Posts about Economics

80% of the Antibiotics in the USA are Used in Agriculture and Aquaculture

Citing an overabundance in the use of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries that poses a threat to public health, economics professor Aidan Hollis has proposed a solution in the form of user fees on the non-human use of antibiotics.

In a newly released paper published (closed science, sadly, so no link provide), Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed state that in the United States 80% of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.

This flood of antibiotics released into the environment – sprayed on fruit trees and fed to the likes of livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses – has led bacteria to evolve, Hollis writes. Mounting evidence cited in the journal shows resistant pathogens are emerging in the wake of this veritable flood of antibiotics – resulting in an increase in bacteria that is immune to available treatments.

If the problem is left unchecked, this will create a health crisis on a global scale, Hollis says.

Hollis suggest that the predicament could be greatly alleviated by imposing a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, similar to the way in which logging companies pay stumpage fees and oil companies pay royalties.

“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” explains Hollis. “This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery – even minor ones – will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people.”

Bacteria that can effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis adds, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.

“It’s not just the food we eat,” he says. “Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob. You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”

While the vast majority of antibiotic use has gone towards increasing productivity in agriculture, Hollis asserts that most of these applications are of “low value.”

“It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle,” says Hollis. “It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.

“These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn’t mean it’s generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal.

“The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial.”

While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.

Such a practice would deter the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods and to adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.

Hollis also suggests that an international treaty could ideally be imposed. “Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” he says. He adds that such a treaty might have a fair chance of attaining international compliance, as governments tend to be motivated by revenue collection.

Hollis notes that in the USA, a move has been made to control the non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.

Related: Raising Food Without AntibioticsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksWhat Happens If the Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Them No Longer Working?Antibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes

Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Elon Musk (the engineer and entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and before that he helped create PayPal) has a very cool idea of how to provide fast long distance transportation (faster than a plane). Essentially it is a big version of pneumatic tubes that used to be used to send small packages around a building, as seen in the movie – Brazil :-) Details are scheduled to be released August 12th.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Build the Hyperloop for a Tenth the Cost of High-Speed Rail

Having a elevated Hyperloop main line also completely avoids or reduces many of the pitfalls of ground-level right-of-ways, and opens up some new opportunities as well:

  • The crossing of other right-of-ways, like roads and railways, will be a breeze.
  • Rivers and other terrain obstacles will only be a 10th the problem of rail construction.
  • Hyperloop can avoid tunnels completely by having more flexible choices of right-of-way.
  • An elevated right-of-way opens up new route options, like leasing farmer’s fields using contracts similar to what wind-power companies sign.
  • That could be paid for by leasing Hyperloop’s right-of-way to communications companies for fiber optic cables, cell phone towers, etc.
  • …and let’s not forget the solar power that a couple of square miles of surface area can generate!

Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for Hyperloop

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power.

Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Elon Musk has some very good ideas but what really sets him apart is turning them into functioning enterprises. Great ideas are wonderful but a huge number never go anywhere. Those people that can actually get ideas into the marketplace are the people that provide a much greater standard of living for all of us. And many of them are engineers.

Update: link to his blog post announcement.

More examples of cool extreme engineering: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelTransferring Train Passengers Without Stoppingtransatlantic tunnelWebcast on Machine That Bores Subway Tunnels

3d Printers Can Already Save Consumers Money

I first wrote about 3d printing at home here, on the Curious Cat Engineering blog, in 2007. Revolutionary technology normally takes quite a while to actually gain mainstream viability. I am impressed how quickly 3d printing has moved and am getting more convinced we are underestimating the impact. The quality of the printing is improving amazingly quickly.

3d printed objects

As is so often the case these day, our broken patent system is delaying innovation in our society. For 3d printing there is a good argument the delays due to the innovation crippling way that system is operating today will be avoided as critical 3d patents expire in 2014. Patents can aid society but the current system is not, instead it is causing society great harm and delaying us being able to use new innovations.

“For the average American consumer, 3D printing is ready for showtime,” said Associate Professor Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University.

3D printers deposit multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make almost anything, from toys to tools to kitchen gadgets. Free designs that direct the printers are available by the tens of thousands on websites like Thingiverse (a wonderful site). Visitors can download designs to make their own products using open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, which you build yourself from printed parts, or those that come in a box ready to print, from companies like Type-A Machines.

3D printers have been the purview of a relative few aficionados, but that is changing fast, Pearce said. The reason is financial: the typical family can already save a great deal of money by making things with a 3D printer instead of buying them off the shelf.

In the study, Pearce and his team chose 20 common household items listed on Thingiverse. Then they used Google Shopping to determine the maximum and minimum cost of buying those 20 items online, shipping charges not included.

Next, they calculated the cost of making them with 3D printers. The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 to buy those 20 things compared to $18 to make them in a weekend.

Open-source 3D printers for home use have price tags ranging from about $350 to $2,000. Making the very conservative assumption a family would only make 20 items a year, Pearce’s group calculated that the printers would pay for themselves quickly, in a few months to a few years.

The group chose relatively inexpensive items for their study: cellphone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, a spoon holder, and the like. 3D printers can save consumers even more money on high-end items like customized orthotics and photographic equipment.

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Clay Water Filters for Ghana

Pure Home Water, Ghana manufactures and distributes AfriClay Filters in an effort to bring clean water to 1 million people. So far they have delivered filters to provide 100,000 people clean water.

The process is simple. Water is placed in a clay filter and gravity pulls the water through the pores left in the clay during firing.

Sediment and bacteria are filtered out in several ways:

  • Physical straining: the particles are too large to fit through the pores in the clay
  • Sedimentation or adsorption: particles come to rest on or stick to the clay
  • Inertia: friction in the pores keeps the particles from passing through

Bacteria are also killed by a coating of colloidal silver (a disinfectant), which we apply to all filters that pass our quality control tests. While sediment and bacteria are filtered out, the molecules of water are small enough to pass through the pores in the clay.

The filters are sold to those who will use them. The effort has shown a willingness to pay by villagers in remote Northern Ghana (those earning < US$1/day). I imagine (I am just guessing) the prices are subsidized; in the last decade more (most?) appropriate technology solutions will have those benefiting pay something for the benefits they receive.

My nephews are working on a similar effort in India, using bio sand filters, I plan to post more on that later. There is current a campaign to help fund the delivery of water filters to Indian villages.

Related: Solar Powered Water Jug to Purify Drinking WaterElectric WindStudent Invents Solar-Powered FridgeReducing Poverty

The Wonderful Coconut

One of the treats of living in a tropical climate is drinking coconut water. I love drinking the water from fresh coconuts. This video provides insight into the many uses of all parts of the coconut tree.

The Truth About Coconut Water by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD – WebMD

[coconut water] has fewer calories, less sodium, and more potassium than a sports drink. Ounce per ounce, most unflavored coconut water contains 5.45 calories, 1.3 grams sugar, 61 milligrams (mg) of potassium, and 5.45 mg of sodium compared to Gatorade, which has 6.25 calories, 1.75 grams of sugar, 3.75 mg of potassium, and 13.75 mg of sodium.

There are some health benefits to consuming coconut water. It’s an all-natural way to hydrate, reduce sodium, and add potassium to diets. Most Americans don’t get enough potassium in their diets because they don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, or dairy, so coconut water can help fill in the nutritional gaps.

Beyond that, the scientific literature does not support the hype that it will help with a laundry list of diseases. “There is a lot of hype about coconut water, yet the research is just not there to support many of the claims and much more research is needed,” says Cheung.

I have tried bottled coconut water which was pitiful. I don’t know if that was just a bad type and good options exist or the fresh stuff is just much much better. But I’ll stick to fresh coconut water as long as I can.

Related: Does Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?Can You Effectively Burn Calories by Drinking Cold Water?How do Plants Grow Into the Sunlight?Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Open Source Ecology: Using Open Engineering to Create Economic Benefit

Open Source Philosophy. from Open Source Ecology on Vimeo.

I think the video’s message is overly simplistic and unrealistic (great innovations often seem unrealistic so I don’t mind people trying things I don’t think are likely to succeed in the ways they imagine). But I believe in the concepts of using our knowledge to use appropriate technology to make the standard of living better for everyone. Open access to scientific knowledge is important to such efforts and to the economic well being of modern society.

Open Source Ecology provides a modular, DIY (open access), low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts. The are recruiting for an Operations Manager, and an Executive Team (based in Kansas City or New York City in the USA).

Related: Pay as You Go Solar in IndiaStudent Engineers Without Borders Project: Learning While Making a Difference in KenyaReducing Poverty Through Entrepreneurism

System for Approving New Medical Options Needs Improvement

Something Doesn’t Add Up

Not only did the team find that evidence for Infuse’s benefits over existing alternatives for most patients was questionable; they also discovered in a broad array of published research that risks of complications (including cancer, male sterility and other serious side effects) appeared to be 10 to 50 times higher than 13 industry-sponsored studies had shown. And they learned that authors of the early studies that found no complications had been paid between $1 million and $23 million annually by the company for consulting, royalties and other compensation. Carragee, MD ’82, estimates Medtronic has sold several billion dollars’ worth of Infuse for uses both approved and “off label.”

Without a rigorous, data-driven context, medicine’s expensive traditions and hunch-based treatments threaten to bankrupt us. “People say that we shouldn’t delay science; people are dying; we should get new treatments out there. I do not feel the pressure to do that until we have solid evidence,” Ioannidis asserts. “The resources many procedures draw are enormous.” And that leaves insufficient funds for the prevention plans and treatments we know actually work.

I have written about the problems with our health care research system several times. The existing system is in need of improvement and is made much worse by the general state of the broken health care system in the USA. Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, the focus of the article, is doing fantastic work in this area.

Related: Majority of Clinical Trials Don’t Provide Meaningful EvidenceStatistical Errors in Medical StudiesUSA Spends $7,960 Compared to Around $3,800 for Other Rich Countries on Health Care with No Better Health ResultsDrug Company Funding Taints Published Medical ResearchMistakes in Experimental Design and InterpretationUnderstanding Data

Promoting Innovation in Sierra Leone

Another inspirational kid that shows that the potential for human good is much greater than the talking heads and politicians that litter the TV screen so often.

In the video Kelvin says, “That is my aim: to Promote Innovation in Seira Leone, among young people.” See another video as Kelvin explains his homemade battery.

Support these young engineers in Sierra Leone via innovate Salone.

Related: Inspirational Engineer Build Windmill Using TrashSupporting the Natural Curiosity of KidsWhat Kids can Learn If Given a ChanceI was Interviewed About Encouraging Kids to Pursue Engineering

Solar Powered Water Jug to Purify Drinking Water

Deepika Kurup, a 14-year-old New York student, won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her invention of a solar-powered water jug that changes dirty water into purified drinking water. She won the top prize of $25,000.

During “the 5 minutes of my presentation 15 children have died from lack of clean drinking water.”

I am thankful we have kids like this to create solutions for us that will make the world a better place. We rely on hundreds of thousands of such people to use science and engineering methods to benefit society.

Related: Strawjet: Invention of the YearCheap Drinking Water From SeawaterWater and Electricity for AllThanksgiving, Appropriately (power of capitalism and people to provide long term increases in standards of living)

Add Over-Fishing to the Huge Government Debt as Examples of How We Are Consuming Beyond Our Means

Fish are hidden under the water so the unsustainable harvesting isn’t quite as obvious as the unsustainable government debt but they both are a result of us living beyond our sustainable production. You can live well by consuming past wealth and condemning your decedents to do without. That is the way we continue to live. Over-fishing a century ago was not as obviously dangerous as it is today. But we have witnessed many instances of overfishing devastating the fishing economy (when the fishing is unsustainable the inevitable result is collapse and elimination of the vast majority of the food and income that previous generations enjoyed).

The normal pattern has been to turn to more aggressive fishing methods and new technology to try and collect fish as over-fishing devastates yields. This, of course, further devastates the state of the resources and makes it so recovery will take much much longer (decades – or more).

New research shows the existing problems and the potential if we apply science and planning to manage fisheries effectively.

Using new methods to estimate thousands of unassessed fisheries, a new comprehensive study provides a new view of global fish stocks. The results show that the overall state of fisheries is worse than previously thought. Unassessed stocks, which are often left out of global analyses because of a lack of data, are declining at disturbing rates. When these fisheries are taken into account, the results indicate that over 40 percent of fisheries have crashed or are overfished, producing economic losses in excess of $50 billion per year.

The good news is that this decline is not universal: fisheries are starting to rebound in many areas across the globe and we can learn from these examples. Recovery trends are strongest for fisheries where data on the status of the fishery exists, and in which managers and fishermen have made science-based decisions and stuck with them in the face of political pressure.

The amount of fish brought to shore could increase 40 percent on average – and double in some areas – compared to yields predicted if we continue current fishing trends.

The management solutions to overfishing are well known, tested and proven to work. While these solutions are not “one-size-fits-all” for fisheries, there are common themes. Specifically, managers and fishermen must: 1. Reduce fishing to allow stocks to rebuild; 2. Set catches at a sustainable level that is based on the best available scientific and economic information rather than short-term political pressures; and 3. Prevent dangerous fishing activities that destroy habitat, wildlife, or breeding fish.

The over fishing problem is difficult because our nature is to ignore problems that are not immediate. But the costs of doing so are very large. If we don’t behave more wisely our children will pay the price. And, in fact, this problem is so acute now that those of us that expect to live a couple decades can expect to pay the price. In rich countries this will be tolerable, a bit less fish at much higher prices. In rich countries food prices are a minor expense compared to the billions of those not living in rich countries. They will suffer the most. As will those that have jobs directly dependent on fishing.

Related: Fishless FutureEuropean Eels in Crisis After 95% Decline in Last 25 yearsLet the Good Times Roll (using Credit)SelFISHingRunning Out of FishThe State of the Oceans is Not GoodChinook Salmon Vanish Without a Trace

Pay as You Go Solar in India

Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar

In October, Bangalore-based Simpa Networks Inc. installed a solar panel on Anand’s whitewashed adobe house along with a small metal box in his living room to monitor electricity usage. The 25-year-old rice farmer, who goes by one name, purchases energy credits to unlock the system via his mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go model.

When his balance runs low, Anand pays 50 rupees ($1) — money he would have otherwise spent on kerosene. Then he receives a text message with a code to punch into the box, giving him about another week of electric light.
When he pays off the full cost of the system in about three years, it will be unlocked and he will get free power.

Across India and Africa, startups and mobile phone companies are developing so-called microgrids, in which stand- alone generators power clusters of homes and businesses in places where electric utilities have never operated.

Very cool. Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access. The poorest spending up to 30% of their income on inefficient and expensive means of providing light and accessing electricity. Solutions like this, finding engineering solutions for basic needs that are market based, are great.

That the poor end up owning their solar system after just 3 years is great.

Creating great benefit to society with the smart adoption of technology and sustainable economics is something I love.

Related: Solar Power Market Solutions For Hundreds of Millions Without ElectricityAppropriate Technology: Solar Hot Water in Poor Cairo NeighborhoodsEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerWater Pump Merry-go-Round

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