Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Some Revealing Videos from the “March Against Monsanto”

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

Around the world, people have come out to events dubbed the “March Against Monsanto.”   The events have happened in hundreds of cities (supposedly) and may involve thousands of people.  Overall, the total number who have come out for these events seems to be relatively small.  Most of them were lucky to draw a crowd of dozens.  But those who did show up certainly are passionate.

The event is supposed to be a demonstration against the Monsanto Corporation.  It’s basically a demonstration against genetically modified organisms, which is the Monsanto product that activists tend to hate the most.  While Monsanto is not the only maker of genetically modified organisms, they have become one of the most the most visible and are certainly the one who is targeted the most by anti-gmo groups.

The protests also seem to oppose modern, conventional agriculture and the production of food on large farms.  It is part of the movement for organic agriculture and the “eat local” campaigns, which promote the idea that food should be grown in a large number of small farms, rather than a smaller number of larger farms.

There are a number of videos that have been taken at these events, including some which interview participants. I would highly recommend checking out those made by Bronson Kaahui, who attended some of these events and interviewed the participants about their beliefs and what they are taking a stand against. There are some others floating around that are also worth watching.

Here are a few of my favorites:


No, it does not take a conspiracy to make people fat

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

 Videos like this one really get under my skin

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Foods that are high in calories, that contain a large portion of fat are simply something people like.   The same is true for starchy foods and sweet foods.   Any chef will tell you this. There’s a reason why so many of them seem to be nearly obsessed with butter.  It makes foods taste pleasing.  Trying to make foods that are low in sugar, low in fat and low in starch as palatable is, at beast a challenge.  They can be spiced and seasoned, but this really does not get you quite the same level of culinary gratification.

Owithdrawalfromsugarf course, substitutes can be used, which give similar taste to foods.  Many substitute sweeteners exist.  Unfortunately, they do not always work in all products, since they may not melt or dissolve the same way as natural sugars do.  They also tend to have inferior subjective tastes, at least to most people, with undesirable mouth-feels and aftertastes.  There are also fat substitutes, but they have their own problems.   Olestra is a well known example.   The molecule is similar to fats, chemically and physically.  It has the same thick, greasy feel to it.  However, it also has some unfortunate side-effects.  It is not absorbed in the digestive tract but passes through.  It’s become famous for therefore producing an unpleasant side effect known as anal leakage. (Which is exactly what it sounds like.)

The human affinity for sweetness, however, should not be viewed as an addiction in the same way something like cocaine is addictive, however.  That’s just ridiculous.  Sugar is a natural part of our food we are all exposed to and which can’t be eliminated.  Sweet flavors light up the pleasure centers of the brain because we like them and that’s what stuff we like does.   Cocaine is a powerful drug that modifies brain chemistry, working on the dopamine system.  It has strong stimulating effects and produces tolerance and dependence.  With time, users are left dopamine-deficient without it.  It also has an effect on serotonin and norepinephrine.

Why this is the case:

The reason why humans seek out and prefer high calorie foods is actually very simple.   For most of our evolution food was scarce and it was common to not know where your next meal was coming from.  Calories are, by far, he most important basic nutrient, and therefore when the opportunity arose to eat something high in them, it made sense to do so.  If our ancestors went out foraging or hunting for food, it made sense to seek out that which had the highest calorie density.

It’s also more common to find other important nutrients, such as vitamins in the fruits of plants than in their leaves.   Since humans require a steady supply of vitamin C, an affinity for sweet fruits was a good thing to have.

It really is that simple.   It’s a matter of desiring foods and high calorie foods, because that’s what we need.

Evolution is also the reason why humans get fat when they eat a lot of high calorie foods.  Many seem to believe that gaining weight represents the human body functioning improperly or that it is the result of something unnatural.  This seems to be the reason why there are so many “detox” diets, which are based on the entirely false notion that fat is toxic or that some toxic and foreign substance is making people gain fatty tissue.  There’s nothing especially toxic in fat cells.  They’re just full of nutrients.

This has the same basic evolutionary reason.   Every day we burn a certain number of calories, based primarily on the level of activity undertaken.  We also take in a certain number of calories, based on diet.   When we consistently eat more calories than we burn, there is a surplus and that surplus of calories needs to go somewhere.

Perhaps these calories could be eliminated by selectively closing the intestinal wall to further absorption or by boosting the body’s resting metabolism rate.   If we were designing the human body for modern society, that might be what we’d decide to do.  But that would be a very bad decision in a more “natural” environment, where food could be scarce.  If there are extra calories, they are stored in fatty tissue, which is one of the primary purposes of fat.  Our distant ancestors probably never had the opportunity to take this process to the extreme that so many do today, but it does not change the fact that it’s all just the body functioning normally to pack away calories for later.

It’s been said that there’s more to weight loss than just calories in and calories out.  That’s only partially true.  Metabolism is a complicated process and some people do have naturally higher or lower metabolisms, which does mean they may have to work harder than others to keep the pounds off.  It’s also true that some foods have more easily absorbed calories than others.  It does not change the fact that the human body cannot create fat out of nothing nor can it expend energy without burning something.  We can’t photosynthesize.


An Open Letter About GMOs

Monday, December 8th, 2014

An open letter to Europe and the world about GMOs in response to the ridiculous “Letter From America” about GMOs.   Of course, Europe and much of the world has been eating and benefiting from GMOs for some time. It’s a fallacy to equate GMOs with the United States.  However, it is true that the US agricultural sector has been one of the earliest and largest adopters of genetic engineering, and has benefited from it greatly.

Feel free to click the above link and read the “Letter From America” if you’d like a laugh or to be disgusted.

I’m also an American and I’ve been eating genetically modified foods since the mid 1990′s.  So I figured I’m just as qualified to set the record straight.  No, the sky is not falling.  And yes, I am perfectly healthy.


Raw Milk Is Making People Sick

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Milk: in western society it’s one of the most basic foods.  It usually comes from cows, but sometimes goats.   It also has a history of not always being safe to drink.   That’s because milk happens to be a good growth medium for bacteria.  The bacteria can get into the milk any number of ways.  It may simply be that while a cow’s utters are cleaned before milking, they are certainly not sterilized.

Thankfully, we have pasteurization.  Just a quick heat treatment and the milk is safe, with pathogenic bacteria reduced to levels that won’t cause illness.  The milk keeps longer this way too.

Considering this is a very basic safety precaution and one of the things that is the foundation of modern food safety, pasteurization has been a standard requirement for food safety regulations.  But many have fought to have their milk raw, just as it came from the utter (except having some extra time to let what is in it grow).  In some US states they have won their battles and now raw milk can be purchased in a number of states, although usually only through local suppliers.

The claims are similar to anti-vaccine and organic food claims.  It’s said that raw milk is healthier, that it cures various conditions or that pasteurization is causing lactose intolerance or some other condition.

Now that people have the right to drink raw milk, some are, predictably, getting very sick.



Why do enviornmental groups hate desalination?

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Water is one of the most important resources to society.  The availability of water has dictated the locations of some cities and limited the growth of others.  It is also one of the major necessities for agriculture.

Many areas have limited supplies of water and others are prone to shortages or droughts.  Still others do have sufficient water supplies, but in securing necessary water, huge quantities had to be diverted, resulting in ecological disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

kennedyquoteOf course, there is an effectively limitless supply of water in the world’s oceans, and many of the most arid regions are located near the coast.  However, ocean water is far too salty for consumption by humans, for irrigation and for most other uses.   Thus, it is not that the world lacks water – we have plenty of it, but that many areas lack fresh water.

Therefore, assuming it could be made economical, desalination would seem like an ideal solution to this persistent problem.  Desalination is the only source of water that can be considered to be, for all intents and purposes, unlimited.  After all, all nearly all water ends up back in the ocean anyway.  With desalination, there are no concerns over droughts or of overdrawing an aquifer.  There are no seasonal shortages or reduction in the availability of water.

It could also be argued that desalination, in and of itself, has virtually no negative ecological consequences.  The need for water has lead to aquifers being depleted, rivers being diverted, lakes running dry and to the construction of massive dams and canals, sometimes with severe environmental consequences.   Therefore, even in areas where adequate fresh water is available, using desalination for basic water needs could greatly reduce the impacts of water sourced from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

The only negative environmental consequence associated with desalination is the need to dispose of the highly concentrated brine that is produced.  Separating the water from the sale of seawater means that salt must be disposed of.  It is usually in the form of a highly concentrated brine, much more salty than the water that was taken in.  This brine is not itself toxic, but the salinity levels are too high for most marine life.   If it were to be discharged directly into the ocean, it would result in the area around the discharge becoming too salty for most marine life.

This is certainly not an unmanageable problem.  The most obvious solution is to dilute and disperse the waste bring back into the ocean.  This is possible, but it can be a major task for large facilities.  Other options include recycling the brine into a useful product.  For example, it can be used to produce saltcrete.  Or, it can be further concentrated and then dried into salt, which can be sold commercially.

desalplantoperationalwThe one major downside of desalination is that it is energy intensive, far more energy intensive than more conventional means of obtaining freshwater. In addition to energy usage, desalination plants can be complicated, and the handling of saltwater requires the use of corrosion-resistant materials.  The water produced often requires additives for PH adjustment and the addition of trace minerals.  All of this adds to the expense of desalination as a water source.

For this reason, it is not generally used if other alternatives exist.  Many parts of the world, including much of the middle east and numerous islands are dependent on desalination to provide for their basic water needs.  While it does work for this, it remains the option of last resort, due to the economics.

That said, the economics of desalination have been improving steadily over the years.  With increasing demand for water, a great deal has been invested in desalination research and development.  New plants are constantly being built with ever-increasing efficiency and improved economics.  In recent years, major improvements have been made to reverse osmosis-based water desalination systems, which are now being deployed on an industrial scale.  The efficiency of distillation systems have also improved with the introduction of better heat recovery and multiple-effect distillation.

Modern desalination plants can now get a large portion of their energy requirements from the waste heat produced by power generation.  The use of co-generation for desalination further improves economics and reduce energy requirements.  Nuclear desalination is an especially appealing option, since nuclear reactors can produce ample process heat without emissions.  The Soviet Union built a highly successful plant to produce water from the Caspian Sea and today, India and China are exploring the use of nuclear reactors to run large desalination plants.

So, desalination is a good thing and we would like to see it continue to improve and become more economical, so it could be put to greater use….right?


The Only Study to Link GMO Foods to Cancer Retracted

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

You may remember back in March, this site called out a study in the Journal Food and Chemical Toxicology as being fraudulent.  No, I cannot claim credit for outing the study, however, as by the time it showed up here, a number of prestigious scientists had pointed out the extreme flaws in the study and conclusion.

None the less, the study, complete with dramatic photos of tumor-ridden rats has become a mainstay of the anti-biotech movement.   It is one of the most often cited pieces of evidence of the evils of genetic engineering.  Now, however, after much criticism, the journal has decided to retract the study.

Via the International Business Times:

GMO Corn Study To Be Retracted By Journal Following Storm Of Scientific Criticis

A controversial paper purporting to show a link between genetically modified corn and tumors in rats is poised to be retracted by the journal that published it following a storm of critics from scientists over the past year.

University of Caen biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini and colleagues published their findings on GMO corn and rats in September 2012 in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. They reported that rats fed genetically modified corn or water spiked with glyphosate, the herbicide used in conjunction with GM corn, were more prone to tumors and multiple organ failures. But there were odd signs surrounding the paper from the start: Seralini allowed some journalists early access to the paper, but only on the condition that they sign a confidentiality agreement that reporters not seek comments from other scientists on the paper before publication, an extremely unusual move. Once the research was released, scientists criticized almost every element of the paper: the experiment’s design, the use of a strain of rats prone to tumors, the lack of standard controls, and conclusions that did not seem fully supported by the data.

“This paper as it is now, presents poor quality science and dubious ethics,” scientists from the Brazilian Biosafety Association wrote in a letter to the journal.

On Thursday, French newspaper Le Figaro reported that Food and Chemical Toxicology editor-in-chief A. Wallace Hayes had sent Seralini a letter saying the paper will be retracted if he and his colleagues do not agree to withdraw it.

Having an article retracted, with or without the agreement of the authors is a rare event and about the most extreme form of censure that can be imposed on a scientific publication. It is especially noteworthy that this comes as a direct result of the legitimate criticism that came from the scientific community. Although the journal it was published in was far from prestigious, it became apparent that this was the only way to maintain any credibility they may have had.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to end the use of the study as evidence of the evils of biotechnology. Just as Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study still convinces anti-vaccine groups, it is impossible to shake the faith of true believers. Already some are saying this is just more evidence of a Monsanto-backed conspiracy.

So while this is a positive step and will certainly assure no legitimate scientists put any weight on the conclusions of this study, it will not unring that bell or put this claim to bed.


Why I am against labeling GMO

Monday, November 11th, 2013

I have been asked numerous times by e-mail, often being told things like “You don’t have to think GMO’s are bad to give people a choice” or “If you think they are fine, that’s okay, but what about those who don’t?  Don’t they have a right to choose?”

  1. It’s unnecessary – Regulations may be necessary, but all regulations end up costing money, because enforcement is required.   All regulations place some burden on producers and increase costs to consumers.  Hence, regulations that do absolutely nothing worthwhile should not be tolerated.  Since GMO-containing foods are effectively identical to non-GMO foods, there’s no reason to force labeling and incur the expenses on both the enforcement side and for the producers and consumers.
  2. It places an undue burden on certain food producers - Is it hard to label products that contain GMO’s?   It certainly could be, especially for those who have only a limited amount of control of their supply chain, such as small companies.Imagine, for example, you are a company which produces cookies.   You buy your flour from a wholesaler who buys it from a flour mill who buys the wheat from farmers.  You buy your chocolate chips from a company which imports cocoa and sugar from two different sources and combines with other ingredients to make the chips.   Your sugar comes from another wholesaler who buys it from an importer.   How could you possibly know for sure if there is a GMO product in the mix?   You can’t because you don’t have that level of supply chain management.  Some very large food producers do, but a smaller company would not.   It would be a massive burden to track down all the suppliers.In the end, the smaller companies are likely to have to label everything as possibly containing GMO’s because they lack the resources to prove otherwise.  That would put them at a big disadvantage when faced with customers who fear these harmless products.
  3. It’s damn near unenforceable - How do you know if an end product contains GMO ingredients?   It’s not easy.  One way would be to audit the entire supply chain and attempt to trace all ingredients back to their source.   That might not always even be possible, especially if they came from  a farm that has both GMO and non-GMO products.  Either way the process would be long and expensive.   Either taxpayers would need to foot the bill or the food producers would need to be required to pay for verification or record keeping.The only way to know for sure if something is genetically engineered is to test for the modified genes using expensive genetic sequencing.  The cost and time for these tests has improved, but testing all samples of foods would still be extremely costly.  Worse, these tests won’t even work on all foodstuffs.  If the genetic material has been denatured, as would be the case if the food is cooked or processed in other ways, it might be downright impossible to conduct genetic testing.
  4. You can still have your GMO-free food without labeling – I do not want the cost of my food to go up.  I do not want restrictions on small companies making legitimate products.  I do not want my tax dollars going to support something unnecessary and stupid.   But if you want GMO-free food, knock yourself out.  Nobody is saying that those who wish to market a guaranteed gmo-free product can’t do so.   If that’s what you want, feel free to seek out the products that are GMO-free or research the ingredients that go into your foot.  You can even grow your own if you want.  Nobody is going to force you to eat unlabeled stuff if you do not want.
  5. It implies there is a danger when there is none -(Most importantly) There is no evidence that genetically modified foodstuffs are harmful in any way and plenty of scientific evidence that they are not.   They have been on the market for well over a decade and no ill effects have been detected.  They do not harm the environment, cause cancer, make people fat (any more than other foods) and they are not harmful to the environment.

    Putting a government-sanctioned label “warning” that a food contains genetically engineered material implies otherwise. It’s perfectly logical to assume if something is required as disclosure, there must be an important reason why. It perpetuates this stupid myth.

  6. If the government is going to cave to people saying “I want to know if my food contains genetically modified organisms,” they may as well cave to racists who want to know “was my food ever handled by a black person,” or to those who want to know “Was my food frown in a field that was laid out to Feng Sui geometry.”

    They are all equally valid. In other words, not at all.

Anti GMO Activists Take on Golden Rice

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Protestors and environmental groups which oppose the idea of allowing organisms to exist with genes that have been artificially inserted or modified have been known to attack test fields of genetically modified crops and destroy experiments in progress.   Sadly, this is nothing new.   It happened in Australia, when activists from Greenpeace destroyed a field of experimental genetically engineered wheat, which was being studied by CSIRO. It has also happened elsewhere, and not only to experimental crops, but even to farms which are suspected of using genetically engineered seeds.

An especially unsettling and telling move from the Anti-GMO groups has been the targeting of “Golden Rice,” a genetically modified form of rice which has been in development since the 1990′s and which holds great promise for improving the health of many in the poorest areas of the world.

Via Science Insider:

Activists Destroy ‘Golden Rice’ Field Trial

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Activists Destroy ‘Golden Rice’ Field Trial
2013-08-09 16:30

Protestors from two anti-GMO groups, KMB and Sikwal-GMO, yesterday vandalized a field of genetically modified (GM) “golden rice” in the Bicol region of the Philippines.

GMA News TV channel in the Philippines showed dozens of young men and women tearing down fences, swarming over a rice field, and uprooting stalks. “I am outraged,” says Ingo Potrykus, a plant biologist, now retired, who was one of the researchers that originally created the rice strain. The rice was just weeks away from being harvested, he says. “Important data were to be collected from that field trial, and this can set us back months.”

Golden rice is engineered to carry two foreign genes—one bacterial and another from maize—that together produce beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A that gives the rice grains their characteristic yellow hue. Scientists hope distribution of the modified rice can make inroads against vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and makes people more susceptible to infectious diseases. The deficiency affects approximately 1.7 million children aged 6 months to 5 years in the Philippines alone, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

The vandalized field was one of five involved in golden rice trials in the Philippines aiming to show that “the plants are suitable for cultivation and would give farmers a good crop, and to assess any environmental impact they might have,” says Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute. The grain harvested from the plants is also needed for studies assessing whether the beta carotene in the rice is absorbed and converted into vitamin A in vitamin A-deficient people. Golden rice could be deemed safe and approved by the Philippine government as early as the end of this year, Zeigler says—but the efficacy trials could take another 18 months. That’s the timeline if the remaining field sites are unmolested, Zeigler says.

This destruction is a devastating blow to the ongoing effort to deploy golden rice in the Philippines and elsewhere. After many years of research and development, Golden Rice is almost ready for mainstream use and these field trials mark the final step in demonstrating the viability of the crop. For those who wish to keep it from every entering the fields of farmers around the world, this may be their last hope, and therefore, increasingly violence and destructive tactics have been used.

One should make no mistake about who is behind this: While many of the protests seem to be the work of local farmers and concerned citizens, these are simply locals who have been whipped into a frenzy by constant bombardment with anti-gmo propaganda from the wealthy environmental groups of rich industrial nations.   As they may already be untrusting of the government, it is easy to see how claims that the rice is either poisoned or will destroy their ability to grow their own crops could be a powerful ploy in building up opposition to Golden Rice.


One of the stupidest things I have ever seen…

Monday, June 24th, 2013

While I am not one to pull punches, I have to admit there is something a bit unsavory about simply calling someone an idiot.   It’s a bit of an ad hominem kind of attack. It’s personal, a little immature and comes across as name calling. It does not really have the kind of logical basis or sophisticated analysis that one wants on a science blog. Yes, I have a lot of fun and joke around here quite a bit, but when it comes down to it, I prefer to at least ground things in something more sophisticated than just pointing at someone and calling them stupid.

Sadly, I can’t really come up with any other way of summing up this news story about none other than Jessica Ainscough. This is certainly a little sensitive as well, given that her extreme stupidity is literally killing her, and clueless though she may be, it’s a shame that it would be a capital crime.


Jess Ainscough claims ‘organic’ cafe misled with veggie burger

‘Wellness warrior’ Jessica Ainscough vented on her blog after eating a burger she believed was 100 per cent organic, only to later discover it was ‘not totally’ chemical-free.

Well, no, it’s full of glucose, dihydrogen monoxide, sodium chloride, polysaccharide and all kinds of other chemicals. I’m not sure what she would expect to eat that is not chemical free. Perhaps she could eat free electrons? That might be difficult.


Could the Tide Be Turning on Anti-GMO Groups?

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

Genetically Modified Organisms may be one of the greatest single achievements of science of the late 20th century.  In addition to providing better crops, they can produce unlimited amounts of human clotting factor, insulin and other compounds needed by medicine.

As far as food crops go, there is absolutely no reason to think they are dangerous or unhealthy and volumes of scientific data to prove they are perfectly safe.   Like conventional crops, genetically modified food crops are made of the same basic materials: water, salt, cellulose, sugars, proteins etc.   The genes may be slightly different but your body certainly doesn’t care.  And while it is possible that introducing new genes and thus proteins could cause allergic reactions, this has been accounted for in all tests and no reports of mass incidents of allergic reactions have occurred.

Most modern farmers purchase their seeds from seed companies, which provide a more consistent product than producing their own seeds.  Hybridized and specially bred varieties are available and may cost more, but also offer benefits.   Genetically modified seeds fit into this business  model as do any other type of seed.

Despite this, activists have gone nuts over this technology.  Many have demanded that the crops are not fit for human consumption, must be banned and blame them for everything from obesity to cancer, despite lack of evidence.   Fields have been burned or mowed down, protests have been held across the world.  Efforts often center around the company Monsanto, which is he single largest producer of genetically modified products.  Monsanto only accounts for about a quarter of products currently available.   It’s the company everyone seems to love to hate, but that does not make its products unhealthy or unsafe.

The extreme activism and political pressure has resulted in a few jurisdictions severely restricting or banning genetically modified crops.  It has even lead to famine-stricken regions refusing food aid on the basis that it might contain genetically modified material.

Yet the tide now seems to be starting to turn, at least slightly.  A few prominent environmentalists and humanitarians are stepping up to the plate to denounce the knee-jerk fear of genetic engineering.

This article from the Daily Kos has recently been getting a great deal of attention:

GMO Truthers need to be kicked out of the Progressive movement

I consider myself to be part of the “far left.” I also have multiple scientific degrees and work in the health care field. I strongly believe that my science background has resulted in my Progressive ideology. The reason being is Progressivism is a fact and science based ideology, whereas Conservatism is a faith based ideology. Conservatives offer religious, faith based solutions to social problems. Moreover, they rely on faith in the “invisible hand” for solutions to the economy, and any free market outcome – whether good or bad – is a moral outcome regardless of its practicality. Hence, wanting to let the economy hit rock bottom after the financial crisis, because that was the “moral”/free market thing to do.

Why do I bring this up? Because a biologist recently wrote a diary criticizing the far left for being a home for GMO truthers. And, unfortunately, Meteor Blades recently promoted GMO nonsense on the front page.

I would probably say that most progressives don’t know much about GMO at all because this topic – especially the science behind it – is not discussed nearly as much as something like climate change or evolution. And this is perfectly all right! It is impossible to know everything about everything. You know GMO has something to do with big corrupt corporations (i.e. Monsanto) and there are a lot of people and groups you inherently trust who say GMO is bad, so you are naturally inclined to think of GMO as a negative thing.

It’s worth a look and I certainly hope it continues to get attention. The comments are predictable, unfortunately. There are a few who are standing up for reason, but many are still in fear of GMO’s.

Politics aside (and I would not consider myself to be part of the fart political left or modern progressivism in general) it is great to see this major segment starting to show some backlash against the GMO fear-mongers.

Political philosophy, after all, is a matter of value judgements and is not fallible. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and there’s no way to prove whether one ideology is right or wrong. But everyone is not entitled to their facts and the safety of GMO’s is an issue of scientific fact. Either you agree with it or you are wrong.