Tag Archives: Biomedical/Ethics

Wine Is Going Out of Style—in France

Post Syndicated from Vaclav Smil original https://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/ethics/wine-is-going-out-of-stylein-france

France and wine—what an iconic link, and for centuries, how immutable! Wine was introduced by Greeks before the Romans conquered Gaul. Production greatly expanded during the Middle Ages, and since then the very names of the regions—Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne—have become a symbol of quality everywhere. Thus has the French culture of wine long been a key signifier of national identity.

Statistics for French wine consumption begin in 1850 with a high mean of 121 liters per capita per year, which is nearly two glasses per day. By 1890, a Phylloxera infestation had cut the country’s grape harvest by nearly 70 percent from its 1875 peak, and French vineyards had to be reconstituted by grafting on resistant rootstocks from the United States. Although annual consumption of wine did fluctuate, rising imports prevented any steep decline in the total supply. Vineyard recovery brought the per capita consumption to a pre-World War I peak of 125 L in 1909, equaled again only in 1924. The all-time record of 136 L was set in 1926, after which the rate fell only slightly to 124 liters per capita in 1950.

Postwar, the French standard of living remained surprisingly low: According to the 1954 census, only 25 percent of homes had an indoor toilet. But rapidly rising incomes during the 1960s brought dietary shifts, notably a decline in wine drinking per capita. It fell to about 95 L in 1980, to 71 L in 1990, and then to 58 L in 2000—about half what it had been a century before. The latest available data shows the mean at just 40 L.

France’s wine consumption survey of 2015 shows deep gender and generational divides that explain the falling trend. Forty years ago, more than half of French adults drank wine nearly every day; now it’s just 16 percent, with 23 percent among men and only 11 percent among women. Among people over 65, the rate is 38 percent; for people 25 to 34 years of age, it is 5 percent, and for 15- to 24-year-olds, it’s only 1 percent. The same divides apply to all alcoholic drinks, as beer, liquors, and cider have also seen gradual consumption declines, while the beverages with the highest average per capita gains include mineral and spring water, roughly doubling since 1990, as well as fruit juices and carbonated soft drinks.

Alcoholic beverages are thus fast disappearing from French culture. And although no other traditional wine-drinking country has seen greater declines in absolute or relative terms, Italy comes close, and wine consumption has also decreased in Spain and Greece.

Only one upward trend persists: French exports of wine set a new record, at about €9.7 billion, in 2018. Premium prices and exports to the United States and China are the key factors. American drinkers have been the largest importers of French wines, and demand by newly rich Chinese has also claimed a growing share of sales. But in the country that gave the world countless vins ordinaires as well as exorbitantly priced Grand Crus Classés, the clinking of stemmed glasses and wishes of santé have become an endangered habit.

This article appears in the April 2020 print issue as “(Not) Drinking Wine.”

Halting COVID-19: The Benefits and Risks of Digital Contact Tracing

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/ethics/halting-covid19-benefits-risks-digital-contact-tracing

As COVID-19 sweeps through the planet, a number of researchers have advocated the use of digital contact tracing to reduce the spread of the disease. The controversial technique can be effective, but can have disastrous consequences if not implemented with proper privacy checks and encryption. 

Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab, and his team have developed an app called Private Kit: Safe Paths that they say can do the job while protecting privacy. The software could get integrated into a new, official WHO app touted as the “Waze  for COVID-19.” IEEE Spectrum spoke with Raskar to better understand the risks and benefits of digital contact tracing. 

How Chicken Beat Beef in America

Post Syndicated from Vaclav Smil original https://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/ethics/how-chicken-beat-beef-in-america

For generations, beef was the United States’ dominant meat, followed by pork. When annual beef consumption peaked in 1976 at about 40 kilograms (boneless weight) per capita, it accounted for nearly half of all meat. Chicken had just a 20 percent share. But chicken caught up by 2010, and in 2018 chicken’s share came to 36 percent of the total, nearly 20 percentage points higher than beef. The average American now eats 30 kg of boneless chicken every year, bought overwhelmingly as cut-up or processed parts (from boneless breast to Chicken McNuggets).

The United States’ constant obsession with diet, in this case the fear of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat in red meat, has been a factor in the shift. The differences, however, are not ­striking: 100 grams of lean beef has 1.5 grams of saturated fat, compared with 1 gram in skinless chicken breast—which actually has more cholesterol. But the main reason for chicken’s ascendance has been its lower price, which reflects its metabolic advantage: No other domesticated land animal can convert feed to meat as efficiently as broilers. Modern breeding advances have had a lot to do with this efficiency.

During the 1930s, the average feeding efficiency for broilers (at about 5 units of feed per unit of live weight) was no better than for pigs. That rate was halved by the mid-1980s, and the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture’s feed-to-meat ratios show that it now takes only about 1.7 units of feed (standardized in terms of feed corn) to produce a unit of broiler live weight, compared with nearly 5 units of feed for hogs and almost 12 units for cattle.

Because edible weight as a share of live weight differs substantially among the leading meat species (about 60 percent for chicken, 53 percent for pork, and only about 40 percent for beef), recalculations in terms of feeding efficiencies per unit of edible meat are even more revealing. Recent ratios have been 3 to 4 units of feed per unit of edible meat for broilers, 9 to 10 for pork, and 20 to 30 for beef. These ratios correspond to average feed-to-meat conversion efficiencies of, respectively, 15, 10, and 4 percent.

In addition, broilers have been bred to mature faster and to put on an unprecedented amount of weight. Traditional free-running birds were slaughtered at the age of one year, when they weighed only about 1 kg. The average weight of American broilers rose from 1.1 kg in 1925 to nearly 2.7 kg in 2018, while the typical feeding span was cut from 112 days in 1925 to just 47 days in 2018.

Consumers benefit while the birds suffer. They gain weight so rapidly because they can eat as much as they want while being kept in darkness and in strict confinement. Because consumers prefer lean breast meat, the selection for excessively large breasts shifts the bird’s center of gravity forward, impairs its natural movement, and puts stress on its legs and heart. But the bird cannot move anyway: According to the National Chicken Council, a broiler is allotted just 560 to 650 square centimeters, an area only slightly larger than a sheet of standard A4 paper. As long periods of darkness improve growth, broilers mature under light intensities resembling twilight. This condition disrupts their normal circadian and behavioral rhythms.

On one side, you have shortened lives (less than seven weeks for a bird whose normal life span is up to eight years) with malformed bodies in dark confinement; on the other, in late 2019 you got retail prices of about US $2.94 per pound ($6.47 per kilogram) for boneless breast compared with $4.98/lb. for round beef roast and $8.22/lb. for choice sirloin steak.

But chicken’s rule hasn’t yet gone global: Thanks to its dominance in China and in Europe, pork is still about 10 percent ahead worldwide. Still, broilers mass-produced in confinement will, almost certainly, come out on top within a decade or two.

This article appears in the January 2020 print issue as “Why Chicken Rules.”

Racial Bias Found in Algorithms That Determine Health Care for Millions of Patients

Post Syndicated from Eliza Strickland original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/ethics/racial-bias-found-in-algorithms-that-determine-health-care-for-millions-of-patients

An algorithm that a major medical center used to identify patients for extra care has been shown to be racially biased. 

The algorithm screened patients for enrollment in an intensive care management program, which gave them access to a dedicated hotline for a nurse practitioner, help refilling prescriptions, and so forth. The screening was meant to identify those patients who would most benefit from the program. But the white patients flagged for enrollment had fewer chronic health conditions than the black patients who were flagged.

In other words, black patients had to reach a higher threshold of illness before they were considered for enrollment. Care was not actually going to those people who needed it most.

Alarmingly, the algorithm was performing its task correctly. The problem was with how the task was defined.

The findings, described in a paper that was just published in Science, point to a system-wide problem, says coauthor Ziad Obermeyer, a physician and researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. Similar screening tools are used throughout the country; according to industry estimates, these types of algorithms are making health decisions for 200 million people per year. 

Is Life Expectancy Finally Topping Out?

Post Syndicated from Vaclav Smil original https://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/ethics/is-life-expectancy-finally-topping-out

A slowing rate of improvement hints at a looming asymptote, at least on a population-wide basis

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s chief futurist, says that if you can just hang on until 2029, medical advances will start to “add one additional year, every year, to your life expectancy. By that I don’t mean life expectancy based on your birth date but rather your remaining life expectancy.” Curious readers can calculate what this trend would do to the growth of the global population, but I will limit myself here to a brief review of survival realities.

In 1850, the combined life expectancies of men and women stood at around 40 years in the United States, Canada, Japan and much of Europe. Since then the values have followed an impressive, almost perfectly linear increase that nearly doubled them, to almost 80 years. Women live longer in all societies, with the current maximum at just above 87 years in Japan.

The trend may well continue for a few decades, given that life expectancies of elderly people in affluent countries rose almost linearly from 1950 to 2000 at a combined rate of about 34 days per year. But absent fundamental discoveries that change the way we age, this trend to longer life must weaken and finally end. The long-term trajectory of Japanese female life expectancies—from 81.91 years in 1990 to 87.26 years in 2017—fits a symmetrical logistic curve that is already close to its asymptote of about 90 years. The trajectories for other affluent countries also show the approaching ceiling. Records available show two distinct periods of rising longevity: Faster linear gains (about 20 years in half a century) prevailed until 1950, followed by slower gains.

If we are still far from the limit to the human life-span, then the largest survival gains should be recorded among the oldest people. This was indeed the case for studies conducted in France, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Since then, however, the gains have leveled off.

There may be no specific genetically programmed limit to life-span—much as there is no genetic program that limits us to a specific running speed. But life-span is a bodily characteristic that arises from the interaction of genes with the environment. Genes may themselves introduce biophysical limits, and so can environmental effects, such as smoking.

The world record life-span is the 122 years claimed for Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997. Strangely, after more than two decades, she still remains the oldest survivor ever, and by a substantial margin. (Indeed, the margin is so big as to be suspicious: Her age and even her identity are in question.) The second oldest supercentenarian died at 119, in 1999, and since that time there have been no survivors beyond the 117th year.

And if you think that you have a high chance to make it to 100 because some of your ancestors lived that long, you should know that the estimated heritability of life-span is modest, just between 15 and 30 percent. Given that people tend to marry others like themselves, a phenomenon known as assortative mating, the true heritability of human longevity is probably even lower than that.

Of course, as with all complex matters, there is always room for different interpretation of published statistical analyses. Kurzweil hopes that dietary interventions and other tricks will extend his own life until such time as major scientific advances can preserve him forever. It is true that there are ideas on how such preservation might be achieved, among them the rejuvenation of human cells by extending their telomeres, the nucleotide sequences at the ends of a chromosome that fray with age. If it works, maybe it can lift the realistic maximum well above 125 years.

But in 2019 the best advice I can give to all but a few remarkably precocious readers of these essays is to plan ahead—but not as far ahead as the 22nd century.

This article appears in the May 2019 print issue as “Life-Span and Life Expectancy.”