Winner of the 2017 Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing

NewSouth staff

 

NewSouth Publishing are delighted to present the winning and runner up essays for the 2017 Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing.

The winning essay is, 'It's what's on the inside that counts', by Sam Jones from Kedron State High School in Queensland. 

Scoring runner up prizes in the Bragg Student Prize 2017 are Ebony Wallin, from Dalyellup College, WA, and Carole Ge, from Radford College, Canberra. Read Ebony’s essay ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillars’ and Carol Ge’s essay ‘The fate of the Great Barrier Reef’ below.

Congratulations Sam, Ebony and Carol. 

Details about the prize and the shortlist can be found here: newsouthpublishing.com/braggstudentprize

 

It's what's on the inside that counts

Link to PDF version:
 
Australian primary producers are forced to dump up to 60 per cent of the nation’s annual fresh fruit and vegetable crop simply because it is deemed not pretty enough. Australia, we have a problem.
 
We are taught not to judge a book by its cover. But the truth is we all do it every day when it comes to the fruit and vegetables we choose to buy and eat.
 
“Consumers shop with their eyes,” says Mary Ann Augustin, the CSIRO’s chief research scientist for Food and Agriculture. “They expect the fruits and vegetables to look really good, but if you grew the produce yourself in your garden at home you wouldn’t mind if it was a bit misshapen.”
 
This need for perfection in the produce Australians are willing to purchase is an unfortunate phenomenon independent greengrocer Neil Federer knows well. “We have many customers ask our opinion of what to buy, but even when I recommend the ugly produce there is some hesitation to buy it,” says Federer, who runs the Everything Good greengrocer in the foothills of the Glass House Mountains on the Sunshine Coast. And Federer doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, despite numerous high-profile campaigns trying to encourage Australians to buy ugly produce.
 
“Beautiful is best,” he says. “It's simply a visual thing which is automatic in all of us. Consumers are conditioned to see beauty and this is exactly how people see the food they purchase.” Perhaps because shoppers have this automatic attraction to beauty, Australia’s major supermarket chains set extremely high standards for their produce.
 
The Woolworths cosmetic standards guide for bananas runs for a mind-boggling 11,464 words over 20 pages. Every Cavendish banana sold at Woolworths needs to – among an extensive list of other criteria – boast a “normal to bright bloom; be firm, not soft; have starchy flesh; be slightly arched, with a blunted butt end; have undamaged necks; and have no bruising, staining or scarring.”
 
It is little wonder then Australian primary producers are forced to dump up to 60 per cent of the nation’s annual fresh fruit and vegetable crop simply because it is deemed not pretty enough.
 
Australia, we have a problem.
 
And it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse – with climate change leading to more extreme weather events like hail storms or heatwaves damaging crops.
 
The CSIRO's Dr Augustin says extreme weather events have been associated with climate change. “I’m not a climate change scientist, but any time you have an increase in temperatures it’s going to affect crops,” she says. Wasting food means you are also wasting the resources – including seeds, water, energy and fertilisers – that were used in growing that food
 
Fourth-generation farmer Stephen Moffat says he doesn't believe in climate change. But the pineapples on his 40-hectare Glasshouse Mountains property have been affected this year because of an unusual series of summer heatwaves. “Forty per cent (of the pineapples) are affected,” he says. “This is far worse than I can remember.”
 
Exacerbating the situation is that demographers estimate Australia’s population will increase by four million people over the next decade, meaning by 2027 we will need 20 per cent more food. We already produce that much and more, but our nation’s dirty little secret is how much we waste because it’s too bumpy, lumpy, or misshapen.
 
Dr Augustin warns dumping fresh produce has a much greater impact than just wasted calories. “Wasting food means you are also wasting the resources – including seeds, water, energy, and fertilisers – that were used in growing that food,” Dr Augustin says. She is leading a team of Australian scientists who are using science and innovative technology to reduce fruit and vegetable waste by turning unwanted produce into nutrient-rich snacks and supplements.
 
*"We are taught not to judge a book by it's cover. But the truth is we all do it every day when it comes to the fruit and vegetables we choose to buy and eat." - @giveuglyago
 
“We are using the edible parts of the unwanted vegetables and making them into things like veggie sticks and fermented foods,” she says. “For example, bananas that don’t meet supermarket specifications can be used to make banana flour.”
 
Michael Buckley is another Australian waging  war on wasted produce. He has started a business using the science of freeze-drying to turn unwanted produce into nutrient-rich supplements. Foods that have been freeze-dried retain their natural chemical make-up, meaning the nutrients are not lost – while the shelf life increases from a few days to a few years.
 
Buckley’s purpose-built Freeze Dry Industries factory at Yandina on the Sunshine Coast sports massive vats that freeze, then dry, raw materials to remove water content, meaning he can freeze dry up to eight tonnes of fruit each week. His next idea is to build a similar, solar-powered setup inside a shipping container that can be trucked direct to the farms during the harvest to freeze-dry unwanted produce on-site.
 
“The ultimate sustainability setup is that a farmer has the option of selling off otherwise unsellable produce to create a whole new consumer range of long shelf-life, lightweight, easy to store, highly nutritious products and food,” he says. “To waste perfectly nutritious and delicious food is stunningly stupid.”
 
With our love affair with beautiful fruit showing no sign of ending, it’s technology such as this which will be crucial in ensuring a sustainable food supply for our nation. Ridiculous produce beauty standards mean Australian farmers are forced to throw away up to 60 per cent of fruit and vegetables grown in this country just because they are deemed not pretty enough.
 
 
* this fact attracted 350 likes when I posted it on an @giveuglyago Instagram page that I set up to raise awareness of this issue as part of this entry
 
 
Kedron State High School Year Seven student Sam Jones is passionate about spreading the word about food wastage. He first learnt of the sheer extremity of the situation by watching the ABC's War on Waste (starring Craig Recaussel).
 
Learn more about Sam's sustainability journey by following him @giveuglyago on Instagram.
 
 

 

The Very Hungry Caterpillars

Planet Earth is being contaminated by plastic.  Plastic is a substance of incredible durability, thought to be unable to biodegrade, and immune to anything nature could throw at it.  However, nobody had considered the caterpillars.

Dr Federica Bertocchini, a Spanish biologist, discovered an extraordinary ability of the waxworm caterpillar entirely by accident. Dr Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper, had removed waxworm caterpillars from her beehive where they had been eating the beeswax, and placed them in a plastic bag. To her utmost astonishment, within an hour the polyethylene bag was riddled with holes. Dr Bertocchini, and a few colleagues called to the scene, investigated and found ethylene glycol, a component of polyethylene plastic (PET), in the caterpillars’ guts. This confirmed that these caterpillars are able to digest the plastic, and that a waxworm caterpillar’s digestive system can also chemically transform the plastic into ethylene glycol, a highly useful substance found in items such as antifreeze.

But how is this possible? It may be that the waxworms can digest the polyethylene plastic due to a similarity between the chemical structure of the plastic and the beeswax they eat. Beeswax is composed of many compounds with a variety of different chemical bonds, the most common being the carbon-carbon single bond, which is also found in polyethylene plastic. As Dr Bertocchini notes, “Wax is a polymer, a sort of ‘natural plastic’, and has a chemical structure not dissimilar to polyethylene.” The reason for waxworm caterpillars’ ability to biodegrade polyethylene plastic is likely to lie in the bacterial species in their gut. Two bacterial strains capable of digesting the plastic have already been found.

Dr Bertocchini and her fellow researchers are continuing to explore the molecular details of the degradation process of not only plastic, but beeswax as well. By discovering precisely how the digestive system of the caterpillars biodegrade polyethylene plastic, they intend to replicate the process using biotechnology and use it in the war on plastic. “We are planning to implement this finding into a viable way to get rid of plastic waste, working towards a solution to save our oceans, rivers and all the environment from the unavoidable consequences of plastic accumulation,” says Dr Bertocchini. This new research into how the waxworm caterpillars can digest polyethylene plastic has profound implications for addressing the problem of plastic contamination.

The war against plastic is becoming more difficult by the day and the need for efficient weapons more urgent.  Plastic’s durability is what makes it so useful to humans and so potent to nature. This durability usually ensures it does not biodegrade, rather it continually photodegrades, meaning it breaks into smaller pieces known as nurdles. Plastic often ends up in the oceans, manifesting and covering large swathes of the world’s ocean surfaces. The plastic debris pollutes the oceans and traps, poisons or starves animals who encounter it through entanglement or consumption. Therefore, the discovery that a common caterpillar can eat polyethylene, one of the world’s most durable plastics, and the technology that could be created as a result, is so very important.

The discovery of the waxworm caterpillar’s ability to digest polyethylene marks the beginning of a new era in the fight against plastic. The researchers believe that caterpillars are able to eat and digest polyethylene because beeswax and polyethylene share a similar chemical structure and common chemical bond.  As researchers uncover the precise process that enables the caterpillars to biodegrade the plastic, they move closer to adapting the process into a biotechnical solution for plastic waste. “However,” Dr Bertocchini rightly reminds us, “we should not feel justified to dump polyethylene deliberately in our environment just because we now know how to biodegrade it.”

This story of waxworm caterpillars and a bag riddled with holes might have remained an ordinary story of garden pests and an unusable plastic bag. However, this bee keeper’s mishap in the garden combined with her scientific mind turned an ordinary event into an extraordinary discovery.

Fortunately, we are now closer than ever before to finding a sustainable method to combat plastic waste and it’s all thanks to some very hungry caterpillars.

Ebony Wallin
Year 9, Dalyellup College, Western Australia

 

 

The Fate of the Great Barrier Reef

There were seven, and then there were six. A children’s nursery rhyme or a description of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven great natural wonders?

Vast watery shades of blue, as endless as the sky. Coral of magnificent shapes and sizes line the sea floor. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef. One of the seven great wonders of the natural world. Cool water envelops the beach, washing away rounded sand grains, shaped by endless tides and currents. Fish in brilliant hues of orange and yellow swim by, while the anemone sway to the currents. A home to thousands of unique Australian marine species. A true Australian beauty. Thriving through hundreds of years of survival. Underneath the surface of the water, time seems eternal.

But time is running out for the Great Barrier Reef.

Climate change is a significant concern in society, and with increasing population, overexploitation, and growing demand for resources, today’s society is facing great changes every day, and sustainability is becoming the number one overarching issue for future generations. The Great Barrier Reef is among countless natural habitats which are rapidly deteriorating, caused primarily by climate change. Climate change has led to many issues affecting the reef, such as rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and the increased severity of cyclones. High sea temperatures in particular has caused fast bleaching of coral in the Great Barrier Reef. The stressed coral expels the symbiotic algae living inside its tissue, which results in the drastic white colour of bleached coral. This bleached coral does not survive if the stress continues through a long period, and the algae does not return. Shockingly, 93% of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to some degree, according to the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce. Ocean acidification is another issue the reef is facing, as the absorption of carbon dioxide changes the chemistry of sea water, making the water more acidic. This weakens the bone structure of the coral. Additionally, tropical cyclones also unleash mass amounts of physical damage to the reef and its structure, especially as the severity of cyclones has been increasing due to climate change. The Great Barrier Reef is currently in peril, the reef is not predicted to live past 2100, and the future of the Reef is in the hands of us.

Both the action and support of every individual towards this cause, and new innovative scientific research is crucial to helping the current condition of the reef. A team of Australian scientists at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science have been developing a method which could possibly help save the reef. While ‘cloud brightening’, sounds farfetched, it may be the most plausible way to reduce the effects of climate change on the reef, namely coral bleaching. Cloud brightening involves making clouds larger and more reflective, to cool the ocean below. Reducing heat in the ocean, and decreasing the sea temperature during the hottest months of the year could prevent a substantial amount of coral bleaching. The idea of cloud brightening was previously considered for reducing the effects of global warming, but has never been considered for the Great Barrier Reef. Cloud brightening works by spraying a mist of saltwater throughout the air, which increases the amount of smaller droplets in the clouds. This causes the clouds to reflect more light back into space, known as the Twomey effect, and thus cool the area.

Although technology such as cloud brightening is exciting and would be beneficial to the condition of the reef, it is a temporary method, which will only buy the reef time. Cloud brightening or other technology cannot solve the main issue the reef is facing, climate change. Unless global greenhouse gas emissions are cut quickly, and action is taken, the reef will be destroyed.

The actions of every individual can shape the fate of the reef, and benefit the environment. Whether this be supporting conservation groups or educating others about climate change and the reef. It could include being environmentally friendly, by reducing carbon emissions and taking alternate methods of transport or planting trees. Alternatively, it could include saving energy, by using energy efficient appliances or using renewable sources of energy such as solar panels. Using environmentally friendly products, such as natural fertilisers or reusable shopping bags, could also contribute to helping. Supporting this cause could help save the Barrier Reef and improve the sustainability of the planet.

The reef is a priceless natural wonder of the world, and it is ultimately up to us to save our Great Barrier Reef.

Carol Ge
Year 9, Radford College, Canberra ACT

 

 
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