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Real Science

Tomatoes and wind power

Michael Rosenthal

(3/2017) One of our summer activities is growing some vegetables, particularly tomatoes. I’m sure it’s obvious to most of us that tomatoes purchased in supermarkets do not have the flavor of home-grown tomatoes or those found at local fruit and vegetable farm markets. A group of researchers at the University of Florida have done genetic sequencing of almost 400 varieties of tomatoes, and have identified, using human taste panelists, the specific molecules that lead to the best flavor and odor. From this work the scientists then proceeded to determine the molecular markers that can be used to breed back the tastier tomatoes we once knew.

Tomatoes are America’s favorite produce product, reflecting nearly 10% of the fruit and vegetable market sales. The development of produce in recent years has focused upon good looks and ease of transport, instead of flavor. Most supermarket tomatoes have a genetic mutation that partially delays the production of ripening hormones, thereby adding one to two weeks of shelf life. As Mel Brooks said (one of my favorite quotes!) "Everything is Show Biz." Now that is understandable, not just from a financial standpoint, but to allow for availability. We’ve all been faced with the frustration of not finding availability of a favorite fruit or vegetable in a supermarket. Then there is the issue of flavor versus aesthetics. Splotchy green patches on wild and heirloom varieties that tomato breeders have sought to eliminate on aesthetic grounds contain chloroplasts that actually enhance sweetness and flavor. Larger fruits also often have less sweetness due to a change in enzyme use. So, the goal is to find a balance – a tomato that has the flavor we seek, but yet large enough in size and sturdy enough for distance shipping. The laboratory, at The University of Florida, directed by Professor Harry J. Klee, is said to fill requests for a packet of their improved tomato seeds, for a donation of $10 or more.

We’ve written before about producing energy from wind. Wind power is emerging as a very active component in the evolution of energy production. For years, energy production from wind was stymied by high costs, regulatory hurdles, and the opposition to the windmills citing interference with ocean views. Windmill progress is now moving forward, and here are some of the recent developments in wind power production.

The Long Island Power Authority in New York has reached an agreement to build a 15 turbine wind farm, serving some 50,000 homes, in the ocean about 35 miles from Montauk. The Power Authority sees this as just a beginning to developing other wind locations around Long Island. The financial aspects seem to have been worked out between developers and utilities. In Europe energy production from offshore wind is thriving, costs have dropped, and the acceptance by the public is coming into play. A Norwegian company, Statoil, is planning to develop a 79,000 acre site south of Jones Beach on Long Island. If people can get past the feeling that wind farms are not aesthetic, this will be a truly wonderful way to produce energy without a negative impact on the environment. With no carbon dioxide emission, the production of energy from wind produces no global warming. People like to live on our coasts, home to half the population of the United States. Our coasts offer some of the strongest wind resources in the world, possessing in theory, enough energy to produce 4 times the power now produced in the United States. It is cheaper to construct these turbines on land, but the East Coast has strong winds and shallow waters. With careful planning, then, many of the turbines can be placed farther out to sea and will, thus be less visible. I myself like the sight of a wind turbine, but not everyone feels that way. New York is a prime focal point for wind development because of Governor Cuomo’s commitment to meet 50% of New York’s power from renewable sources by 2030.

We’ve written previously about the various attitudes toward use of plastic bags. The New York State Legislature voted to prevent New York City from a proposed plastic bag law that would have charged five cents for each plastic bag used in a sale, allowing merchants to keep the money. It was not a tax, but an incentive, said the Legislature, to encourage better habits and limit trash. The Legislature voted to block the law, prohibiting a fee and to delay for a year any effort of New York City to impose such a fee. They said it was a tax on the poor who "needed the nickels to buy bread and eggs". Governor Cuomo agreed with the Legislature and signed the bill, and promised to form "a statewide task force to develop a uniform state plan for addressing the plastic bag problem." Why not use reusable and then recyclable paper bags, I say, and protect the environment from some of the plastic debris we see on the road and in trees on every road trip we make? The battle continues, in New York and elsewhere.

Another ongoing issue is the disposal of nuclear waste. However you feel about nuclear power, we all agree that there has to be a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. I was surprised to see that the fuel rods from the closed reactor at Indian Point were still being stored on the site.

We have made reference in earlier articles to the nuclear plant explosion and fire at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Engineers are putting the finishing touches on the New Safe Confinement structure at Chernobyl, that will fully encapsulate the reactor and remaining nuclear material. The 1.6 billion dollar project is intended to last 100 years. It is as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as long as two football fields. It will withstand tornados and earthquakes typical of that region. In utilizing nuclear power, an important source of energy that does not have any global warming effects, we need to continue to find safe solutions to the nuclear waste disposal issues.

Finally, here is an update on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. The drinking water in Flint is now in compliance with federal regulations on lead and copper content, but officials say that it may be a year or more before it is safe for residents to drink from their faucets because of the need to replace lead-tainted pipes. The mayor said, "We are not out of the woods yet," and she urged Flint residents to continue to drink bottled water or use filters. The city is working to remove some 20,000 lead tainted water pipes; it plans to have 6,000 replaced by the end of 2017. The lead pipes were installed from 1983 to 1988.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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