How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Dozen Rules for Eating Ethically

View the rules here in Google, where you can download them!

Instead of reading about the fisheries in the southern California Channel Islands in order to make progress toward my potential sheephead study, I chose to write to you about food.

There is a homeless garden outside the Long Marine Lab. It is not associated with the lab, but it is right by the driveway. I have always wondered what was mean by the term "homeless garden." At first glance (but not really glance, because you don't hear with your eyes--at first hearing?), it sounded like a garden that is lost and lonely and living on the street. Of course, that makes no sense, so my second thought was that the garden is where homeless people can work and then get a share of food.

I looked at their website, and that is basically correct. The garden is also a community sponsored garden (CSA), which means that people in the area can pay to receive food each week that is grown right there. These facts, in addition to it being all organic, make it in my mind one of the most wonderful places in the world. I support responsible farming not just with my whole heart, but with my whole body, and this little farm seems like something to live for.

Some volunteers at the Homeless Garden Project CSA.

I was just now inspired by a post of the farm's blog. It is about bringing back the lost art of cooking. I definitely encourage you to read it, because it is excellent and inspiring. The author, a nutritionist and cook, makes two great points that are worth quoting:

"When people ask me what is best thing they can do to improve their diet is, my answer is always the same: to cook at home more often."

"I’ve come to realize that knowledge and knowing are two different things. Knowledge is learning about something but knowing is really understanding it."

The post reminded me how passionate I am about food and sustainability, and almost made me cry! To refresh my food passion, I am posting my final essay for the course I took called "Christian Ethics of Eating." The course had a little to do with Christianity, and a lot to do with food. The prompt for the essay was to come up with twelve rules about how to eat ethically. On reading it again just now, I consider it one of my best pieces of writing, mostly because it really embodies exactly how I feel about food and society. Though I wrote it over a year ago, I will believe in and try to live by these rules for a long, long time.

A Dozen Rules for Eating Ethically
By Gina Marie Contolini
May 9, 2012
Rules about what to eat

RULE #1. Avoid animal products. “Vegans are living demonstrations of the fact that we do not need to exploit animals for food” (Singer, 279). Consumption of animal products (edible and non-edible) is unethical because it is unnecessary and it causes harm to others. In fact, it has even been considered “a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage” (Singer, 240). The current states of the environment and the global food situation are appalling and immediate action must be taken to resolve these problems. Therefore, we should not only avoid consuming animal food but also non-food items that depend on the rearing of animals. By boycotting these products, there will be less demand to grow animals so producers will grow less of them, thus saving resources which can be reallocated to alleviate important world problems.

RULE #2. Avoid industrial food. Industrial food production, especially of sugar, corn, and soy, is based on a capitalist ethic of profit. It encourages personal benefit at the expense of others. Robert Albritton agrees: “Because of its short-term profit orientation, I believe that capitalism is not consistent with a human right to food or with sustainable agriculture” (122). Industrial food production has led to unfair and unsafe working conditions, unsustainable farming practices, and unhealthy eating habits. It also encourages deceptive marketing and exploits human physiology and nature by encouraging physical and emotional addictions. Avoiding industrial food is a way to say “no” to these unethical practices.

RULE #3. Avoid tobacco. Though not a food, similar to animal products, tobacco is an unnecessary agricultural product and its production wastes scarce resources. “Land that is utilized to grow tobacco is land taken away from growing food” (Albritton, 86). Worse, however, is the fact that there are absolutely no positive effects of tobacco. It’s not even food! Rather than giving us energy and nutrients, tobacco gives us emphysema and cancer. It epitomizes unethical agriculture.

RULE #4. Avoid low cost food. “The deepest problem that local-food efforts face… is that we’ve gotten used to paying so little for food” (McKibben, 89). This is a problem because more often than not cheap food comes at a high cost to those involved in its production. Buying it is a way of saying we don’t think their work is worth our dollar. Furthermore, cheap food exploits our ingrained capitalistic desire to save money in the short term at the cost of our long-term goals like health and environmental sustainability. Don’t believe the lie that a 12-pack of Trix yogurt for $2 is a good deal. Those products rely on the unsustainable subsidies of corn and soy, which are processed into “food” that do little if anything to benefit human health. Finally, investing financially in our food makes us more aware of our purchases.

Rules about how to make food choices

RULE #5. Plan your food consumption. Do your best not to waste food. Already, “more than 40% of the food grown in the United States is lost or thrown away” (Singer, 268). Food is a precious resource, and by wasting it we are denying its importance. Buy only as much fresh food as you can consume before it goes bad. Always refrigerate or freeze leftovers, and take home extra food from restaurants. This will also save money that would otherwise be spent buying new food.

RULE #6. Avoid traditional act analysis. Traditional act analysis judges morality based on intentions and ignores unintended consequences. “Moral responsibility in these cases is simply a phantom: none of the individual moral agent’s actions causing these problems is wrong, so there is no negative moral responsibility to assign” (Graham, 45). Instead, we should be far-sighted and think of all the consequences of our actions, including social implications. When we begin to constantly reflect on our food choices, we will be able to make decisions that rightly express our morals.

Rules about how to think about and treat food

RULE #7. Be grateful for food. “Many Christian ethicists regard gratitude as one of the basic, enduring sensibilities that should characterize Christian existence and our lifelong response to God” (Graham, 9). Food allows you to live, so appreciate it! This will humble us and keep our focus away from personal gain. Say thanks to local farmers, say grace, and use food for what it is for—good health. Graham notes that part of gratitude is proper use of a gift, which in this case means keeping our bodies healthy. Plus, we will respect food more when we are using it as a tool for good health.

RULE #8. Grow your own food. “Smaller farms produce far more food per acre” (McKibben, 67). You save a lot of time and resources by getting to know a spot of land and growing a small garden of your own. Gardening is the most efficient form of agriculture and, when you grow local plants in season, has the lowest environmental footprint. Growing your own food—even just a basil plant in your kitchen—will also help you appreciate and think about what food really is.

RULE #9. Take part in food production. “Most of us, including most of the farmers who raise food animals, do our very best to avoid thinking about, let along having anything directly to do with, their slaughter” (Pollan, 226). Instead, visit farms and form relationships with the people who provide you the stuff of life. This will foster a great love and appreciation for the food you eat and the people who grow it. It will also encourage transparency and honesty about how food is grown. Plus, it will be much easier to choose local ethical food when you’ve put a face to it. Also, take some initiative and learn about farmers’ practices. This will help you determine if they are supporting ethical food production practices.

RULE #10. Eat in community. Food is important for physical and emotional health, and eating in community benefits both of these. “We want our food not just to replenish our muscle tissues and blood cells but to lift our spirits and gladden our hearts” (McCormick, 10). Sharing food with others keeps food a major part of our lives, which it should be, since without it, we would die! Eating in community is a great way to get people together in a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere. Plus, if you share your thoughts on food while you are eating together, you can promote a positive food ethic that will be easy to maintain when others may hold you accountable.

RULE #11 Learn to cook. Investing time in your food is an excellent way to appreciate it more. Pollan notes this when he makes his “perfect” meal: “…no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real” (392). Even if you just learn to cook one or two meals, cooking will help you remember the importance of food in your life. It will also help keep you away from unethical processed food, and encourage community eating since cooking is very visible and often pungent.

RULE #12. Vary your diet. “Many of us have forgotten our hunger, and go long stretches without remembering the hunger pangs of neighbors who struggle for scraps to supply their daily bread” (McCormick, 26). While fasting can be a useful mental and spiritual exercise, simply restricting certain foods or making an effort to eat differently can have a positive effect on our concept of food. By feeling hunger, we won’t forget the importance of our food and that we are blessed to have it. Set a date when to lift the restriction and when you reach it, that food item will seem so much more glorious!

View the rules here in Google, where you can download them!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Department Retreat at Big Creek

Reason #10 to be an ecologist: Free camping at biological preserves.

I suppose I should think of nine other reasons at some point.

Last weekend the students, employees, and faculty of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology went camping in the redwoods of Big Sur. There's a preserve owned by the University of California for the exclusive use of students and faculty and their field work. Apparently, it can also be used for ecology department events of any kind, because our department got to use the campsite all weekend to make fires, cook sausages and jaffles, drink, go hiking, get poison oak, and play in hot springs.

The preserve is about 2 hours south of Santa Cruz down the Highway One. It's an awesome drive, especially because there is great and cheap produce along the way. There's also a giant artichoke statue.

Trees at our campsite.

We saw a very interesting biological specimen on our hike.

The view speaks for itself.

It's always easier to hike up than down.

View from the top of the hike. Ignore the poor stitching and it's a really great photo. I know it's way to wide for the blog, but it's cool enough to be nonconforming like that.

There's beach access under that bridge.

Here's what it looks like at the beach.

Joseph checks his jaffle in the jaffle iron.

I know what you're thinking: What is a jaffle? I'll tell you what I know about jaffles. They are food. They are Australian. They usually resemble a sandwich. They remind me of grilled cheese, but tend to have something other than cheese between the bread. The jaffle iron looks like a waffle iron on a long, cast iron rod, but it doesn't have a waffle pattern on the inside, it's just flat, sort of like two frying pans that close up on each other. To make a classic jaffle,

  1. Preheat the jaffle iron in a fire. 
  2. Rub a stick of butter on the inside of the iron. 
  3. Once it's greasy, put a piece of bread on one open face of the jaffle iron. Make sure there are no holes in the bread or your jaffle will leak!
  4. Apply the jaffle filling to this piece of bread--apple pie filling and chocolate chips were the norm at our retreat. 
  5. Place another piece of bread (no holes!) on top of the filling. 
  6. Squish the jaffle-sandwich between the two sides of the iron by closing it. 
  7. Stick the jaffle iron with jaffle inside in the fire, checking every few minutes for browning but not burning. 

There's a story about how jaffles were introduced to America. Abe met an Australian guy and they wet camping. The Aussie brought a lot of jaffle irons and gave one to Abe.

The end! Now UCSC's department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has a jaffle iron, and it is used to initiate new students. Students are told to close their eyes and put out one hand...

...just kidding...

Monday, November 4, 2013

PhD Thesis Project Update

Graduate school is so fabulous because of the rate at which it turns impossibility into achievement!

I just gave away the happy ending to this post. Sorry. Here's the story that should have come before that punchline.

I came into my graduate program wanting to study evolution in marine systems. Specifically, I want to study how marine organisms change over time and affect their surroundings. This is the field of eco-evolutionary dynamics.

This broad interest is all I knew of my PhD dissertation project when I got to UCSC in September. I'll be here at least five years, so I wasn't concerned that I didn't have any idea for a project. Then, a week into the program, I had an assignment to write a formal research proposal for a national organization on what I would be doing for my dissertation--due in a month.

Uh, WHHHAT?! I just GOT here. How am I supposed to spit out a five-year project proposal in four weeks? was my first reaction.

One month. Image from

Regardless of what I thought, the deadline remained. It seemed like a monumental task, and I was pretty stressed about it, mostly because I knew I would be submitting the proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a five-figure grant.

What I didn't know then was that I would get an enormous amount of really great help! I have two advisors, and they were both extremely willing to toss ideas around with me.

Silly me. How could I have forgotten that I work under experienced researchers in my field who come up with new research projects in their sleep? As far as I know, that's not an exaggeration.

Since I have experience in intertidal organisms (and my advisors have >40 years of experience in intertidal organisms), I had an idea to study evolution in the intertidal zone, but we couldn't think of anything good enough I could write about in such a short time. Then I mentioned a potential project I had been introduced to before coming to Santa Cruz. The project involved evolution in a fish predator in kelp forests. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but I try pretty hard to be flexible and encourage serendipity.

I read, discussed, wrote, discussed, and revised. In just a week, I had a research plan and a rough draft. How did this come together so quickly and easily? It's one of the miracles of graduate school (or perhaps deadlines).

The real miracle was after the four weeks when I submitted a totally polished proposal that I am proud of. I sure hope NSF likes it as much as I do! I will now attempt to explain in a paragraph what I struggled to explain in two pages.

People do a lot of fishing off the coast of California. Some of these people just fish for fun, and they usually only like to take home just a few big fish. Lots of these people take home the weirdest or prettiest looking fish they can find, because they think it's cool. One such fish is called the California sheephead.

California Sheephead, 3 ft. long. Image from

However, there is a problem with taking only the bigger sheephead--only the bigger ones eat sea urchins. This may seem trivial, but sea urchins eat LOTS of kelp, and if there are too many urchins, they may eat too much kelp, which is a really important part of the ecosystem. The ecosystem is called a kelp forest for a reason! The kelp are the biggest part of the ecosystem, like trees. Take out the kelp and you take out a lot of places where other animals and plants live. I proposed to measure what happens when you take away big sheephead: do the urchins destroy the forest? 

Purple sea urchins. Photo by Richard Hermann.

Click here to see a video of a sheephead eating a sea urchin
Joseph See, who posted this video, has some great camera skills.

If you are thinking critically about all this, you might be wondering how I am going to take away the big fish. Then you would probably realize that sounds like a terrible idea because it involves killing lots of fish and potentially destroying the kelp forest. I don't have to do that, which is the great part about my proposal. In certain areas, people have already fished out the largest sheephead. All I need to do is see what the urchins and kelp are like in those areas. 

So there's a super simple description project idea in more than a paragraph, but still less than two pages! I'm not sure I will actually carry out this project for the next five years, but I sure wouldn't mind it. I like the varied research and field techniques involved, and how it combines society a bit. Mostly, I like it because it's a field manipulation on a huge spatial scale (the fish live from central CA to the southern tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico), and it awesomely explores how evolution can change ecosystems without us having to know if the fish are actually evolving. 

Now that that proposal is done, it's back to the drawing board because I want to explore other options for PhD projects. But I've learned not to be intimidated by this task, because in graduate school, impossibility is the mother of great achievement! I'm excited for what impossibilities lay ahead.


As a fun exercise, I am going to track the evolution of the title of my proposal:

My own original idea: Can Fisheries-induced Evolution of California Sheephead Alter Ecosystems?
After advisor read it: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascade strength in a large-scale marine ecosystem
Revision: Impact of large-scale contemporary trait change on trophic cascade strength in a marine ecosystem
Revision: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascasde strength in a large-scale marine ecosystem*
Final title: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascades in a large-scale marine ecosystem

*This one is my favorite, but it was too long for the final proposal.

Evolution and Intelligence

While sitting in the corner of my room next to the window to absorb sunlight, I read another paper for my organismal ecology class. I was lucky I didn't feel like falling asleep, but I wasn't quite awake in every sense, either. I was in that happy productive state where I'm too tired to distract myself and have just enough focus to do the task in front of me. I was reading about the evolution of insecticide resistance in mosquitoes, something you would not find me reading on my own.

An insecticide-infused bed net. The net quickly kills mosquitoes that land on it, so the little boy doesn't get bitten by one that may have malaria. The result: only mosquitoes with resistance to the insecticide survive and reproduce. Does this bed net promote the evolution of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes? Photo from

This paper was changing the way I think about drug resistance and evolution. It set off a thought that proceeded to bounce about in my head until it hit another thought about the nature of intelligence. These two thoughts danced around each other in a very ephemeral waltz (a second or two) until they spawned another thought, which instead of dancing was expressed in an email to a friend of mine who is really interested in artificial intelligence and the nature of conscious thought. I wish now to leave you with my thoughts in this email to let them bounce about in your own brain for a bit. Enjoy!

"I just had a thought relating intelligence and evolution. I felt they were similar because they are both things humans try to simulate, but have yet to successfully and consistently recreate, and that are biological in nature. Then I thought more and decided that evolution is the opposite of intelligence, because it is a purely passive process and intelligence is not at all passive, but perhaps the antithesis of passivity. 

Discussion question: Which will humans create first: non-intelligent forms that "live" and evolve on their own, or a finite intelligent entity? 

Coming soon: this email as a blog entry!"