Plant-By-Numbers: How mathematics is the language of nature
By Krista Scott-Dixon
Non-mathematicians may be tempted to assume that mathematics is a cold, hard science of abstractions that has little to do with nature's egotistical caprices. After all, organic beings are lopsided and lumpy, with nary a perfect cube among them. Along with a vacuum, nature also appears to abhor a straight line. And many technical-minded people have lamented the apparent illogic and inefficiency of social interactions.
Yet many mathematicians feel quite the opposite. As the mathematician protagonist in the movie Pi observes, mathematics is the language of nature.
For instance, in 1202 the mathematician Fibonacci created a number sequence, based on the breeding of rabbits. The Fibonacci sequence led to the development of what is known as the golden ratio, or the golden mean, which has a value of about 1.618.
Others have observed that this golden ratio is abundant in nature - for example, in the spirals of Nautilus shells, the petal configuration of many flowers, and the arrangement of pine cones. And who could deny the power of geomery when gazing at the spirals atop a Romanesque cauliflower? By 1754, mathematician-biologists such as Bonnet were certain of the mathematical basis of leaf arrangement on plant stems, a phenomenon known as phyllotaxis.
Along with translating nature's language, can understanding mathematics lead to a greater appreciation for the environment… and even a plant-based diet? Richard Schwartz, Professor Emeritus, Mathematics, College of Staten Island, and author of Mathematics and Global Survival, thinks so. He's taught a course called Mathematics and the Environment for over 30 years.
“The results of mathematical calculations can lead to consideration of many important questions,” he argues. “Are we running out of resources? What are the social and economic costs of the arms race? How serious is recent rapid population growth? What are the environmental consequences of wastefulness in the United States and other wealthy countries?”
The answers, in theory, aren't hard to figure out. The challenge is understanding the big picture - how all the pieces relate together. Using data from relatively accessible reference sources like the Statistical Abstract of the United States and the United Nations` Statistical Yearbook of Economic and Social Affairs, Schwartz has compiled a vast array of mathematical insights into the true costs - financial and otherwise - of ecological destruction.
“The magnitude of world hunger is staggering,” he says. “More than a billion people, over one out of 6 people in the world, are chronically hungry.” For example, he says, by his estimate using proxy measures of body weight, half of people in India are going hungry. “Hunger is found in the wealthier countries as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 1998, some ten percent of U. S. households were hungry, on the edge of being hungry, or threatened by hunger.”
And yet, he argues, based on his calculations, “Hunger is not due to insufficient food production… [T]he world produces enough grain alone to provide every person with 3,500 calories a day, enough to make most people gain weight.” And that's just grain: when Schwartz adds in fruits, vegetables, nuts, root crops, dairy products, and non-grain-fed meat, he calculates that each person should have 4.3 pounds of food every day. In other words, things aren't adding up.
Why? For one thing, notes Schwarz, the production of animal-based agriculture costs tremendous resources. More than “one third of the world's grain is currently fed to animals destined for slaughter” - a number that climbs to a staggering 70 percent in the United States.
In the United States, people “consume about five times as much grain per person (mostly by eating meat from grain-fed animals) than the average person in poorer countries. It takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef in a feedlot. Half of U.S. farm acreage is used to produce feed crops for livestock. Animal-centered diets require up to 21 times the land area per person than would be required for a vegan diet. Modern intensive livestock agriculture also requires tremendous inputs of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, irrigation water, and fuel, commodities which are becoming very scarce worldwide.
“In view of these negative effects of animal-based agriculture, it is scandalous that U.S. meat conglomerates, aided by the World Bank and other international financial institutions, are promoting food policies and trade agreements that would double world production and consumption of meat and other animal food products in the next 20 years. Most of this expansion would take place in less developed nations, through massive factory farming operations similar to these currently being used in the developed world. This would have very severe consequences for the poor countries and worldwide: more hunger, more poverty, more pollution, more animal suffering, less self-determination for the people in low-income nations, and less water for everyone.”
Fundamentally, he says, “There is great poverty and hunger in less developed countries because the social and economic inequalities prevalent in these countries prevent people from making an adequate living.” However, he proposes, reducing our meat consumption is a good formula for solving the problem. “If Americans reduced their beef consumption by 10 percent, it would free up enough grain to feed all of the world's people who annually die of hunger and related diseases.”
Sounds like a plant-based diet sums it up just right.
6 out of 7 billion: tons of eroded soil in the United States that has been lost because of cattle and feed lot production.
90 | 13 : The percent of U.S. cropland that is losing soil at a rate at least 13 times faster than the sustainable rate.
2:1 Ratio of bushels of topsoil lost in Iowa for every bushel of corn grown there, most of which is fed to animals. Lower yields are occurring in many areas due to erosion and the reduction in soil fertility that it causes.
60 - Percent of US rangelands that are overgrazed by animals and thus vulnerable to erosion. Cattle production is a prime contributor to every one of the causes of desertification: overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of land, improper irrigation techniques, deforestation, and prevention of reforestation.
1.4 billion tons | 90,000 lbs/second | 130 times the amount excreted by the U.S. human population: amount of manure produced by cattle and other farmed animals raised in feedlots in the US, which washes into and pollutes streams, rivers, and underground water sources.
5 | 2: American livestock contribute five times more organic waste to the pollution of our water than do people, and twice as much as does industry.
_: Proportion of US water pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides.
400: Percent increase in the quantity of pesticides and other synthetic poisons used since 1962 when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that so eloquently sounded the alarm about the dangers of pesticides to human health, rivers, and wildlife.
_ lb : 55 ft2 Each imported quarter-pound fast-food hamburger patty requires the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical forest for grazing. Half of the rainforests are already gone forever and at current rates of destruction the rest will be gone by the middle of this century. What makes this especially ominous is that half of the world's fast disappearing species of plants and animals reside in tropical rain forests. We are risking the loss of species which might hold secrets for cures of deadly diseases. Other plant species might turn out to be good sources of nutrition. Also, the destruction of rain forests is altering the climate and reducing rainfall, with potentially devastating effects on the world's agriculture and habitability.
Schwartz, Richard. Mathematics and Global Survival (Ginn Press, 1993) and Judaism and Global Survival (Lantern Books, 2002)
Aronofsky, Darren (dir.) Pi. Artisan Entertainment, 1998.
Fibonacci. Liber Abaci. (Book of Calculations)1202.
Jean, Roger. Phyllotaxis: A Systemic Study in Plant Morphogenesis. Cambridge University Press, 1994.