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Five reasons not to panic about the bird flu experiments | 

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News analysis

The scientific community is in serious kerfuffle right now about whether or not to publish the details of certain bird flu virus experiments.

Angry words are flying back and forth between experts – much like the proverbial behavior of chickens with their heads cut off.

One commentator for Scientific American has even suggested banning all such research.

It’s all a bit much, and probably not good for science or for our global health. I would like to offer five reasons not to panic, but first the background:

The fear among some experts is that terrorists could repeat the experiments, in which genetically altered bird flu viruses, H5N1, were made more easy to transmit in mammals, presumably also in humans.

Based on this, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has suggested censoring some of the research — redacting key portions of it. A few weeks ago, the scientific community agreed to a temporary moratorium on this research while the issues got hashed out.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides of this debate weighing the goal of reducing risk vs. the need for open exchange of knowledge.

But in some ways it’s not a fair fight. Continue reading

Scientists propose a ‘Five-Step Plan’ to save the planet | 

Flickr, Southernpixel Alby

A 5-step plan to save the planet sounds ridiculous, I know. But, as they say, even the longest journey begins with the first step.

Rather than simply get overwhelmed at all of the world’s many problems, an environment and land-use professor at the University of Minnesota and his colleagues decided to come up with a workable game plan to simultaneously deal with three major, overlapping forces that dictate our future:

Population growth, agriculture and the environment. Says study leader Jonathan A. Foley in an online article in Scientific American, Can We Feed the World and Sustain the Planet?:

Right now about one billion people suffer from chronic hunger. the world’s farmers grow enough food to feed them, but it is not properly distributed and, even if it were, many cannot afford it, because prices are escalating.

But another challenge looms.

By 2050 the world’s population will increase by two billion or three billion, which will likely double the demand for food, according to several studies.

That doesn’t sound too promising, especially when Foley and his colleagues go on to note that our current approach to agriculture uses about 40 percent of Earth’s land already and our approach to farming contributes about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Most of our water use also goes to agriculture.

And if population growth continues at its current rate, we will need to double food production by 2050.

Yikes! Anyone planning a trip to Mars? Continue reading