USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

November 25, 2011

US Aquaculture: Feeling Fishy?

Filed under: Aquaculture — dginsbur @ 7:48 pm

With the population recently hitting seven billion, the need to provide food for the growing human race becomes more and more urgent. The amount of food available, though, is starting to decline, as the rate of intake far exceeds the natural reproductive rates of what we consume.

But omnivores, not to worry! The need to turn to vegetarianism is not quite there—the growth of aquaculture in the United States ensures that there will be enough seafood in everyday diet, at least for the time being.

The common definition of aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish and shellfish, which are grown to market size and released into the wild in order to support or rebuild wild stock populations. According to the NOAA Aquaculture Program, aquaculture also “includes the production of ornamental fish for the aquarium trade and plant species used in a range of food, pharmaceutical, nutritional, and biotechnology products.”

With all environmental alternatives, however, comes much debate over the proposed solution. Aquaculture faces heavy scrutiny from both scientists and the public over whether it is more beneficial or detrimental to our environment.

Currently, over 76% of world fisheries are either fully exploited, over exploited, or completely depleted, a grim outlook for the future of our diet. With aquaculture, however, the story is different, especially for the United States. The US is a major consumer of aquaculture projects; NOAA reports that “we import 84% of our seafood and half of that is from aquaculture—yet we are minor producer… Driven by imports, the US seafood trade deficit has grown to over $9 billion annually—the highest it’s ever been.” Though the US is typically at the forefront of everything, we are ranked 13th in total aquaculture production, behind countries from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, which explains much of the annual seafood trade deficit. By turning towards domestic seafood production, the nation’s dependence on imports will significantly reduce.

In addition to helping feed a growing US and world population, aquaculture can also “reduce fishing pressure on certain wild stocks if that species can be produced through aquaculture rather than fished,” reports a PBS document on aquaculture. And judging by the current state of our economy, more concentration in aquaculture can create jobs in communities and increase revenue on city, state, and national levels.

There are many advantages to aquaculture; however, there are some significant issues with it as well. One of the major problems with aquaculture is the threat to native fish populations. Wild fish are used to make feed for the farmed fish and often several pounds of wild fish are used to produce one pound of farmed fish. Because the fish are farmed in such a tight space, aquaculture often results in high incidences of disease, which can contaminate the waters outside of the pen threatening the native fish as well. To combat disease, antibiotics are dumped into the pens, which pollutes the surrounding waters. Fish escapes are also extremely common and interbreeding between native and farmed fish weakens the gene pool of the wild fish.

There are clear benefits and disadvantages to aquaculture. The question is: what should the US do? A New York Times article, Finding a Sustainable Way to Farm the Seas, suggests that with improvements to the industry, aquaculture could be more sustainable. Courtney Hough, general secretary of the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers, claims that “highly efficient feeds have helped bring down the ratio of fish-based feed to fish produced, sometimes to nearly one-to-one”. In addition vaccination and monitoring can help decrease the incidence of disease. There are ways to farm fish in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way. If done the right way, aquaculture could be a great solution to satisfying the protein needs of our growing population.


NOAA Aquaculture Program:


NY Times:

About the authors: Leslie Chang and Lauren Taymor are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

November 21, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms: Not Worth The Risk

Filed under: Genetically Modified Organisms — Tags: , — dginsbur @ 11:21 am

Genetically modified organisms raise a number of questions surrounding their place in technology, government, environment, society, and the economy. To clarify, a genetically modified organism is any organism in which the genes have been added to, subtracted from, or mixed around in a laboratory setting. It is different from natural gene mutation or breeding in that it does not happen randomly through reproductive recombination (BMJ, 1999). This genetic modification is not done without reason—there are a number of benefits that include: increased pest resistance, drought tolerance, greater food supply, and increased nutritional content. However, there are also a lot of risks. These risks include indirect harm to organisms, reduced pesticide effectiveness, gene transfer to non-target species, unknown impacts on human health, and economic concerns because farmers have to buy the seeds year-after-year (the GMOs often cannot reproduce) from the company or corporation that owns a particular gene sequence (WebMD).  For these reasons, they are not worth the risk—the costs severely outweigh the benefits.

Genetically modified crops, though intended to reduce environmental damage, are not the most sustainable and safe way to increase food production. According to the Sierra Club, since the introduction of GMO’s in the 1990s research has shown that genes introduced into the environment through GMOs can make it easier for weeds to grow on the cropland. This problem is heightened further when bees or other biotic pollinators spread genetically modified pollen to native plants or weeds. The advantageous characteristics in the GMO, like resistance to herbicides, are then incorporated into the weed. It is the next to impossible to eradicate the weed. Humans have created weeds that we cannot easily get rid of (Sierra Club). By working to solve the problem of weeds on cropland, the problem has only been magnified in severity and scope.

Another issue with genetically modified crops is the reduction in biodiversity that comes along with them. Like most crops, genetically modified or not, they are grown monoculturally, meaning there is only one species of plant on a particular plot of land. Growing monoculturally increases impacts to the soil, for the plants all require the same nutrients and those nutrients are then quickly depleted. Soil is a nonrenewable resource, so farmers should be working to maintain the nutrient content and integrity of the soil. Growing on species also means that if a pest mutates to the point where it can get past genetic modifications to prevent this, the whole crop can be lost to the pest. If all food is switched to genetic modification, this could mean entire types of food could be lost to pests and no longer be available for human consumption (Sierra Club). The smartest alternative is growing polycultural, non-GMO crops. The food would then be less susceptible to a single pest, and none of the other problems associated with GMOs would be ensued.

The economic and political concerns surrounding GMOs are also very important to consider. According to Michael Graham Richard, “GMOs are usually patented bio-technology.” This patenting makes them very expensive and hard to obtain for small farmers. Big agriculture business is favored and some fear corporation will, if it hasn’t already, take over America’s food supply. That is a scary thought for many.

The scariest aspect of GMOs, and the one that is most often debated, is their possible threat to human health. The New York Times article “Study Raises Doubt About Allergy to Genetic Corn” reported Starlink corn, a GM version of corn, was incorporated into a number of foods during the early 2000s, and people reported a number of severe allergic reactions to the products. Similar reactions could be seen with other, new GMO products. Is it worth it to risk overall human health for questionable increased food production?


Genetic modification is a radical new technology that has yet to be investigated fully. It is not the best alternative to feed the growing population. Instead, farmers should look to use other, less-risky technologies and strategies to increase food production and reduce the amount of land that they are using. Great alternatives do exist and genetic modification is not one of them.

About the authors: Katherine Moreno and Madi Swayne are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

November 13, 2011

The Merits and Misfortunes of Biofuels

Driven by political concerns related to the reduction of dependence on oil, improvement of environmental conditions, and increase in food production for a growing population; experts around the world are looking to biofuels.  Yet the undesirable impacts of biofuels, including the exploitation of multiple feed stocks, threat of biodiversity and habitat loss, overuse of water resources, and impact on food prices leave many experts questioning if the net benefits outweigh the cost of using biofuels.

As described in David Tilman’s article “Beneficial Biofuels—The Food, Energy, and Environment Trilemma”, the topic of biofuels is a complex issue that, done right, can offer “global greenhouse-gas emission reduction and the local environmental and societal benefits.” With dramatic improvements in technology and policy, biofuels have the potential to be the answer to increased food and biomass productivity on current farmlands, large reduction in global greenhouse-gas emission, and a considerable portion of energy necessary for transportation.

However, an investment in biofuel production will adversely impact such scarce environmental resources as land and water as well as lead to the potential increase of greenhouse gas emissions and increase in food prices.  Biofuels demand a considerable amount of land to grow the resources necessary for its production.  “Sometimes, the most profitable way to get land for biofuels is to clear the land of its native ecosystem”, be it primary forests, grasslands, a savanna, etc. (Tilman)  The conversion of these lands results in a drastic release of carbon dioxide and loss in biodiversity from slashing and burning the biomass, which contradicts any greenhouse gas reduction that results from using biofuels.

Carbon emissions from the conversion of land by global biofuels program can result in twice as many emissions from lands directly used for biofuel production.

In addition to the loss of habitat and biodiversity from converting these lands for the use of biofuels is a substantial demand upon stressed water resources.  Bio refineries consume close to four gallons of water per gallon of bioethanol produced from the evaporative loss during the distillation of ethanol.  Further, although one of the primary reasons for using biofuels is to stabilize food security, the production of biofuels requires extensive use of existing feedstock, land, and water. Such leads to a considerable impact on food prices.  Biofuels deserve blame for increased food prices due to its use of preexisting feedstock [such as corn] which contributes to tightening corn supply and rising prices.  Many people are at an even greater risk of food deprivation and malnutrition due to the inflation of food prices.

While there are many benefits in using biofuels, there are also many more disadvantages, especially with regard to the current state and use of biofuels.  While the use of biofuels can help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and lessen the dependence on fossil fuels, it comes at a substantial cost.  Biofuels exploit such environmental resources as water and land, inflates food prices, and leads to greater greenhouse emissions from converting land for biofuel use.  Yet, the transition from fossil fuels to biofuels is one that, while gradual, is also highly feasible. By also adopting other clean, renewable, and efficient sources of energy–such as solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and wind energy—we lessen the negative effects of relying solely on biofuels and thus lessen much of the negative environmental impacts on the Earth.

About the authors: Victoria Chu and Mabel Nevarrez are undergraduate students in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Genetic Modification: An unlabeled hazard or fruitful technology

Filed under: Genetically Modified Organisms — dginsbur @ 2:16 pm

Let’s face it. Genetic modification of plants and animals has been taking place for thousands of years. In order to generate a fruitful harvest or breed larger stock, farmers would selectively breed their best with their best, thus creating a superior breed.

So what’s all controversy about?

Modern genetic modification is no longer as simple as taking two large plants and breeding them with each other.  The role of technology and science has become more and more reliant and nature no longer is allowed to take its course. This is not necessarily a bad thing but has provided a basis for controversy.

Genetic modification has proven as a benefit to society in many ways. Through altering certain genes, crop yield and quality have greatly increased and improved. Through scientific breakthroughs one crops’ distinct gene, such as an ability to create a vitamin beneficial to humans can now be transferred to a completely different crop. This same concept has now created crops that require less pesticides. By identifying bacteria that are resistant to certain diseases, DNA can be extracted, altered, and implanted into a crop. This modified crop is overall easier on the environment and of a higher quality to that of traditional farming methods.  Due to the removed cost of pesticides to treat plant disease and the ability to create larger and healthier harvests, farmers have been able to generate larger profits.

While there are many positives for a society to adopt genetically modified organisms, many people question the effects engineered agriculture can have on the human body. Produce is not the only type of genetically modified organism. Many of the animals we currently eat are engineered to grow quicker and be larger than those found in nature. This unhealthy growth has been the concern of many people across the United States who feel as though ingesting such engineered meats can be carcinogenic and unhealthy. While there currently has been little scientific proof of such accusations, many people feel strongly that any agriculture genetically modified should be labeled when up for sale. Stemming from this concern, organic agriculture has been thriving and providing people with certainty their food has not been scientifically tampered with. Every store bought organic item is labeled and guarantees nothing through its growing process has been engineered or modified.

Along with health concerns, GMO’s have massive potential to dominate in nature. Through their engineering process, GMO’s tend to be superior in many ways to a wild version of the same plant. There currently is a large concern for GMO’s to cause a loss of genetic diversity and variety among certain species of plants. This lack of variety can eventually lead to a loss of a prized trait that may have a certain use in the future.

The GMO debate is not one that will end soon. Still relatively new to the market, the positives of GMOs currently outweigh the negatives. Though future analysis, science will be able to analyze and decipher the negative effects engineering organisms can have on the human body. In the mean time, I believe the people should have the option to choose whether or not they want to eat these organisms. Stores should be forced to label produce that has been engineered and shoppers should decide what they currently want in their diet.

About the authors: Lucas Biging and Nick Leonard are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

California Biofuels as a Feasible Energy Source

Filed under: Biofuels — dginsbur @ 2:08 pm

Although biofuels have been debated as a feasible energy source, their growing use has proven successful across multiple terrains and with multiple benefits. Biofuel methods have already been implemented in different regions of California, and should continue to expand because of the evident economical, environmental and health benefits that are occurring.

Northern California can successfully expand the use of biofuels through forestry residue sources.  Studies in the Sierra Nevada have concluded that slight removal of forestry residues for biofuel use helps reduce wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions and shifts our dependency off of fossil fuels.  Additionally, Biofuel is the only alternative fuel, according to the Clean Air Act, that has achieved the health-effects testing requirements.  The heavily forested regions in northern California make forestry residues a very feasible source of biofuels.

In Ventura County, California, ARIES Biofuel Technology has launched an incredibly successful biofuel system for military and governmental jets.  Through collaborative innovation, Aerojet, the Biodiesel Industry Inc. and the Navy created ARIES’ central facilities that utilize non-food feedstocks, jatropha and algae biofuels.  This economically and environmentally progressive method could easily be implemented on a more local scale through governmental advocacy.  Additionally, Extreme Green Technologies, Inc. has also been launched in Corona, California, encouraging local implementation and participation in the use of biofuels.  It focuses on private purchase of waste vegetable oil and algae-based biodiesel. California has incredible potential to use the entire coast for transforming algae into a feasible biofuel.

Algae is important because as land for agricultural purposes is a growing concern with an increasing population, algae doesn’t use up terrestrial space.  Algae as a biofuel has some controversy, however.  Even though algae seems like a better option because it isn’t a big threat to food security or soil degradation, the net productivity has been proven to be low on some accounts.  One article mentions synthetic photosynthesis as a future alternative that could eventually “convert sunlight into liquid fuels directly.”  Even if algae does not have high biofuel yields, the large ocean supply has incredible capacity.  It could also be combined with other biofuel sources such as crop or forest residues, ARIES biofuel technology system, or even synthetic photosynthesis to make an extremely successful net productivity.

Another plant that is providing incredible biofuel success internationally is the Jatropha genus. Jatropha “is a genus of different succulent plants [and] shrubs” that is a beneficial biodiesel source in its native lands; the Philippines, Brazil and India.  It is a very powerful source of biodiesel because of its drought and pest resistance.  The seed content of Jatropha is also very high in oil, and other remains of the seed are feasible energy sources, too.  Jatropha has been productive when used in a mixed cropping system.  The only concern is introducing this alien species in a land where the net yield and environmental impact is unknown. They have high productivity potential, though, if managed in a sustainable manner and in appropriate ecosystems.  In the past year, Jatropha has even started to become a successful source of airplane biofuel for New Zealand, China and Mexico.  These plants are also economically feasible because, like algae, they do not sacrifice food resources for fuel sources.

All of these sources still need further research to determine the most productive way to manage and implement these systems. Increased prices of fossil fuels, however, will undoubtedly help these biofuels become more popular.  Legislation however, needs to continue providing support, incentives and definitive goals for these cleaner, more sustainable, energy sources.  Current imprecise government regulations could let the biofuel business find loopholes or counter-productive methods.  If emphasis on economic benefits, job incentives and sustainable practices increases, biofuels will successfully become a dominant source of California energy.

About the authors: Liam Sharkey and Katie Graves are undergraduate students in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.