Farmers Ditch The Scarecrow, Bring Out The Big (Laser) Guns

7:48 minutes

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Birds have a long-standing feud with with farmers. Just when crops are ready for harvest, birds will swoop in for a meal, cutting into farmers’ revenue. Now at least one blueberry farm in Oregon, the bird scaring tactics of yore have been retired for a new technique. The farm has installed technology—developed by the company Bird Control Group—that sweeps a green laser beam across fields to scare birds away. The movement of the light is thought to be perceived by birds as similar to a predator’s approach. Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to discuss the high tech approach to deterring birds. Plus, she explains how Chinese scientists used the gene editor CRISPR to create a low-fat pig.

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a mortician takes us on a journey around the world to see how different cultures deal with the dead. And we’re gonna talk about a new greener alternative to burials and cremations. Interesting stuff.

But first, birds can be a nuisance to a lot of industries. But their biggest and certainly most longstanding beef has been with farmers. And farmers certainly have a beef with the birds, because just when crops are ready for harvest, birds arrive for a delicious meal, cutting into revenue and crops for the farmers, which is why one blueberry farm in Oregon has had enough. It’s putting away the scarecrow and taking out the big guns, laser guns that is.

Here to share with us how farmers are using laser technology as a bird deterrent, as well as other short subjects in science, is Amy Nordrum, associate editor with the IEEE Spectrum. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us first about the– we’re not talking about shooting the birds with a laser beam, are me?


IRA FLATOW: Let’s get that out of the way.

AMY NORDRUM: Correct. We are not shooting the birds directly with the laser on this blueberry farm. But you know, birds do love blueberries as much as we do, maybe even more. So they are a problem to these blueberry farmers. There’s a company called Bird Control Group that’s developed a laser that they aim at the blueberry bushes.

This is a wide green laser beam that sort of sweeps across the bushes during the morning and in the evening when the birds are trying to pick off the berries. And the sweeping motion of the laser, the found, seems to simulate a predator’s approach to certain types of birds, like swallows and robins that are feeding on the berries. So they think it’s a predator coming to get them and this causes them to fly off, which saves the berries.

IRA FLATOW: Have experimented with different colors lights? I mean, why are they using the green light?

AMY NORDRUM: They have. They settled on green. They did about four years of research and development before coming up with a solution. And they say that the green appears to be about eight times more intense to the birds, rather than versus red. So for some reason, the birds are perceiving green light as more intense. And we don’t even really know if they see it in the same colors as us. But that light evoked a much stronger reaction than red light.

IRA FLATOW: They just did a colorblind test with the birds.

AMY NORDRUM: In a way, yes. It does make a difference.

IRA FLATOW: You know, sometimes animals acclimate to things. How do we know that the birds are not gonna to say, I’ve seen this before. It’s not gonna hurt me.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah I mean, we’ve all seen examples and photos of scarecrows that have birds hanging out all around them. So that’s absolutely the case. For this laser, for some reason, the birds don’t seem to acclimate to– this company has implemented the solution on farms and food processing facilities, even on fishing ships around the world. And they say that even years after installing it, the birds seem to still respond to it.

IRA FLATOW: I’m seeing a vision out of Mission Impossible, where the laser beams intersect by the bank vault.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, usually they do have to set up more than one so they actually have like a grid of six lasers. Because if you just use one, you actually just end up herding the birds to one side of the field. And then, they still end up eating the berries. So it is a little bit like that actually in real life.

IRA FLATOW: Do you know if other farms, any blueberry farms, are copying this technique?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. There’s lots of other kinds of farms. There’s dairy processing facilities that have been using this. You can imagine oil rigs with all the seagulls on them. There’s a couple of oil rigs around the world have implemented this solution. And there’s even been Oregon State University has implemented on their blueberry research farm.

IRA FLATOW: My Radio Shack doesn’t have this yet for myself.

AMY NORDRUM: No And it’s about $10,000 per machine. So if you have six of them in your field, it’s a little pricey. But for this one blueberry farm in Oregon, they’ve saved quite a bit of money from the blueberries that they’ve rescued from the birds.

IRA FLATOW: I’m sure Amazon will have a cheaper version soon. Let’s move on to CRISPR. It’s having a huge week this weekend. And in this next study, Chinese scientists have produced a low fat pig using the gene editor. Now, I’ve heard of low fat bacon. But now, the whole pig.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, that’s right. So they used CRISPR, the gene editing tool, to insert a gene that pig’s lack, but which other mammals do have, called UCP1. This gene, in other mammals, is thought to help other mammals keep warm by burning fat. And since pigs don’t have it, they tend to have high susceptibility to cold temperatures, especially young piglets, where farmers really need to think about using heat lamps to keep them warm so the pigs don’t die.

So these researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences took a UCP1 gene from a mouse and used it to produce 12 piglets. And they found that the piglets with this gene, modified through CRISPR, had 24% less fat and were able to stay warmer compared to piglets without it.

IRA FLATOW: And do we know why they were able to stay warmer?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, just the fact that they have this gene seems to be associated with the fact that they’re able to produce heat by burning fat. So they’re using the fat that they would’ve had otherwise to actually generate more heat.

IRA FLATOW: It’s sort of an oxymoron, a low fat pig. Eat turkey is you want–

AMY NORDRUM: Right. I mean, the researchers are making the case that this pig could actually be quite useful to farmers, because in cold climates, it can be really hard to keep a bunch of piglets warm. And then, there is, supposedly, a higher demand for leaner meats these days in the consumer market as well. So I don’t know that we’ll see this kind of pig on the market anytime soon here in the US. It would require FDA approval and lots of testing. But it’s an interesting idea.

IRA FLATOW: But it’s also a GMO pig.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: So in Europe, they don’t like that either.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. There’s a lot of public pushback against this. So interesting experiment. But I wouldn’t expect to be able to buy this low fat CRISPR pig anytime soon.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of buying, for our next story, there’s a vineyard in Spain that is now making wine using ultrasound? Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, there’s a company there called [? Agroven ?] that has developed this really interesting ultrasound technology. You know, winemaking is this ancient, traditional, long process. And they are arguing that wine makers could speed it up a little bit by using their ultrasound chamber.

It hits the grapes at a certain part of the process, right before this stage called maceration that red wines go through. And that’s sort of the breakdown of the grape skins that actually infuses the tannins and the flavor compounds called phenols into the wine itself.

This process usually takes as many as 100 days to complete. But by putting the grape pulp through this ultrasound chamber and beaming it with this low frequency sound, they’re able to create these tiny little explosions in the grape skins themselves, which extracts these compounds, supposedly, faster and might be able to speed up that process. It may be even just a few hours.

IRA FLATOW: So is this being adopted?

AMY NORDRUM: So it’s been tested in four countries. Different wine makers are trying it out. But it still is awaiting approval by a kind of an international regulatory body that looks at food production techniques. And then, we’ll see if it has any takeup. Wine makers might not want to tamper with their process.

IRA FLATOW: That’s true. And finally, a study that suggests there may be a season for human hair loss.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: We’re shedding? Is there a shedding season for people?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, you can almost think of it like that. I mean, we’re familiar with that with cats and dogs. But researchers over the years have kind of anecdotally– and doctors have reported that more people tend to have hair loss in the summer and in the fall.

And so there’s new research out in the British Journal of Dermatology that did a Google search trends analysis for the term hair loss worldwide. And they found that searches with the term hair loss were about five times more common in the summer and in the fall than in the spring. So there does seem to be some seasonality to human hair loss as well, based on what people are searching on Google.

IRA FLATOW: Amy, you always bring us fascinating stuff.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, associate editor with the IEEE Spectrum.

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