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by From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Internet data centers are fast becoming the largest power hogs in the world. What’s being done in this industry to make Internet usage more energy-efficient? -- M. T., Reno, NV

Though our online activity uses no paper, it still consumes quite a lot of energy. Data centers account for much of this energy use. These warehouse-sized buildings contain arrays or “farms” of servers, which are essentially souped-up computers that have many uses, including storing data and supporting all the activity on the internet. They are the hardware behind the proverbial “cloud.”

Like the personal computers we all use, servers require electricity to function. Since internet users can call upon them to provide information at any time, they must remain on 24/7. Furthermore, as with any form of electrical activity, the functioning of this large number of servers packed together in a small area can result in overheating, making the need for cooling an additional energy cost for data center managers.

According to data center provider vXchnge, U.S. data centers alone use over 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually—about what 34 coal-powered plants generating 500 megawatts each produce. ComputerWorld magazine reports that the energy consumption of data centers worldwide will likely account for 3.2 percent of global carbon emissions by 2025—about as much as the airline industry—and as much as 14 percent by 2040.

In light of all this, finding ways to cut energy use has become a big priority in the industry. One of the simplest strategies is to locate data centers in cool climates, and use outdoor air to counter excessive heating. Alternate options include cooling inlet air by running it underground, or using a nearby water source for liquid cooling. Another issue is separating hot air produced by servers from the colder air used to cool them—no easy task if the servers are all housed together. But there are plenty of cheap solutions. Google, for example, uses low cost dividers from meat lockers for this purpose.

Another way data centers can reduce cooling costs is to design servers that can operate at high temperatures without overheating. Recent research shows that servers can operate at much higher temperatures than initially believed without compromising safety or efficiency. But not all data centers are comfortable letting their servers run hot. Other ways to make server farms more efficient include optimizing grid-to-server electrical conversions and reducing the energy required by “sleeping” servers.

The good news is the industry is making strides in the right direction. Apple, Facebook and Google all power 100 percent of their data center and other operations with renewables, albeit through the purchase of “renewable energy credits” akin to carbon offsets that air travelers can buy to keep their carbon footprints in check. Microsoft is moving toward 70 percent renewable energy by 2023, while laggard Amazon still only gets about half its data center power from renewables. And Switch, one of the largest U.S.-based data center companies, transitioned all of its facilities to run on nothing but renewables in 2016, including the nation’s largest data center in Reno, Nevada.

CONTACTS: “How to Improve Data Center Power Consumption & Energy Efficiency,” vxchnge.com/blog/power-hungry-the-growing-energy-demands-of-data-centers; “Why data centres are the new frontier in the fight against climate change,” bit.ly/data-center-emissions; “Amazon is breaking its renewable energy commitments, Greenpeace claims,” bit.ly/amazon-laggard.

Dear EarthTalk: How did corn become such a dominant crop in the U.S. and what’s the effect on the environment of growing so much of it? -- J.S., Washington, DC

It’s true that corn is the most dominant agricultural product in the U.S., and perhaps the world. Originally domesticated in Central America, European explorers initially shunned it. But when their crops failed, the conquerors of the New World decided to integrate corn into their agricultural efforts. Fast forward: A couple of hundred years and this tall grass now covers 90 million acres of land in America alone, and accounts for some10 percent of total crop production globally.

Corn is so ubiquitous in our food system that an estimated 70 percent of the atoms in the body of the average American originally came from it.

One of the reasons corn is so dominant is that, as far as crops go, it excels at converting raw materials into chemical energy. Growing corn generates far more calories per unit of land than nearly any other crop. Another key factor in corn’s rise was the surplus of ammonium nitrate after the end of World War II. Agricultural scientists repurposed this compound, originally stockpiled for explosives, into a cheap form of fertilizer. This allowed corn to be grown in the same fields year after year, without depleting the nitrogen already in the soil. Additionally, corn is incredibly versatile. We can eat it, process it into syrup and use it as a sweetener, fuel our cars with it, and feed it to our animals.

Currently, we use approximately 40 percent of corn grown in the U.S to create ethanol, and 36 percent to feed animals. Unfortunately, both uses wreak havoc on the environment. Ethanol has a low “energy-returned-on-energy-invested” ratio, meaning we must put a large amount of energy into producing it, in some cases even more than ethanol itself generates.

Even just growing corn is far from environmentally friendly. Conventional monoculture farming (the way most corn is grown) degrades soil and often leads to harmful runoff into streams and rivers. Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers can all wreak havoc on aquatic organisms.

An indirect negative effect of the supremacy of corn has been its help in fueling explosive growth in the livestock industry at home and abroad. These days we use about 80 percent of the world’s farmland for animal production. But as a result of animals’ inefficiency in converting feed to energy, animal agriculture produces only 18 percent of the world’s calories.

So, what can we do? On a political level, agricultural subsidies for corn can be either eliminated or redistributed. Some 60 percent of farm subsidies in the U.S. go toward corn and other grains, while only one percent goes toward promoting healthier and more eco-friendly fruits and non-grain vegetables.

Farmers themselves can transition from monoculture practices to those that incorporate a wider variety of species into the mix. As consumers, one of the best measures we can take is to buy organic corn. Organic agriculture is not quite as eco-friendly as some make it out to be, it’s miles ahead of conventional farming.

CONTACTS: “The Environmental Risks Of Corn Production,” wbur.org/hereandnow/2014/06/11/corn-environmental-risks; “How a national food policy could save millions of American lives,” wapo.st/corn-op-ed.

Dear EarthTalk: Can our pets get sick from the coronavirus too, and can they pass it along to people? -- J.M., Bridgeport, CT

Given that Covid-19 probably originated in bats means that it’s no surprise that the dreaded virus can pass between animals and humans. But when a four-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for Coronavirus recently (and six of his peers showed similar symptoms), it sent shock waves across the United States, especially in the two-thirds of American households with pets.

Zoo officials report that the tiger started getting sick on March 27 after exposure to a human handler who later tested positive for Covid-19. (The zoo has been closed to the public since March 16.) While the sick tigers are expected to recover fully, the spread of the infection beyond humans is worrisome to not only pet owners but also to those of us concerned about the health of the planet’s wildlife and biodiversity, which is already teetering on the ropes given the one-two punch of habitat loss and climate change.

And if tigers can get it, what about house cats? What about dogs? “There have been reports outside the U.S. of pet dogs or cats becoming infected after close contact with contagious people, including a Hong Kong dog that tested positive for a low level of the pathogen in February and early March,” reports Jennifer Peltz for the Associated Press. “Hong Kong agriculture authorities concluded that pet dogs and cats couldn’t pass the virus to human beings but could test positive if exposed by their owner.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concurs that it’s not our pets we should be worrying about, as the pandemic is spreading as a result of human-to-human transmission thanks to our coughing, sneezing and even just talking. “There is no reason to think that any animals or pets in the United States might be a source of infection with this novel coronavirus.”

But CDC nevertheless recommends staying out of contact with pets if you have contracted the virus (or if you suspect you have it). “Although there have been no reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the United States, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus,” warns CDC. “This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy.”

If you are sick, CDC recommends trying to get other people to take care of your animals until you’re all better. And if that’s not possible, minimize contact with your pets (especially petting, snuggling, kissing or licking, and sharing food) and wash your hands before and after your interactions.

“If pets go out and have contact with an infected person, they have the chance to get infected,” reports Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist with China’s National Health Commission, adding that a pet who has been exposed to Covid-19 should be isolated just like any human who has shown symptoms or tested positive. “In addition to people, we should be careful with other mammals especially pets.”

CONTACTS: “Can Dogs Get Coronavirus,” akc.org/expert-advice/news/can-dogs-get-coronavirus/; Coronavirus and pets: How COVID-19 affects cats and dogs, cnet.com/how-to/coronavirus-and-pets-how-covid-19-affects-cats-and-dogs/; CDC’s “If You Have Animals,” cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/animals.html

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the current thinking on the safety of genetically engineered or modified products with regard to environmental, farm worker and consumer health? -- A.J. Cary, NC

Few topics are as divisive as genetic engineering. Plants and animals that have had their genomes artificially altered now dominate the world of agriculture. The vast majority of U.S.-grown corn and soybeans are genetically engineered. In grocery stores, over 60 percent of processed foods contain at least some components derived from GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Given all this, it makes sense to ask whether or not these altered forms of life have deleterious effects on humans or the environment.

When it comes to human health, the evidence suggests GMOs are harmless. Exhaustive meta-analyses of scientific studies on GMOs have generally found no links between their consumption and negative health outcomes. However, there are some caveats. One is that the biotechnology companies responsible for the creation of GMOs have also been responsible for a large portion of the research on their health effects. Therefore, financial conflicts of interest may have tainted the research. Additionally, many scientists still feel that the jury isn’t out on the safety of GMOs. A 2015 scientific paper signed by 300 independent researchers from around the world states that the effects of GMOs on health remain “unclear.”

Another factor is that scientific studies on GMO-related health risks have generally been short term. We can’t extrapolate the effects of years of GMO consumption on human health by looking at the seemingly null results from a year-long study on rodents. It could still be that GMOs are causing health issues, but we’ve failed to establish a causal link because of how long these issues take to manifest. That said, it’s quite possible that most (if not all) GMOs on the market today are completely safe to eat. Regardless, testing should continue, especially for new varieties of GMOs that aren’t well studied.

Environmentally, GMOs are a mixed bag. Most crops are genetically modified in an effort to fight pests. There are two ways to accomplish this goal. The first is to create plants that produce pest-killing toxins “endogenously”: When pests eat such plants, they die. These types of GMOs can actually be good for the environment in that they often don’t require as many pesticides as unmodified plants.

Unfortunately, an alternate pest fighting strategy that also uses genetic modification—engineering plants to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides—has the opposite effect, generally leading to an increase in agricultural waste. Also of concern is the genetic contamination of wild species due to cross breeding with GMOs. This is particularly a risk in the case of GMO farmed salmon. If these fish escape fish farming operations and contaminate wild stocks, the ecological consequences could be severe.

All in all, GMOs are still shrouded in uncertainty. They seem to have some benefits, and many scientists believe they can help address world hunger. However, there’s still a chance GMOs could cause health issues, and they have already caused some environmental issues. If you’re not convinced by the research to date, and prefer to avoid GMOs altogether, look for the non-GMO project label on the foods you buy.

CONTACTS: “No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” bit.ly/no-consensus; GMOs: Pros & Cons, healthline.com/health/gmos-pros-and-cons; “5 big takeaways from the most thorough review of GMOs yet,” vox.com/2016/5/18/11690992/gmos-review-evidence-safety-health.


Dear EarthTalk: Now that Earth Day is 50 years old, I’m wondering how it originally started and whether the Coronavirus put a damper on the celebration this year? – Mary W. Seattle, WA

Indeed, on April 22, Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary. Back in 1970, some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against pollution and other environmental ills stemming from 150 years of industrial development.

The idea for that first Earth Day sprung from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was troubled by the environmental deterioration he witnessed around the country and thought he could borrow some of the organizing tactics from the student-led anti-Vietnam War movement to infuse youth energy into raising public consciousness about air and water pollution. Nelson brought on a young lawyer/activist named Denis Hayes to make it happen. At first the idea was to hold a nationwide “teach-in” on college campuses but it soon morphed into a nationwide celebration that all Americans could join, with thousands of rallies happening simultaneously within communities and on college campuses coast-to-coast.

Earth Day continued to be celebrated across the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s and in 1990 went global. Hayes and company mobilized leaders on every continent, with some 200 million people in 141 countries taking part in the festivities. Environmentalists credit the 1990 celebration with giving a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helping pave the way for 1992’s Earth Summit in Brazil.

While organizers of this year’s 50th anniversary of Earth Day had big plans for mass global events focusing on reducing waste, fighting climate change and transitioning to clean energy, the global Coronavirus lockdown led them down a different path. Instead of getting together and locking hands in person to show popular support for strong environmental protections, activists and sympathizers gathered virtually all week, tuning into live talks and other streaming and interactive online programming curated by Earth Day Network and its partner Exponential Roadmap.

Although it’s too early to tell, just because green-minded people all over the world couldn’t get together physically to celebrate doesn’t mean this year’s Earth Day will be less impactful. For one, we’ve all now gotten a taste of how clean our environment could be if we kept up just some of the restraint on resource use that the lockdown has caused. Covid-19 may also be helping more of us to contemplate other aspects of our human relationship with our environment, especially since the virus was brought on in part by human-induced climate change and by dangerous forms of animal agribusiness.

As we enjoy cleaner air, more birdsong and parades of wildlife in our own backyards, not to mention the huge uptick in multi-generational residential gardening efforts. Earth Day has provided all of us with at least one day to focus our daily activities—even in quarantine—through the lens of the planet and what we can do to leave it better than we found it. Quarantine or not, the annual celebration of Earth Day serves as a reminder that Earth Day is every day. So if you didn’t plant a tree, re-think your household waste stream, or resolve to start biking to work once the office opens back up, maybe now is the time?

CONTACTS: Earth Day Week, wedonthavetime.org/event/earthdayweek;

Earth Day Network, earthday.org; Exponential Roadmap, exponentialroadmap.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit www.earthtalkorg . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.



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