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How green are avocados? (Yes, that’s a trick question)

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Hello, hello! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How green are avocados? (Yes, that’s a trick question)
  • Your favourite fruits and veggies are very thirsty
  • Road salt: Alternative solutions
  • Seeing the effects of light pollution

What’s green, tastes great on toast and is a water hog?

(Alan Ortega/Reuters)

The avocado boom in Canada in recent years reflects a growing health consciousness. This potassium-packed fruit is full of good fats and fibre. But do the health benefits outweigh the environmental, economic and social effects that follow avocados from farm to plate?

For one thing, producing avocados is very water-intensive. The Water Footprint Network estimates it takes an average of 2,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of avocados.

In addition to avocados’ intense thirst, there are roots of unsustainability in farming them — especially the lengthy, complicated fruit-bearing process. An avocado tree won’t bear fruit until it’s 10 years old, while a “graft sapling” (i.e. the stalk of a young tree fused with a mature tree) will produce a crop after four years.

The craze for avocados in recent years is causing high demand, low supply and big profits, and is pushing producers to expand farms, causing unprecedented deforestation of highland pine-oak forests.

According to a 2018 study by the University of Miami Law School, about 20,000 hectares of the Michoacan forest in Mexico – where so many of the avocados we buy are grown – is converted for agricultural use each year. Avocado orchards now cover 23 per cent of Michoacan state itself. Some of this deforestation is done illegally by drug cartels, which are also known to extort farmers.

Grant Calder, an environmentally oriented urban planner in Toronto, suggests an avocado-heavy diet is as ethically questionable as a diet rich in factory-farmed meat. So, what is an avocado aficionado to do?

If you can’t part with them, look for the eco-labels that certify sustainability and fair trade for avocado growers.

Calder doesn’t believe we should stop eating the fruit, but stresses that eating local and in-season produce reduces the carbon emissions of transport while supporting local growers and encouraging the spread of Canadian products.

“Healthy habits aren’t just about focusing on self-health, but the health of your community,” Calder said.

Alyssa Cho, a researcher in tropical fruit production based in Hawaii, another big avocado-growing region, recognizes the negatives of mass producing the fruit. But she said that buying out-of-country avocados helps impoverished farmers in the Southern Hemisphere.

And for some regions, it can actually help reduce food waste.

Hawaii produces “so many avocados for the island that it would actually be a waste if [producers] didn’t sell it” elsewhere, said Cho.

Andrea Kay


The Big Picture: The water consumption of produce

The importance of eating fruits and veggies is instilled in us from a very early age. What our parents didn’t stress is how much water is involved in growing those delicious, nutrient-rich foods. Here is just a small sampling.

Road salt revisited

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Our item last week on road salt stirred strong feelings, and the massive dumps of snow in much of the country this past week certainly kept it top of mind.

As Nicole Mortillaro reported last week, Canada pours up to five million tonnes of rock salt on streets every year. The sheer volume of it makes streets and sidewalks pretty unsightly in the winter months, and it’s unsettling to think much of it ends up leaching into our yards and nearby bodies of water. Then there’s its corrosive effect on bridges and our vehicles.

We did a bit more digging and found that cities have experimented with a number of alternatives, such as calcium magnesium acetate and calcium chloride.

Many of these formulations are touted as less corrosive and more environmentally friendly than old-fashioned road salt, but that might not be strictly true. For example, Edmonton has been experimenting with calcium chloride, despite findings that it has damaged roads 20 per cent more than salt alone.

Different regions have deployed de-icing substances that might seem odd at first, but have been proven to be largely effective:

  • Cheese brine in parts of Wisconsin.

  • Pickle juice in New Jersey.

  • Salt mixed with molasses in Barrie, Ont.

Following up on a tip from one reader about the use of volcanic rock as a gripping agent, we discovered a product called EcoTraction, which is manufactured by Toronto-based Earth Innovations. EcoTraction, which was featured on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, is made of “hydrothermal volcanic mineral” that not only provides grip in ice and snow, but also “contains no salt, chlorides, chemicals or dyes.” It has been used by cities like Ottawa and Chicago.

If you’ve heard of another de-icing material not mentioned here, please let us know!

Andre Mayer

Correction: A number of readers identified a mistake in last week’s story, which in one section compared road salt to the tabletop variety. The iodine found in table salt is meant to mitigate goiter — not gout, as we had it. That was an oversight on our part. Thanks for pointing it out.


What’s on your mind?

Your feedback matters to us.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Unless you have access to a helicopter, commuting to and from work every day is a dreary, thankless task. There is now evidence that the exposure to vehicle exhaust and the psychological torment of being in a traffic jam could lead to health issues.
  • Let’s take a moment to appreciate Scotland’s Orkney Islands. For one thing, they’re the only place in the U.K. that gets 100 per cent of its energy from renewable sources (specifically wind). Now, they’re taking their excess energy and finding ways to turn it into another zero-carbon substance: hydrogen fuel.

Light pollution: See the difference

(Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Have you ever seen the majestic reach of the Milky Way stretching across the sky?

If you’re in an urban area, as most Canadians are, the answer is likely no. That’s due to something a lot of people rarely think about: light pollution.

In 2016, a study published in Science Advances found only a third of the world’s population could see the Milky Way. But light pollution is about more than being unable to see stars. It can be defined as unwanted or unneeded light, which results in adverse effects.

The consequences are felt throughout nature. For example, there has been a decrease in the survival rate of sea turtles in Florida. When hatchlings are born, they scan their environment for a light source that would indicate the ocean, their natural home. But light from nearby roads and buildings confuses them and so they head away from the ocean. Many of them die in the process.

In Canada, studies suggest light pollution is affecting the migration patterns of birds.

John Barentine, director of public policy at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), said when it comes to the impact on human health, “the indications are that light definitely has a role to play in that.”

Artificial light at night (ALAN), such as a neighbour’s outdoor lights flooding your bedroom, upsets our circadian rhythm, which is our sleep/wake cycle. That unwanted nighttime light has been linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

There have also been some studies that suggest a moderate increase in the risk of breast cancer among nurses exposed to light at night.

Part of the problem is the colour of the light. The less blue in the light, the better. Light is measured on the Kelvin temperature scale. Blue light, which is what we see in the day (roughly 5,500 Kelvin), tells the brain that we should be awake. Right now, there are bulbs on the market that are 2,000 to 3,000 Kelvin.

Barentine said that when people make choices about lighting, “they should think about the proper amount of light that is deployed in the proper place at the proper time — which means time of night, but also duration — and they’d think of the proper spectrum, or colour of light.”

Here are simple pro tips to reduce the amount of unwanted light in your life:

  • Don’t leave on unnecessary lights.

  • Use motion-sensitive outdoor lights.

  • Ensure outdoor lights are shielded and point only to what they are supposed to illuminate (i.e. downward, not sideways or upward).

  • Use light bulbs that are 3,000 Kelvin or less.

Nicole Mortillaro

Full disclosure: Mortillaro was once the head of the Toronto Chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association.


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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