T. Corlett. (2009). A Checklist of the Total Vascular Plant Flora of Singapore. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research National University of Singapore Singapore. Retrieved from: https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/app/uploads/2017/04/flora_of_singapore_tc.pdf

4 NParks Flora & Fauna Web (n.d.) Clitoria ternatea (Pale Blue). Retrieved from: https://florafaunaweb.nparks.gov.sg/Special-Pages/plant-detail.aspx?id=1374 (last accessed 1 March 2019)

5 Quek, E. (2018, February 24). Butterfly pea flower lends a blue hue to foods from tea to pasta. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/butterfly-pea-flower-lends-a-blue-hue-to-foods-from-tea-to-pasta

6 Singapore Infopedia. (2016). Butterfly pea. Retrieved from: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_763_2004-12-20.html

7 The DNA of Singapore. (n.d.) Clitoria ternatea. Retrieved from: https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/dna/organisms/details/522 (last accessed 1 March 2019)

Why boycott Kopi Luwak?

Kopi Luwak is one of the world’s most expensive coffee; one cup can cost about 80USD (109SGD). But what is Kopi Luwak? Simply put, it is coffee made from coffee beans that have been through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet (Luwak in Indonesian).

Brief process of making of Kopi Luwak

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Image from http://www.most-expensive.coffee/

Kopi Luwak was rumoured to originate in the 18th century in Indonesia, which was still under the Dutch colonial rule. At that time, the natives toiling in the coffee industry were not allowed to taste any of the coffee that they have been working to produce.  At the same time, they observed that the wild civets also ate coffee cherries, leaving undigested coffee beans in their excretions. Thus, the farmers collected these seeds, cleaned and roasted them to make their own brew of coffee.

Later, the Dutch discovered this special brew of coffee, and they found that it tasted better than what they had. It is said to be because civets only chose the ripest cherries, so coffee beans found in their faeces are uniformly of the best quality. In addition, the fermentation process and natural enzymes in the civet’s intestines break down some of the proteins in coffee beans. This results in coffee that is more aromatic, less bitter, and smoother (less acidic). Even so, the question of whether it indeed tastes better than other gourmet coffee yields varying opinions. While some say it tastes better, more feel no difference, or even say that it is worse, because it is bland (due to its lower acidity) and does not taste as complex.

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Image from http://nordiccoffeeculture.com/what-kopi-luwak-is-and-why-you-should-avoid-it/

Nevertheless, the popularity of Kopi Luwak grew rapidly, with many wanting to have a taste of this exotic (and expensive) beverage. Yet, it is difficult to find the faeces of the civets in the wild; only about 250-500kg of wild Kopi Luwak beans are produced each year, nowhere near enough for this industry to be commercially viable. As a result, farmers started to cage the civets for their precious droppings, without considering their welfare.

In the worst cases, some farm owners crammed the civets in tiny cages and exclusively fed them coffee cherries. However, wild civets are solitary, territorial animals. When forced so close to each other, especially in such poor living conditions and only allowed a limited diet, gory outcomes result: they fight with each other, chew away their own limbs, start passing blood in their faeces, and eventually die. With only coffee cherries provided to them, eating them is no longer a choice, it is their only option. Essentially, the high quality associated with Kopi Luwak is eroded. To make things worse, these civet farms even became tourist attractions, where many would come to the coffee plantation to see the civets, then enjoy a cup of Kopi Luwak.

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Image by Ulet Ifansasti, Getty Images

After so many years, what propels this industry is the high demand for Kopi Luwak. From a commercial product, it had grown to become a tourist attraction, where tourists are invited to view the captured civets, processing of coffee beans, then have a cup of Kopi Luwak. Apart from the ethicality of this practice, the authenticity of the coffee sold is also questionable. Coffee labelled Kopi Luwak may not have been anywhere close to a civet, or only contains a small percentage of the real deal, but are sold at exorbitant prices (compared to normal coffee). While it may seem fine to drink authentic coffee beans obtained from wild civets, this perception is wrong. There are no certification schemes and it is simply impossible to determine the source of coffee. If the demand does not die down, the conditions of these civets will only get worse.

Now, there is only one effective way to protect these civets: stop drinking Kopi Luwat completely.

By Shenny Goh

References

Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world! (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.most-expensive.coffee/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Wisotzky, M. (2017, August 1). Kopi Luwak anyone? It’s just $80 a cup. Retrieved from https://coffeewithoutlimits.com/kopi-luwak-anyone-just-80-cup/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Animal Coffee (n.d.). The History of Kopi Luwak. Retrieved from http://coffeeroastersdirect.com/the-history-of-kopi-luwak/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Kolbu, C. (2015, April 22). What Kopi Luwak is and why you should avoid it. Retrieved from http://nordiccoffeeculture.com/what-kopi-luwak-is-and-why-you-should-avoid-it/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Wild, T. (2013, September 13). Civet coffee: Why it’s time to cut the crap. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/sep/13/civet-coffee-cut-the-crap (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Bale, R. (2016, April 29). The Disturbing Secret Behind the World’s Most Expensive Coffee. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160429-kopi-luwak-captive-civet-coffee-Indonesia/ (Accessed 21 Sep, 2018).

Going vegetarian for the environment

Personally, I’m an omnivore and my only concern for food is how good it tastes. Although I have always heard about how environmentally damaging eating meat is, I never put much thought into the situation. This led me to picking up this topic to learn more about the nitty gritty of meat production. It turns out the problem was worse than I expected. My steak probably didn’t come from a cow who frolicked in the clovers. It was probably confined in small cages and rested on a cold, hard cement floor. Similarly, my chicken was probably confined into small cages known as battery cages.

Such is the reality for the meat we eat. In fact, the majority of meat we eat comes from animals bred and confined in a place called an AFO (Animal Feeding Operation) (Worldwatch Institute, n.d.). According to American standards, AFOs are facilities where animals are confined and fed for at least 45 days in any 12-month period, and their feed is delivered from outside to the mouths of the animals (EPA, n.d.). AFO’s elder brother, Concentrated AFO (CAFO), has an additional criterion of having at least 450,000 kg worth of livestock in it (USDA, n.d.).

1.pngAs they say, a picture speaks a thousand words… or cows

(Picture taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sustainabletable/2950338558/in/photostream/)

Squeezing so many animals into tight conditions is not only unethical, but also poses serious environmental problems. At such high densities, the resulting quantities of manure (aka poop) can range from 3 to 20 times that of human waste produced in America (Hribar, 2010). In addition, CAFO owners typically add monstrous amounts of water to the manure before placing them in a pool. In this manure lagoon, bacteria guzzle on the nutritious meal and generate huge amounts of gas; greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxides as well as foul smelling ones like hydrogen sulfide (with a rotten egg smell) and other Volatile Fatty Acids (with a manure smell). 1 kg of methane and nitrous oxide can trap as much heat as 25kg and 298kg of carbon dioxide respectively – that’s how potent they are.

Given that there are so many AFOs nowadays, the combined greenhouse gas emissions are astronomical. In events of high rainfall or flooding, the contents of the lagoon can overflow and pollute the environment. The two main concerns are the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and eutrophication. I shall stop here before I turn this into an essay, but bear this in mind – what I’ve just said is the tip of the iceberg.

Energy wise, eating meat is not a very efficient method. According to the ecological pyramid, only 10% of the energy is transferred from one tropic level to the next. This means that a cow would only receive 10 units of energy from a plant with 100 units of energy; a human would then only receive 1 unit of energy from that plant, should they eat the cow. However, they would be able to receive 10 units of energy if they eat the plant directly. This makes eating meat more energetically inefficient than eating plants. Given that mechanization has replaced much manpower in the crop and meat production, we are also wasting the resources used to produce the meat itself.

As we can see, while delicious, meat may not be the greenest food. However, crops are not all that good either. There are flaws in the way farmers are farming, which causes problems like loss of topsoil and leaching of nutrients. However, we can’t live without food! If we want to both survive and stay green, eating vegetables seems like the lesser of two evils. If you are indeed concerned about the environment, I would recommend you going vegetarian. Start small! One meal a week, followed by 1 day a week, then 2 days a week and so on.

At this point, you may have given up the thought of eating meat. Sorry to disappoint you, but I foresee a future where eating meat may be more common than eating vegetables. This is due to the rise of insects and lab-grown meat as alternative sources of protein. Once they become commercially viable, we may be eating them in the future! Who knows? Perhaps 10 or 20 years down the road my juniors will be critiquing my post for advocating the consumption of vegetables (especially broccoli L).

2.pngWould you eat this? I would!
(Picture taken from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/lab-grown-meat/565049/)

That’s all from me for now. Personally, reading up on this topic has made me more conscious of eating as much meat as I did.

Be green, eat green!

Written by: Lee Yang

References:

Worldwatch Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from Worldwatch: http://www.worldwatch.org/rising-number-farm-animals-poses-environmental-and-public-health-risks-0

EPA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/npdes/animal-feeding-operations-afos

USDA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/livestock/afo/

Hribar, C. (2010). https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf.