Genetically-Modified Copyrights

In, Unhealthy Fixation, William Saletan defends GMOs :

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

And then he talks up Papayas with viruses, staple crops with Bt and Golden Rice with Vitamin A. Somewhat late in the article, Saletan does admit that the extent to which pesticide-resistant GMOs lead to increased pesticide use is a problem:

Two factors seem to account for the herbicide increase. One is direct: If your crops are engineered to withstand Roundup, you can spray it profusely without killing them. The other factor is indirect: When every farmer sprays Roundup, weeds adapt to a Roundup-saturated world. They evolve to survive. To kill these herbicide-resistant strains, farmers spray more weedkillers. It’s an arms race. …

As weeds evolve to withstand Roundup, farmers are deploying other, more worrisome herbicides. And companies are engineering crops to withstand these herbicides so that farmers can spray them freely.

He also admits that monoculture is a problem, but claims that monoculture is thousands of years old, therefore not GMO’s problem.

Saletan hammers home the point that GMOs are not really a group of like things, therefore shouldn’t be labeled as such. As all pro-GMO astroturfers point out eventually, homo sapiens have been altering the genetics of its plants and animals through selective breeding for centuries. Saletan uses, ‘Genetically-Engineered’ (GE), and that or ‘transgenic’ organisms would be more accurate terminology, but most people use GMO for organisms modified using biotechnology rather than breeding.

In the comments is the interesting theory that anti-GMO activism is a false flag operation intended to discredit those who are actually opponents of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), The TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and Big Ag’s tendency to slap a patent or copyright on anything with DNA.

As a recap, ACTA is law in the US, but was rejected in Europe. The proposed TTIP and TPP include much of the same corporation-friendly intellectual property legislation as does ACTA. Seeds have been patented for quite some time, and now GMO seeds are being copyrighted. Patents expire after about twenty years; copyrights are supposedly the life of the author plus fifty or seventy years, but as my former coblogger Jim Marino has noted, valuable copyrights seem to be extended routinely.

GM I dunnO

Suddenly Republican representatives prefer federal oversight to state’s rights.

In, Food fight! Congress, consumers battle over GMOs, McClatchyDC covers Kansas’ Representative Mike Pompeo’s efforts to protect conventional agriculture from state laws that would require them to label GMO products.

So far, three states – Vermont, Connecticut and Maine – have passed mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified food. At least fifteen other states are considering similar regulations.

Pompeo’s “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” would nix those laws and instead set up a voluntary nationwide labeling system overseen by the federal government.

A lot has been written back and forth about GMOs being safe or not. Less has been written about the safety of the workers handling GMO crops that are doused in pesticides. Even less has been written about the possibility that some pests will eventually become resistant to glyphosate.

For my money, the produce I get from organic producers seems to taste better. It also seems to be better for my teeth, weight and sleep. It costs more, but I consider it a worthwhile investment in my family’s well-being.

First Peoples

A week after posting The Ugly Little Boy, I ran across First Peoples on PBS. There are five episodes: Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe. I find it worth watching, though I expect that in ten or twenty years some of the theories presented will be superseded as more discoveries are made.

Wall to Wall Television includes brief, illustrative scenes of both archaic and early modern humans, and to my eyes, they seem to have tried hard to cast appropriate-looking actors. East African modern humans, like Omo-1, are played by dark-skinned African-looking men and women, while the Neanderthals are somewhat lighter-skinned with bushy hair and heavy prosthetic facial features. Eva of Naharon, found in the Yucatan, looks like a dark Latina woman and the woman from Tam Pa Ling, found in Northern Laos, looks like a dark Eurasian woman. Oase Boy, found in the Carpathian Mountains, looks like a modern Caucasian. The Clovis Makers in Northwest America are shown just about as light-skinned as present day native Americans, while Kennewick Man (the Ancient One) is somewhat darker.

While discussing how interbreeding between modern and archaic species may have occurred, some scenes show a small group homo sapiens nervously moving through a landscape, then meeting up with a group of homo erectus and sharing some food. Later another group of sapiens meets up with homo neanderthalis and shares a campfire. Such meetings did (sometimes) happen between European trappers and native Americans, so it is possible that archaic and modern humans met peacefully, traded goods and either intermarried willingly or sold wives.

It is also possible, though, that one group may have wiped out another and taken women and children as captives. Or perhaps one group may have raided another for the express purpose of stealing women. But watching dark-skinned invaders overwhelm lighter-skinned tribes would certainly be fodder for race-baiting in today’s racially-charged atmosphere.

Speaking of Kennewick Man, after nineteen years of study, it seems about time for the Corps of Engineers to let the Umatilla, or some other tribe, bury him with some dignity.

Sucker Punch

Amid the dispiriting news of droughts in Pakistan and the Western US, Greece’s stranded economy, three almost simultaneous terrorist attacks, escaped convicts and shark bites, two stories caught my eye:

Molycorp — sole U.S. rare earth producer — files for bankruptcy

Molycorp Inc. — the only U.S. producer of rare earth elements used in high-tech communications, transportation and industrial products — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid competition from China and waning demand.

A North Dakota Oil Boom Goes Bust

In a field of brittle yellow grass and clotted mud about five miles north of Dickinson, North Dakota, stands a cemetery of sorts. Drilling rigs stretch into the sky like tall skeletons. … Similar graveyards have been popping up across the western half of the state since the price of oil sharply declined last fall. …

In both cases we see business models that were predicated on artificially high prices overseas: rare earths from China and oil from OPEC. In response to China’s limiting the export of rare earths, investors revived an old rare earth mine in Colorado. In response to a long run of high prices set by OPEC, US oil companies expected that tight oil from shale formations in North Dakota and Texas would eventually turn a profit.

Then both China and OPEC changed the rules. The Middle Kingdom suddenly relaxed restrictions on exporting rare earths, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led OPEC to decide against holding up high prices. Investors failed to consider the influence that a swing producer has over the market.

Shiny, Happy People

A lot of my friends got good news last week when the US Supreme Court affirmed their right to be married. I’m happy for them. Others were glad to see that the Affordable Care Act was re-re-re-affirmed by the Supreme Court. I think the ACA is flawed, but better than nothing. And a lot of people are very happy that medical and recreational marijuana bills are making their way through state legislatures. I have family members that would benefit from medical marijuana, if it ever comes to Pennsyltucky.

But while all of that was making headlines (which was no accident) the Trans Pacific Partnership “trade agreement” – so secretive that we are not allowed to read and discuss it in public – has snuck through Congress. CNET:

Despite concerns over transparency stateside, the US Senate last week voted to give President Barack Obama the power to “fast track” the TPP. This grants the President authority to put a final draft of the TPP before Congress for a ‘yes-or-no’ vote, but Congress will not have power to amend any part of the trade agreement.

There’s a short Australian video clip (2:44) here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains what we think we know about it here, but anything that secret should be voted down as a matter of principle.

The Ugly Little Boy

Way back before the internets, Isaac Asimov wrote, The Ugly Little Boy, which he included in his anthology Nine Tomorrows. Robert Silverberg later expanded the short story into a novel, which I have not read. In 1977, Barry Morse and Kate Reid starred in a TV version, which is supposed to be very faithful to the short story and is available on youtube.

The boy was a neanderthal (or neandertal) child, brought to, and kept in, the future at great expense of energy by a corporation for scientific research. In the years after the story was written, I read that one scientist claimed we probably couldn’t tell a well-dressed neanderthal apart from anyone else on the street, but knew that when the lay person heard, “neanderthal” they saw a dim but muscular caveman with a sloping forehead. And that is how most popular culture has portrayed them, one example being Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books and the 1986 film starring tall, pale, blonde Darryl Hannah as a Cro-Magnon, adopted by a tribe of stocky, swarthy (but not black-skinned), black-haired Neanderthals.

But if one were to recast Clan of the Cave Bear based on the latest information, one should cast light-skinned people as the Neanderthals, and a taller, darker-skinned woman (perhaps Rosario Dawson) as Ayla the Homo Sapiens Sapiens or Early European Modern Human (EEMH). It is now suggested that populations of Homo Neanderthalensis had already adapted to Northern climates over some three or four hundred thousand years, and that the still dark-skinned Homo Sapiens benefited by acquiring those traits through interbreeding as they displaced the older species. [It is also counter-suggested that the neanderthal DNA remains from before the two species diverged from Homo Erectus.]

It is currently thought that humans (except those strictly descended from sub-Saharan Africans) have between 1% to 4% of neanderthal DNA and that some Melanesians and Australian Aborigines have Denisovan DNA as well. In other words, most of us humans are actually ugly little boys and girls, too.

Master of the Middle

In, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, the local laird has a problem – who to support in the final Jacobite rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart against the Hanovers. The Durie family is sympathetic to Bonnie Prince Charlie, but rather than risk aligning themselves entirely with the losing side, one son supports the status quo while the other goes off to join the insurgency. The plan was that no matter who wins, a Durie would keep the land and title. Stevenson’s plot gets a lot more complicated, though, as things often do.

In the climate change debate, a lot of people have picked a side, and are fightly fiercely in the media (and courts) to convince others of the cause. The climate, of course, is changing more obviously every month, but deniers are fighting a rearguard action. Like the Duries, many in the media are trying play to both sides. I have read claims that most mainstream media meteorologists accept climate change, but you’d never know that from watching the weather on television. I’m guessing most station managers expect only decreased ratings if they so much as mention climate change on air.

Recently Pope Francis, the public face of the Catholic Church, issued an encyclical called Laudatum Si, (Praise Be To You) subtitled On the Care For Our Common Home, which recognizes climate change as a threat, and calls on the world to stop destroying the environment. Predictably, environmentalists have hailed Laudatum Si, and, also predictably, deniers have suggested the pope should stay out of science and politics. At the New York Times DotEarth blog, Andrew Revkin takes a cautionary tone, warning us, Beware Casting Pope Francis as a Caped Crusader, where he applauds the pontiff:

The greatest value in the pope’s decision to press on climate policy and environmental care, to my mind, lies in the reminder that, while science matters enormously in identifying the risks from an unabated buildup of greenhouse gases, the choices we make are shaped more by values and appropriately should involve every sector of society.

… but also quietly undercuts the message:

… “It’s important not to conclude that moral arguments for action on global warming, even conveyed by a pope, are a world-changing breakthrough. The reason is that the climate issue doesn’t exist in a moral vacuum. A powerful moral argument can also be built around the right of poorer countries to get out of poverty using fossil fuels. That argument bolsters Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to double coal production by 2020, for example, even as India also (at a much, much smaller scale) expands solar capacity and nuclear power.”

I’m excited to see such an influential and thoughtful figure pressing the case for action, and acknowledging the need for dialogue.

But Francis remains a man, not a Superman.

Dot Earth was moved from News to Opinion several years ago, and the Times dropped a lot of other ‘green’ blogs in 2013, so Revkin is politically smart to be cautious. But Greg Laden, who I follow on Science Blogs, has called him out for playing to the middle:

But then I look at Dot Earth, and I see two things. First is Andy Revkin’s tendency to occupy that space between serious concern about climate change and acceptance of consensus science on one hand, and questioning of the reality and importance of climate change, on the other. In other words, Andy likes to write, often, in the space between what deniers call “warmists” and what warmists call “deniers.”

And now there’s a lot of finger-pointing on both blogs.

IMO, it isn’t just DotEarth, it is the entire mainstream media, many so-called environmental groups and even people like me that accept climate change, but are trying not to alienate our spouses and bosses while slowly making a transition to a more sustainable existence. Just how long the climate lets us live in the middle is hard to predict.

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