The prize winners of the 2017 IdeasXChange Writing Contest are as follows:
FIRST PLACEPatrick Wilkie Ecological Take-Away Coffee: Resource-Efficiency by Design
Patrick’s submission proposed the idea of implementing a “Vancouver-wide mug share”, with numerous benefits such as saving money, staying environmentally friendly while enjoying a daily cup of coffee, and generating a sustainable system that creates profit for local communities.
SECOND PLACESean Celi Finding a New Business Model for Digital Journalism in the Modern Era
Sean’s submission dives into evaluating the effectiveness of digital journalism from the point of view of an Economics’ major. He points out the difficulties of media agencies and companies to balance profit and delivery, and provides five innovative solutions in tackling these challenges.
THIRD PLACEMatthew Gaiser To Protect the Environment in Developing Countries, Conservationists Should Think Like Capitalists
Matthew’s submission looks at conservation and activism around the world, exploring how habits and human behavior dictate activism and the ways in which conscious business practices can largely influence the outcomes of efforts in environmental conservation. His witty and striking arguments were memorable and praiseworthy.
HONORARY MENTIONS FOR EXCEPTIONAL SUBMISSIONSNick Li The Effects of Sugar on Your Body, Your Economy, and Your Planet
Carmen Cao A Senior’s Guide To Youth
Thank you very much for all those who have submitted your extremely innovative and thought-provoking pieces to the IdeasXChange Writing Contest. Please look forward to all of the submissions being published on our online hub in the upcoming school year.
Priscilla Ng, ex Editor-in-Chief
Campus Innovator The IdeasXChange Campus Innovator is a forward-thinking, proactive individual who has kickstarted their own sustainable initiative on the UBC Vancouver campus. Their involvement surrounds the core values of a sustainable, innovative and interdisciplinary mindset, which they are eager to share with the rest of the UBC student body. If you would like to nominate yourself as a Campus Innovator, or would like to interview another Campus Innovator you know, please send your pitch to: email@example.com.
(Interview by Priscilla Ng) Recently, IdeasXChange had the opportunity to talk to Mohammad Asadi Lari, a third-year Honours Physiology student who is involved primarily in research and youth engagement. His passion in facilitating an innovative, sustainable, and paradigm-shifting discussion in STEM research and data education prompted him to be involved in various organizations in research and scholarly publishing that are well-known within Canada and beyond.
Please describe yourself and your passion in 3 words! Two of these words can actually be integrated into one word – ‘social’ and ‘innovation’. I like the social aspect and the innovation aspect of the fields that I am engaged in. I first learned about this term at the National Youth Leadership and Innovation Summit in Toronto. Before that, I was never engaged with people who were involved in start-ups, but this was a buzzword that kept coming up during the conference. I would also want to choose the word ‘compassion’ too, because I care about the people who I work with. Compassion is required in social innovation and the work that I do in that area. I think that my own growth is intertwined with the growth of my peers – they grow, I grow, and I hope that when I grow, I am able to share it with others, so that they also grow as individuals. That’s actually why I think ‘compassion’ is the most important word out of the three.
You had mentioned your interest in educational innovation and working with UBC students to cultivate young leaders. What inspired you to be a part of STEM Fellowship, and what would you like UBC students to be able to take away from getting involved with the organization? STEM Fellowship started when Dr. Sacha Noukhovich, a highly seasoned teacher from Toronto, invited me to work with two students currently at UCalgary and UofT on a new organization. It kick-started in April 2015, and from that point onwards, it became my most important involvement! My immediate social circle was in UBC, so we had recruited a lot of people here initially, which was followed by establishing our first club here in March 2016, and expanding our presence into a total of twelve campuses (and counting!). Our primary focus is on data science and scholarly communication, but we want students to see these as tools where they could both get engaged with STEM leadership, innovation and research, as well as getting to share their work. There is a lot of good work out there by students, but they are unaware of how they can share them, and this is not just limited to writing. We are also working closely with a company called Digital Science, probably one of the largest innovation companies in the scholarly publishing field, and they push for a number of tools used for analyzing research around the world. In doing this, we are also aiming to connect major non-profit organizations and companies in the scholarly publishing field to campuses all across Canada, and this is where our scholarly communication, ‘Editing 101’ and peer review workshops come in. We hope to create an international network, that is brought together by the collective action of local clusters of STEM Fellows, and given the strong presence we have in UBC, we hope to see this campus as a leading element of the broader project!
The Big Data Challenge and the STEM Fellowship Journal seem to be two of the major projects at work by the organization (along with many others). Please tell us more about what lies behind this year’s theme, ‘Using impact data to understand and predict the future directions of science’, why Data Science is important, and some of the challenges faced in pushing for this initiative. The Big Data Challenge in Toronto is an initiative where we provide data sets to students, and they will use a total of 3 months using the tools and options to analyze data in order to come up with their own projects. Eight projects will be selected to enter the finale in Toronto, and our ultimate goal is to make this initiative nation-wide. We are also, of course, looking to bring this into UBC. Our Big Data events are currently sponsored by IBM-Big Data University, Microsoft, SAS and SciNet (Canada’s largest super computer centre). What was interesting about this year is that our students were working on open-access data and the data from the city of Toronto last year, and this year, students are working with Alternative Metrics (AltMetrics). They ended up becoming our sponsors for the Big Data Challenge, and the source of research data that our students to work with. A lot of very interesting projects emerged from this collaboration which were extremely impressive for high school students, and we will be publishing three of them in our next issue. Over the past year, I also had the opportunity to talk to a number of indigenous student leaders, and they were interested in the idea of the Big Data Challenge because they saw potential in working with data that were relevant to their respective communities, especially the environmental issues regarding the construction of the pipeline. I think STEM is very empowering; giving students the tools they need to solidify their projects, as well as mentorship with data and coming up with trends, and finding things that they would be able to share. Our ultimate goal is to be a platform that would give students tools to do things themselves, which is why we want to bring data education online. This will also become an important component of our STEMpowerment initiative.
As the Managing Director at the STEM Fellowship and the co-director of the STEM Fellowship Journal Editorial Board, what is your definition of a successful research project, and what are some of your tips for students who are interested in research and learning more about getting their work published? The STEM Fellowship Journal is actually the only Canadian science publishing journal that is dedicated only to publishing high school and undergraduate work. The idea is that we want to be a national platform journal to show student research, and promote interdisciplinary research. We are arranging the publication of research with institutions across Canada, such as the undergraduate engineering research in the University of Toronto, inter-disciplinary research from McGill University, the top project from the Science One program at UBC, and the Sanofi Biogenius Challenge. These institutions work with students and research fairs, and are able to produce high-quality student research from a mix of different fields, disciplines, and year groups. Recently, we have also been able to secure with two major granting agencies, NSERC and CIHR, to promote SFJ and allow for a select number of publications coming from publicly funded research by undergraduate students. We also published works from our High School Scholarly Writing challenge, where students had submitted their IB extended essays, for example, and had gotten feedback on it. Four of them were chosen and could publish their work in the journal. We are also getting in touch with the Harvard Undergraduate Research Society, and the Stanford Undergraduate Research Society, to publish their research work and expand the network as well – it’s a win-win situation. The journal is our flagship scholarly aspect, but what I see happening in the long-term are the workshops, so students can have access to tools to write, to share, and to see themselves as capable to be writing more. The tools are not limited to STEM, as they are as applicable to humanity as they are to science, so we would want to get the interdisciplinary feature as solid as possible.
We are interested in knowing more about your involvement in the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO)! What are some of the action plans in progress for bringing a more sustainable and internationally connected future for the Canadian and global youth? What are some of the way in which the youth can become more engaged? UNESCO’s Education Week had focused on education for sustainable development, and global citizenship education. My involvement in the CCUNESCO Youth Advisory Group (YAG) stems from my will to promote more novel educational philosophies, to change paradigms in education, and make them wider so students can avoid perceiving the world in a narrow way. A big part of what we are aiming to do is to connect students from different countries, and because of my personal connections, we did publish some works by students from Iran. These students from Central Iran were working on projects that were quite basic, but they were incredibly impressive for those students, as they were in grade nine and I had doubted that they had written the work themselves! But after talking to them, I was convinced that it was their work indeed. A lot of these initiatives are catered towards North America and Western Europe, but the world is so much bigger, and I see a lot of arrogance sometimes that a shifting in education paradigms can help us break. We are currently seeing interest from university students from outside North America, including Iran, Russia and South Africa!
What are some of the biggest challenges and setbacks in establishing Gene Researching for A Week, and how did you go about tackling it? Were your larger visions in starting this initiative carried through to your current endeavours in STEM Fellowship? The Gene Researching for A Week was established twelve years ago, and it helped me a lot with the initiatives and project that I am working on in STEM Fellowship today. The reason that this project has been so successful is because we have been getting applications from throughout Canada. 40-50 high school students are paired up with a supervisor during the spring break, and these students get to shadow their supervisors in their labs for a week, full time, to observe and also to get involved one way or another. Even though the organization that was originally running the Gene Research for A Week project was dissolved, the project still carried on under CIHR’s leadership because it was so effective and executed in high-quality. For me, I would love to see STEM Fellowship’s STEMpowerment program getting the amount of recognition that Gene Research for A Week did, gaining that representation and being able to garner people’s interest from all over Canada, so we can further this paradigm and be a part in changing people’s lives.
Tell us about an inspiring figure who you have always looked up to. How and why did they inspire you? It’s cliché – but my mom! I have to persist on naming her, and actually also my grandmothers, because they have incredible impact on my life. They have inspired me in different ways, by being resilient and patient, while strengthening my resolve to try harder and harder. I share with my grandmothers the details of the work that I am involved in, and they give me advice…the whole compassion aspect has its roots in these discussions, and from listening to my elders.
Lastly, are there any major plans for 2017 and beyond that you’d like us to look out for? For STEM Fellowship, there are a lot of things that we would like to see happen. Our biggest strive at the moment is to establish a strong membership base, and actually have STEM fellows. We do not have a membership program as of now, so that is something for us to look into, and it would be geared both to high school students and university students on different aspects. Our ongoing goal is centered on expansion, but aside from this, I am exploring the global health ecosystem in the hope of starting a health startup with one of my close friends from the physiology program, Geoffrey Ching. We are at a very baseline phase, but the process is very exciting!
Learn more about STEM Fellowship at: www.stemfellowship.org.
If you have been keeping up with current global news, particularly when it comes to poorer countries and countries in conflict, then you may have learned that food security is part of the conversation, whether it is a factor driving conflict or migration, or a result of them.
But what is food security? At first glance, it seems to be a fairly straight forward phrase – “food”, calories you need to stay alive; and “security”, one’s food supply being safe from danger or threat. At a basic level, this understanding is correct, but in policy and program discussions between development practitioners and bodies like the United Nations, Red Cross and within national governments, food security is a little more complex. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security exists when people are able to access enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life. This food can be produced domestically, imported, or arrive through food assistance programs. Food security is comprised of four major components. First is the availability, or overall abundance of food. Understandably, if food is unavailable, people are not food secure. The second component is whether people are able to access available food. The availability of food does not matter unless people can physically access markets and have the resources to access food. Third is the utilization of food, which means that to be food-secure, food consumed should provide people with the nutrients they need to live healthy lives. Lastly, people need to have stable and reliable access to a supply of food. To be considered food-secure, these four requirements must be met. Based on this criteria, it is estimated that 795 million people in the world presently experience chronic hunger. This is about one in nine people.
Food Security and the Developing World
Unsurprisingly, the highest prevalence of food insecurity exists in developing countries. This is not the result of an inability to grow food. In fact, agriculture is the main economic activity in most developing nations, from East Asia to Latin America to Africa. Rather, global economics prompt farmers, the majority of which are small-scale producers, to sell most of their products to markets in exchange for cash, which they believe will raise their standards of living. Yet, the value of primary products like agricultural commodities is steadily declining in global markets. As a result, entire families will work for subsistence wages in order to survive, drawing children away from education and reinforcing the cyclical nature of poverty. Despite agriculture being the main economic activity, high costs of producing food and transporting food to markets contribute to developing countries’ reduced food security and competitiveness in global markets. For example, high production costs due to a lack of modern agricultural techniques and technologies tend to cause low productivity, as well as lower quality products. Due to the higher cost of production and lower quality products, developing countries tend to struggle in selling their products on global markets and cannot compete with more cheaply-produced and higher quality goods from countries such as the United States or China. This leaves small-scaled farmers with little cash and little food for their work.
Is Canada Food Secure? Don’t be so certain. Canada is an advanced industrialized country that ranks 9th on the Human Development Index, which combines measurements of life expectancy, education, and Gross National Income per capita to determine how well-developed a country is. Despite our relatively comfortable standard of living, this is not uniform across the country.
Numerous reports and studies, including those conducted by UN Special Rapporteurs, show that there are significant gaps in wealth and inequality, and pockets of Canada reflect conditions that would seem more characteristic of a developing country. Non-profit organization Canada Without Poverty estimates that 4.9 million (one in seven) people in Canada live in poverty, and food insecurity is a threat to stability for many of them. In many rural and northern regions of Canada, food costs are exorbitantly high owing to their remote locations and the high cost of transporting food from more populated areas. Residents in Nunavut spend $14,800 on average each year on food – more than twice as much as the rest of the country ($7,300).
Responses to Food Insecurity
By 2050, it is estimated that global food production will have to increase by 70% in order to keep up with growing population levels and food needs. Governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are undertaking various approaches to combat food insecurity and climate change across the globe. Canada’s federal foreign affairs, trade, and development body, Global Affairs Canada, pursues a food security strategy geared towards the reduction of food insecurity in developing countries, and in particular, targets the most vulnerable countries and populations, including a focus on women and girls. A major component of Canada’s strategy involves the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation and reduced pesticide use. Agriculture is the main economic activity for many developing countries and the main income source for poor households, meaning that improving food security goes hand-in-hand with reducing poverty. However, agriculture poses significant challenges, too. The agricultural sector is a major contributor to, and a major victim of, climate change. The agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sectors produced 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 2001 and 2011, global emissions from crop and livestock production rose by 14%.
At the same time, climate change in the form of extreme weather events like droughts and floods negatively impacts agriculture. In addition to creating unfavourable conditions for growing staple crops, climate change also contributes to manifesting favourable conditions for new crop diseases. Through Canadian and international partner organizations, activities like farmer education courses on sustainable agricultural practices, such as climate-smart agriculture, and the introduction and subsequent adoption of more modern agricultural technologies contribute to increasing food security. This also prepares farmers against negative effects of climate change on their livelihoods, and mitigates the agricultural sector’s impact on the environment. Combined with significant investment in agricultural research and development, promoting sustainable agriculture will aid the global population in increasing food supply to meet growing demand in a way that does not place more stress on an already resource-strained planet. This work must continue if we hope to keep up with population growth and preserve the planet’s resources.
What else can we do?
As concerned global citizens, how can we contribute to the conversation and action our governments and civil societies are taking against food insecurity? We can take localized action. The BC Centre for Disease Control and Food Secure Vancouver are great resources for learning about local food security. Food Secure Vancouver’s website contains information about local food markets, farmer training programs, school gardens, and community food resources. By educating ourselves and getting involved in initiatives like community gardening and food banks, we can participate in improving our own food security and that of others around us.
We can participate in our democracy. Canada is set to release a new international assistance strategy, which takes into consideration over 10,000 public submissions. We can educate ourselves on Canada’s new strategy and call or write to local Members of Parliament or the Minister for International Development to express concerns and suggestions for how Canada interacts with our developing country partners. Domestically, we should let our representatives know that Canada should give more support to our own food security efforts. The Northern Farm Training Institute in the Northwest Territories is an experiential school that aims to empower northern residents, strengthen communities, and create sustainability through local food production. By supporting efforts as such, we can contribute to closing the inequality gap in this country.
Using a US Census-based computer model of 10,000 people, Bigazzi calculated ideal travel speeds, called the minimum-dose speeds (MDS) for different age and sex groups. The ideal speed linked to the least pollution risk for female and male cyclists under 20, on a flat road was calculated to be at 12.5 and 13.3 kilometres per hour, respectively. For pedestrian in the same age group, a walking speed around 3 kilometres per hour was determined to be associated with least pollution risk. Their older counterparts on the other hand should aim at reaching at least four kilometres per hour in order to breath in the least amount of pollution over a distance. Ideal travel speeds for other road grades were also computed by Bigazzi. “If you move at much faster speeds than the MDS—say, cycling around 10 kilometres faster than the optimal range—your inhalation of air pollution is significantly higher,” said Bigazzi. “The good news is, the MDS numbers align pretty closely with how fast most people actually travel.” A recently published paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation describes the findings from Bigazzi’s research on the amount of toxic chemicals absorbed by cyclist on busy street. More research is needed to further assess the minimum-dose speed estimates with on-road data.
In their search, Dahmen and Frid-Jimenez discovered the world of mycelium biocomposites. The product is a resistant material with qualities similar to polystyrene foams. Mycelium bicomposites are at risk of contamination by mould and bacteria if they are over half-metre in thickness. To overcome this obstacle, Dahmen created a new process inspired from the wasps’ nest. “I was really amazed at the honeycomb structure, because it’s a highly efficient way of occupying space,” he said. “It’s scalable, it can go in any direction, and it’s extremely spatially efficient.” “Their biggest application in the long run is in architecture and construction,” said Dahmen. “The average age of commercial buildings in North America is under 40 years. If we could imagine construction materials that add positive value to ecosystems as they break down, we have a whole new paradigm for the way we approach buildings, at a time when we’re demolishing most buildings long before they wear out.” According to Dahmen mycelium bicomposites could be used instead of polystyrene, from packaging to building insulation. “Styrofoam is a material that functions for a short amount of time as packaging, and then spends hundreds, if not thousands, of years in a landfill,” he added. Mycelium bicomposites not only require less energy to grow but also completely decompose when composted. They also help break down other materials in the waste stream and make them accessible to other organisms. An American company recently signed a contract to supply Ikea with mycelium-based packaging. The method had yet to be done in Canada.
In Western countries, it has become commonplace or even trendy to consume so-called “superfoods” that developing countries produce and export. They sit on shelves in nearly every grocery store and their health benefits are well known to consumers. In particular, Western demand for grains such as quinoa and teff have exploded in recent years. But why? Superfoods are food products that are relatively high in nutrients. What drives Western demand for them? If you live in a developed country, it’s likely you’re well versed in, or at least conscious of the superfood conversation. They tend to be popular with vegans and vegetarians, lifestyle choices that have become more prevalent in Western culture, as superfoods are nutritious alternatives for meat products. As we become more preoccupied with making healthy food decisions, foods deemed “superfoods” are front and center. But there’s more to the equation than just demand – somebody has to meet those demands, and this responsibility falls upon the superfoods’ countries of origin.
Background on quinoa and teff and its impacts on countries of origin
Quinoa and teff are highly nutritious, gluten-free grains. Quinoa traditionally grows in Peru and Bolivia and is low fat, high in protein, and full of amino acids. Teff, which has 50% more protein, five times more fiber and 25 times more calcium than brown rice, hails from the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. With these stats, it’s no wonder that health-conscious Westerners covet them – consuming foods with these nutrient levels likely impacts our own health in positive ways (which is why demand is so high), but the impacts of our consumption on producing countries is another story altogether. While consuming superfoods like quinoa and teff may have positive health effects for Westerners, we can’t say the same for the health of the countries that produce them. In fact, the “Columbusing” of superfoods, or the “discovery” of these crops in developing countries, tends to benefit global consumers more than producers.
Quinoa industry damaging Bolivian development
Increased global demand – how much people desire a good as a whole – for quinoa spurred Bolivia to export higher volumes of the grain. While this increases Bolivia’s revenue and incomes of local farmers, it also causes the domestic price of quinoa to soar. In other words, while individual living standards of farmers have improved, it has become more difficult for the general population to afford quinoa, a staple in their diets. In 2011, a kilogram of quinoa cost $4.85 USD in contrast to $1 for the same weight of rice. The problems don’t stop there. In attempting to meet global demand, Bolivia faces pressure to allocate more land for quinoa production. If it follows through, Bolivia will in effect transform its agricultural portfolio into a monocrop of only quinoa. Without diverse agricultural production, Bolivia will become subject to volatile food prices and limited food security. If the price of quinoa plummets, its agriculture industry won’t bring in revenue; if it only produces one crop, Bolivia risks pest or disease infestation that can wipe out its only source of food, potentially resulting in famine.
Ethiopia’s teff dilemma
In recent years, Westerners have lauded teff for its nutritional value, so much so that the Ethiopian government decided to lift its ban on teff export with tight controls in place. Previously, there was a complete ban on raw teff export, with only processed teff in the form of injera allowed to leave the country. While this prevented the re-entry of teff into the Ethiopian market at inflated prices, the government and manufacturers were involved in the economic process, leaving farmers with little of their deserved revenue. Lifting the ban means Ethiopia needs to control price fluctuations. It hopes to do so by licensing commercial farms to produce teff for export to avoid flooding the market and bringing teff prices down. According to CEO of Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency Khalid Bomba, licensed producers will supply exports first, and then extend to small-scale farmers who comprise most of Ethiopia’s working population. The Ethiopian government’s hopes to meet both domestic and global demand will be tricky business. If it wants to engage in export, Ethiopia should first satisfy its own population’s demand. This involves increasing production levels by introducing modern farming techniques. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of agricultural research on teff production, so Ethiopia must first figure out which modern farming techniques are best suited to teff. Another issue is other countries have successfully planted teff crops. In the United States, 25 states produce the superfood. Al Jazeera reports that because of such successful transplantation, Ethiopia is losing out on its staple crop. Perhaps the best way for Ethiopia to combat this loss is to capitalize on the fact that the quality and taste of foreign-produced teff can’t hold a flame to its own. If it manages to brand Ethiopian teff as a premium product, Ethiopia may be able to overtake its competitors.
Consequences of superfoods on health in developing countries
Let’s now consider the impact of Western demand for quinoa and teff on the health of Bolivian and Ethiopian populations. When goods become too expensive, consumers substitute their consumption of that good with cheaper alternatives. In Bolivia, people substitute less nutritious rice and noodles for quinoa. In Ethiopia, teff farmers are selling the bulk of their harvests instead of eating it to take advantage of high global prices. The consequence of these actions is rising malnutrition, especially in rural communities. In both Bolivia and Ethiopia, consuming more quinoa and teff can alleviate malnutrition, but this task competes with Western cravings.
What can we do?
This paints a fairly bleak picture of guilt. Evidently, Western eating habits are directly related to economic conditions and poverty levels in developing countries. How can we reconcile our health-conscious love for quinoa, teff and other superfoods with the adverse affects it creates for countries that produce them? One way is to practice ethical consumerism. Movements like Fairtrade aim to ensure local farmers receive fair payment for their work; purchasing Fairtrade products means more of your money goes to the producer rather than distributors or manufacturers. But this only solves half of the equation – how can we ensure that our consumption of superfoods doesn’t come with the price of malnourished communities who can’t afford the same product? This is a question of social and economic policy. We have seen how Ethiopia is taking measures to ensure domestic prices (the current price for teff in the economy) of teff don’t skyrocket. To see lower domestic quinoa prices, Bolivia may restrict exports or increase production (both of which will bolster domestic supply and push down price) or introduce some kind of policy that balances its exports with domestic concerns. It’s unlikely that Western demands for superfoods will cease or even plateau any time soon. Indeed, such demand can produce incentives for more people or countries to become involved in superfood industries and drive more efficient production. Taking this into consideration, the key lies in how, rather than what, we consume, and the ways in which we can all improve our consumer behaviour.