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Our World — 10 May 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Why it's costing more to feed your family ... another benefit of breastfeeding ... and the challenge of recycling electronic products

SMITH: "They burn the plastics in order to get to the metals, which have value. And when they burn the plastics it's creating dioxin clouds, which are affecting the children in the communities. This is happening in China. It's happening in Asia. It's happening in Africa."

Those stories, a visit to the Body Farm (we'll explain), and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

If you've been shopping for food lately, I don't have to tell you that prices are going through the roof. In some cases world prices have more than tripled in recent months.

ZIEGLER: "Going from, in December, a price of $300 a ton to just this week over $1,000 a ton.

Robert Zeigler of the International Rice Research Institute is talking about rice, a basic staple food across Asia, of course. Prices surged dramatically after China, Vietnam, and India curbed exports to ensure they had enough supplies for their own people.

Other food products have also seen alarming increases.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO, says wheat prices have doubled in Senegal. Bread prices doubled in Tajikistan. The cost of maize in Uganda rose 65 percent in just six months.

One reason: farmers are passing on their higher costs, particularly the rising cost of energy. Joachim von Braun heads the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

VON BRAUN: "Fertilizers become more and more unaffordable for the small farmers, who are at the center of a response to the world food crisis. And transport costs have become higher and higher, so the cost side of agriculture will keep food prices high, even if we make major efforts to increase production."

Other reasons for the runup in prices include natural causes like drought and pest outbreaks and speculation in the commodities market.

And as world oil prices hover around $120 a barrel, more food crops are ending up in fuel tanks. In the United States about one-quarter of the corn crop is now being used to make ethanol, which is blended with gasoline to make a motor fuel. Soybean farms are switching to corn, which drives up soy prices, and so on.

Analysts like Robert Zeigler of the Rice Research Institute are starting to assess the damage.

ZIEGLER: "Now what are the consequences of this? Well, there are some estimates that say that if present trends continue for very long, we can expect 100 million people to be pushed back into poverty."

And Joachim von Braun of the Food Policy Research Institute says that higher food prices today can cause long-term damage as people change their eating habits.

VON BRAUN: "The high food prices lead poor people to limit their food consumption and shift to even less balanced diets with harmful effects on health in the short and long run. The child [who] is not appropriately nourished under the age of three for a couple of months will be harmed for the rest of its life."

The three experts spoke in a telephone briefing organized by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, whose member research centers have some 8,000 scientists working on food issues.

Drought, as we mentioned, is one cause of the food crisis. According to the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, the amount of land affected by severe drought has doubled over the past 30 years alone. Many climate scientists say drought could be an effect of global warming, which means it could be getting worse. So plant scientists are trying to find ways to develop crops that will thrive with less water. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: Over millennia, plants have evolved strategies to cope with the stress of prolonged dryness. For example, some lose their large, moisture-hungry lower leaves. This allows more water to go to the smaller, younger shoots, ensuring the survival of the plants, and the production of at least some seeds. But evolution is too slow for farmers who need to bring in a harvest. So Eduardo Blumwald, an Argentine cell biologist at the University of California at Davis, is helping to speed up the process.

BLUMWALD: "We have two objectives. One is to produce and create plants that are able to sustain adverse conditions like drought. But the second one is to have plants that can grow with less water. And we are doing both."

PHILLIPS: Blumwald and his research team have recently created genetically modified or "transgenic" tobacco plants that satisfy both objectives. In their experiments, they took two groups of tobacco plants. One group was genetically unmodified. In the other group, they inserted a gene that spurs the production of cytokine. It's a hormone that promotes cell division. Leaves that are wilted or dying lose their cytokine. The scientists then simulated severe drought conditions by withholding water from both groups for 14 days. The transgenic plants kept their leaves, and revived quickly after watering. Most of the other plants died.

And the experiments produced another, potentially more momentous result: the transgenic plants were able to yield seeds and fruits from far less water. This is a key development for farmers who use increasingly precious irrigation water rather than rainfall for their crops.

BLUMWALD: "For example, if you irrigate with 30 percent of the normal amount of water, in our experiments the plant only lost fourteen percent [of its] yield. That's huge!"

PHILLIPS: Blumwald described his results last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But Blumwald's research colleague Marina Leterrier, a French molecular biologist, says they still don't understand the precise genetic mechanisms that are producing these results.

LETERRIER: "We just know the beginning and the end and we want to know what connects the beginning and the end."

PHILLIPS: Blumwald and his team have begun to apply the same genetic techniques to tomatoes, rice, wheat, canola, and cotton, and other essential crops. And while experts must determine that these modified crops will create no dangers to other plants, animals, or humans, Blumwald and his team have been given permission to take his work from the greenhouse to the fields. It's one more step in the multi-faceted global effort to address a world of climate change. I'm Adam Phillips reporting.

MUSIC: Breastmilk jingle

Public health officials worldwide have been promoting breastfeeding for years. Nature's perfect baby food makes for healthier babies. But as we hear from VOA's Rosanne Skirble, new research has uncovered a surprising new benefit to breastfeeding.

SKIRBLE: Research has shown that breastfed babies are healthier than babies given formula, and have fewer allergies and infections. And, says Michael Kramer, they're also smarter.

KRAMER: "We found that the children in the experimental group had about three to five IQ points higher than those in the control group and that their teachers rated them slightly higher in academic subjects of reading, writing, math."

SKIRBLE: The McGill University professor of pediatrics and epidemiology led a team of researchers who analyzed the effect of breastfeeding on cognitive development. They studied 14,000 children from birth to age six-and-a-half in the eastern European country of Belarus, where breastfeeding had not been encouraged.

KRAMER: "In Belarus and all the former Soviet countries, the maternity hospital practices were like they were in North America 30 years ago. So that was a good place to actually implement the intervention because we were able to create a substantial difference between the experimental and controlled sites."

SKIRBLE: The experimental group adopted the UNICEF/World Health Organization's "Baby Friendly Initiative," that promotes universal breastfeeding for infants. Kramer says, while the gain in IQ is modest, it's a gift any mother can give to her child.

KRAMER: "It is a comparable difference to what you find, let's say, between a first born child and a subsequently born child, or a child, let's say, who was read to and played with a lot by his mother and parents versus a kid who is parked in front of a television."

SKIRBLE: Kramer says his team plans to continue their work with the same children. Next they'll look at risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes because some studies suggest that breastfeeding may lead to a reduction in those diseases later in life. The study is published in the May issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week it's a site where literature meets the spoken word, where authors read their books, and writers discuss their craft.

KURZ: "What we have are a lot of audio and video files as well as text and pictures that celebrate books and reading and authors and literature in general."

David Kurz is the creator of Wired for Books at WiredforBooks.org. It's hosted at Ohio University and takes advantage of the school's literary program to include audio recordings of writers reading their work. And it includes a massive collection of author interviews recorded by producer Don Swaim for a radio show he did for many years. "Book Beat" was a two-minute radio feature, but the original, unedited interviews run a half-hour or more.

KURZ: "And these are just a fantastic resource, really, for the world, of some of the greatest writers of the late 20th century in America. And we also have some international writers there, too. We have Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, John Updike. The list just goes on and on and on. Norma Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou. As I said, there are nearly 700 interviews."

Also Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsburg, William Styron, and many others. In addition to the interviews and the author readings, Wired for Books has a growing collection of audio theater presentations of great works of literature.

KURZ: "We got some local actors together, and we did a dramatic audio reading of Shakespeare's Macbeth. And so that led to Lewis Carroll's The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and we're coming out in a few weeks with L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

David Kurz adds they have a special children's section called Kids' Corner, which includes some popular stories in French, German and Japanese, as well as English.

A feast for the ears for lovers of books at WiredforBooks.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Béla Fleck — "Reading in the Dark"

Our brand of audio literature: it's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Crime has been a staple of television drama around the world for decades. In recent years more shows have featured the role of science in law enforcement. On TV, DNA samples and other forensic evidence can help bring a criminal to justice in 60 minutes. In the real world, forensic science is a lot more work. Reporter Mike Osborne dug up the facts at a place called the Body Farm.

OSBORNE: It's a beautiful spring day in East Tennessee. The trees are just putting on leaves and every shrub and wildflower is in full bloom. But as I enter one of the most unusual research facilities in the world, even the sweetest smelling blossoms can't mask the stench of rotting flesh.

I'm visiting the Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a facility more commonly referred to as The Body Farm. As I arrive, graduate students are carefully brushing away leaves and twigs from a patch of ground at the edge of a gravel path. They're looking for the last few small bones of a human skeleton.

Clipboard in hand, Kate Driscoll checks off each bone as it's discovered, while Brannon Hulsty places them in a plastic collection bag.

DRISCOLL: "At this point we're doing pretty well. We're missing about…yeah, about five to ten finger and wrist bones, which is not too bad. Usually you're missing a lot more distal toe phalanges - to the very ends of your toes. They're really small and they get lost very easily."

OSBORNE: To find those last few bones, Driscoll and Hulsty use mason's trowels to scrape up a thin layer of topsoil and sift it through a metal screen.

As I watch the students work, the smell of decay grows stronger and I begin to notice just how many bodies are lying under the trees around us. There are currently more than 160 cadavers interred on the body farm, encompassing just a half-hectare of land.

While working with rotting corpses may not be for everyone, it's a price students like Hulsty and Driscoll are willing to pay for a chance to be involved in cutting edge research. When it opened in 1981, the Anthropological Research Center was the first facility of its kind in the world, and it is still one of only three such research centers, all in the United States. Researcher Rebecca Wilson oversees body farm operations.

WILSON: "How do we decompose? What do we look like at different stages of decomposition? And that seems very trivial to some people, but it's extremely important in law enforcement. If I have a body that's been dead for three days, what does that look like and can I tell you it's been dead for three days?"

OSBORNE: Graduates of the program have gone on to work with law enforcement agencies around the world, and criminologists come to Tennessee to sharpen their skills.

Wilson says the Center also collaborates with law enforcement agencies to research specific crimes.

WILSON: "What we'll do is simulate that scenario, — usually a differential decomposition, where something doesn't decompose the way it's expected to. Is this natural, or is this because what the perpetrator did? But we will simulate a scenario like that and see if it is related to natural processes, or related to the incident."

OSBORNE: Just such a project is underway this spring in collaboration with an Australian researcher. Of course, these studies wouldn't be possible without a steady supply of bodies. Remarkably, all the remains interred at the body farm are donated. And, Wilson says, that brings us back to those very popular television programs.

WILSON: "We started our body donation program in 1981. That year we received 4 donations. Last year we received 116 donations. We've seen a significant increase since 2000, which is the same time that your popular television programs have taken off. We have seen an almost exponential increase."

OSBORNE: Wilson says it's a diverse group of individuals who donate their bodies to the Center; everyone from a Circuit Court judge to schoolteachers. Once the decomposition of their remains is studied at the body farm, graduate students like Driscoll and Hulsty collect the bones and place them in a permanent research collection housed at the University of Tennessee. For Our World, I'm Mike Osborne in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Almost as fast as new mobile phones, TV sets, computers and other electronic products come out, older models become out of date.

In the United States alone, an estimated 100 million TV sets, computers and monitors become obsolete each year.

Then what?

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is fast becoming a major problem.

SMITH: "The products don't last very long. The equipment is toxic. More e-waste is thrown away than it is recycled, and more recyclers simply export their products to developing countries. And the toxic components that result from poor design make e-waste hard to recycle."

Ted Smith heads the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes recycling and encourages companies to make products easier to recycle.

Smith was among several experts at a recent Congressional hearing on the issue of e-waste.

Recycling of electronic consumer products is complex and expensive because they contain lots of different components — some valuable, others toxic. Renee St. Denis of Hewlett-Packard explained how recyclers first remove materials that require special treatment, like batteries or glass from TVs or monitors that contains lead.

ST. DENIS: "The residual materials are sent through a series of size reduction and sorting steps. These steps include mechanical shredding and the use of high-tech material separation processes, such as eddy currents, air tables, or magnetic separation."

Because of the cost of recycling, a lot of e-waste is exported. Ted Smith's group, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, estimates that from 50 to as much as 80 percent is processed in developing countries.

SMITH: "The products are being taken apart with hammers. They burn the plastics in order to get to the metals, which have value. And when they burn the plastics it's creating dioxin clouds, which are affecting the children in the communities throughout the developing world. This is happening in China. It's happening in Asia. It's happening in Africa. This is one of the biggest problems that we're facing right now, and I think the U.S. is primarily responsible for this."

Congress is particularly interested in e-waste now. Record numbers of television sets and computer monitors with glass cathode ray tubes are being replaced by flat-screen TVs and flat panel computer monitors.

Several U.S. states require retailers or manufacturers to take their products back. Still, the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 2 million tons of e-waste goes into landfills a year, about six times the amount that's recycled.

Last year Sony Corporation announced a program to take back for recycling any electronic product it makes. Company executive Michael Williams says they've collected more than 3 million kilograms so far.

WILLIAMS: "It makes sense for us from an economic point of view to recycle the products to create recycled waste for, let's say for example, plastic. So I have enough of supply of post-consumer recycled plastic that I can use in my new models. The way we do that is to get our consumers who have the Sony products to bring them to us."

He didn't emphasize it, but Sony is probably also enhancing its image when it promotes recycling of its products.

But most e-waste is still being thrown away, and it's not clear how dangerous that is. Eric Harris, an engineering professor at Arizona State University, says there is little evidence that toxic materials in e-trash would contaminate groundwater.

HARRIS: "The risk of leaching from sanitary landfills is very small, if not negligible. Modern landfills have control systems to contain toxics that may leach out."

Still, many consumers would probably rather not take the chance, if there was an easy way to recycle their old electronics. The European Union has banned the disposal of electronic waste in landfills and requires manufacturers to take back their products for recycling. And manufacturers are looking for ways to make their products easier to recycle while at the same time providing the innovation that consumers have come to expect.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Faith Lapidus edited the show. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.

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