Biochemistry 101
Dec. 14, 2005
Take-Home Final


1. (What key problems might our country face as the result of a 5-year drought? What kinds of impacts might the drought have on our sociological, economic and natural environment?)

    If we assume that the given conditions are true, and that in the year 2010 drought has plagued the Midwest for the last five years, we must first be able recognize the extent of its impacts. And a thorough analysis ought to be able to consider both the most primary and immediate effects, as well as the secondary and tertiary effects that could logically follow, especially in a worst-case scenario or domino-effect situation. In the same vein, of course, is the understanding that various groups, conditions and such would be affected to greatly varying degrees.

    Having said all of this, then to begin, some of the more immediate effects that would be seen would be especially noticeable on a localized scale. The most obvious “candidate” for the groups that would be affected is, of course, farmers and other people in the agriculture industry. It’s no great realization to say that the crops would gradually have become more and more weak, to the point that the harvests would be insufficient. (Over the course of that five-year period, the land would only have grown more and more stagnant and unfavorable for future growing, especially as the soil became more and more arid.) Relatively direct, first-order dangers would also include associated environmental hazards, especially the hazard of fires breaking out.

    As more time passes, another change that would undoubtedly be enacted is that of limitations on water usage, and on an individual basis, this can prove further devastating to people’s property as lawns, gardens, flower beds and other such small-scale agricultural and horticultural endeavors. Water bills, as well as other costs needed to pay for the use of water-consuming facilities and services, would see a sharp increase. Another gradual result that would become noticeable—though to varying degrees, depending on one’s financial situation—is the effect of higher prices on farm goods. It sounds easy to just say, “Well, corn’s going to cost more” or some trite observation such as that. The impacts become more indirect; while grocery stores certainly may see changes in prices on direct farm goods (such as produce), it is the derivative goods that would be more likely to see a domino effect. For example, the wheat crop: People don’t just go out and buy “wheat” at the stores; they buy products containing it. If, for example, the price of wheat rises as a result of the wheat harvest only being one-fourth of the standard yield, then a great many products will be affected in price.

    And this is where enters the fact that this will have varying degrees of impact on people; for some, a few dollars here and a few bucks there (because of food having become more expensive and in shorter supply) is hardly worth a second thought. But to many people, especially those on a fixed income, it is quite significant—those dollars really add up, and in a potential worst-case scenario, a family incapable of being able to meet all of its needs (e.g., with clothing, rent, and a newly increased food budget) could potentially find itself evicted. Other considerations of the change in the balance of trade are that people who can afford the food may be forced to “go elsewhere” to find the food due to the rise in the price (and decline in availability) of basic commodities. Family spending could be affected in other ways, as well: Having to spend more money on food means that there is less money available to spend as discretionary funds; one side effect of this could be that families won’t be able to buy many of the new technological products. On a large enough scale, this could mean that less money goes into other various avenues (again, such as entertainment, technologies and so on)—one of the potential first steps that leads to a recession is the redirection of consumer dollars. Recessions and depressions wind up resulting in layoffs, and correspondingly, even less money to spend.

    Those economic impacts certainly affect the farmers, as well. When there is less of a profit (or none at all) for them, they may wind up forced to leave and relocate, or to possibly even take up an entirely different occupation to maintain a steady income. This in turn leads to fewer people in the agricultural industry. On a similar note, the value of the land may sharply decline, especially over time, and so not only would a person considering selling his property not receive as much money for it, but the land looks less attractive to others who might be considering moving to the Midwest.

    Another potential effect that might occur is political upheaval in one form or another. Criticism of politicians would be sure to follow, as people demanded to know why the government didn’t plan ahead better. This may have a good benefit of leading to calls for better governmental intervention and more long-range focus on averting such disasters. If the politicians truly are incompetent or otherwise not adequately dealing with the situation at hand, then the next elections will see a big change in who gets chosen.

Summary of Some of the Effects/Problems

- Crops become weak
           - Insufficient harvests
           - Land stagnation / not suitable for growing / arid soil
           - Environmental & fire hazards
           - Limitations on water usage
           - Increase in water bills and related costs
           - Higher prices’ effect on farm goods
           - Direct goods and derivative goods both become costlier
           - Families potentially unable to meet needs (bigger demands on food budget)
           - Rise in price / decline in availability: People “go elsewhere” to find goods
           - More money spent on food: Less money available as discretionary funds
           - Redirection of consumer dollars (less money into other avenues)
           - Farmers relocate / others won’t move to Midwest / decreased land value
           - Political upheaval / criticism / effect on elections

2. (Is there any sort of impact on the rest of the world, or just the U.S.?)

    There can definitely be an impact on other countries! Take Japan, for example, which is one of the major buyers of soybeans grown in the United States. Other countries are often major purchasers of our crops, and so a drought could mean that not only would we not make money (or as much) from other countries, but in turn, they don’t get the food. This can be very problematic for those countries that depend on our crops as a major source of food. Also, there are many other countries that produce crops similar to ours, and they also sell crops to different countries. So those other crop-producing nations that are not experiencing a drought have the opportunity to make more money by selling to countries that we normally would. Those other selling countries can charge more, for example, and so their industry is likely bolstered. The economic impacts that we experience due to droughts will be experienced by those selling countries, but the effects will be inverted—those countries will have positive second-order and tertiary consequences following from the more immediate positive impacts.

Summary of Some of the International Effects

- Other countries don’t get our products / other countries rely on our products
           - United States doesn’t get money from selling product (exports)
           - Other (non-drought) crop-producing nations sell crops to those other countries
           - Other crop-producing nations make money / can charge more / economy helped
           - Secondary and tertiary effects

3. (Because we are still at the mercy of the weather, what technological solutions could you propose to buffer the problems caused by the drought?)

    It would seem that, because “technological” is so broad of a term, there exists a wide variety of potential solutions, both from a short- and a long-term perspective. The most immediate solution, of course—and as overly simplistic as it sounds—is simply to figure out a way in which water can be most effectively distributed and to those who most desperately need it. When we lived in California many years ago, we experienced a drought. The determination was made, however, that an (at least) immediate solution was simply to have a small but very long pipeline of sorts constructed to carry the water. The pipe was set up on the side of a major bridge.

    The local and state governments could work to try to ‘mitigate future damages’ by implementing improvement programs for better irrigation systems and water storage facilities. If climate-related factors (such as low humidity) were partly to blame for surface- water evaporation, perhaps a way to safeguard certain “at-risk” (vulnerable) water supplies might be a possible are of study. Similarly, retention dams and other methods of water containment would be potentially beneficial as well.

    But we have to take into consideration that water would not be the only thing needed to alleviate the drought-caused problems. Certainly the government could use some sort of food rationing or distribution programs to help prevent families at risk of starvation, and it is also possible that farmers and other such groups could receive help in the form of other supplies.

    Other technological impacts and solutions could include: the conversion (where possible) to products and technologies with lesser water requirements; the moving of crops from other parts of the country (and the world) into the supply chain, a process that certainly requires technology; employing more intensive farming methods in the parts of the country that have water; the use (in fields) of products that reduce evaporation, creating a mini-greenhouse effect of sorts; and the sinking / drilling of deeper wells. Also of interest could be the use of methods to discover aquifers and underground rivers. One existing method uses ground-penetrating radar, and another method involves SONAR, using the same basic idea as echolocation, actually. An explosion is set off, and different “listening stations” (set up some distance away) are used to analyze the shockwaves sent into the ground, because the “reflection” from the sound waves bouncing off a rock is different from that of a sound wave that has hit water.

           Summary of Some of the Solutions Proposed

           - Pipe construction to carry / redistribute water
           - Improve irrigation systems and water storage facilities
           - Safeguard surface water from evaporation
           - Food and supply rationing / distribution
           - Convert to products / technologies that require less water
           - Move crops into supply chain
           - Drill deeper wells
           - Ground-penetrating radar / SONAR to find water underground

4. (What might be the advantages and disadvantages of implementing the solutions that you propose?)

    The advantages seem so inherently obvious that I won’t give them a whole lot of time, but suffice it to say that these techniques would allow people to make most efficient use of the land around them while also being able to receive help (as needed) from other sources. As for the disadvantages, I can think of a few. For one, there’s a significant cost involved, and the money spent doesn’t go elsewhere (e.g., into funding of schools, road construction and maintenance, and various types of discretionary funding). Also, this may (in some cases) be putting into place technologies that will no longer be needed once the drought is over—though it may be argued that, unless the systems become obsolete, they could be “re-used” and/or updated so as to be useful in the event of future droughts. Lastly, I imagine that some of the measures taken might require the suspension or non-enforcement of some environmental regulations that might otherwise be used to keep various technologies “in-check.”

           Summary of the potential advantages and disadvantages

           - Allows for most efficient use of land
           - Allows people to receive help as needed from other sources
           - Large cost
           - Money doesn’t “go elsewhere” into other avenues
           - May put in place technologies that will be obsolete when drought ends
           - Suspend / not enforce environmental regulations

5. (…What actions should be taken by relevant players in society to ensure the best possible outcome, including government, citizens, farmers, etc.?)

    Again, I’ll be brief and just give a few examples of each. As far as the government is concerned, officials and politicians absolutely have to be able to take swift, decisive action when disaster strikes. But more importantly, they have to be prepared to take preventative measures and implement long-term solutions rather than short-sighted ones. As is frankly the case with this very essay, one must understand the problems before solutions can be raised; politicians should be looking at the problem, understanding it, discerning the real solutions from the pseudoscience and poorly thought-out ones, and approaching everything without a political agenda. The government ought to be prepared not only to deal with the worst-case scenario but to prevent it, and being able to transform abstract ideas and suggestions into concrete actions is a must.

    Simply put, citizens ought to be made aware of what they can do to help avert droughts. Citizens should educate themselves and take the initiative to do their part, as clichéd as it sounds to say. Here, it’s succinctness that wins the day, as there is no perfect suggestion or list of “to-do” items for citizens to be effective. An active role is a hundred times more effective than a passive one. People should take steps not just to prevent droughts but to help solve existing ones and lessen the ones that may occur in the future.

    Lastly, a couple of suggestions for farmers: First, they should make sure that the methods being used for the growing and harvesting of crops are as efficient as possible. There is an extremely fine line between getting optimum yield and preserving the soil’s integrity. Secondly, the idea of strategic reserves has much merit. This idea dates back to the story of Joseph in the Bible, when during the seven ‘rich’ years of harvest, grain was stored up to prepare for the seven ‘lean’ years, helping avert famine.

Summary of Some Actions That Can Be Taken

- Gov’t.: Take quick action / use preventative measures
           - Gov’t.: Fully understand the problem and approach it with best solutions in mind
           - Citizen: Become educated / take the initiative
           - Citizen: Work to prevent droughts / lessen impacts; solutions for existing droughts
           - Farmer: Use most efficient growing / harvesting methods
           - Know fine line between optimum yield and preserving soil integrity
           - Strategic reserves