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Newsbyteblog: the blog of newsbyte regarding all things IT, free speech, copyright and patents and other things deemed interesting.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Gazing the future

Recently, I (re)stumbled upon an article called "Environmental Heresies". A good and interesting read for sure, but, like with all these kind of articles, the author (futurologists, they are called, I believe) makes the same basic mistakes as all his predecessors. I'll give some rebutal and critcism:

His first point, about slowing demographics, is not very much disputable: it is as it is, and if it's in decline, it's in decline. However, whether we will level out completely, or go down, or up again, is not as clear cut as he seems to portray. The author gives as main reason that people go to cities, but I think this explanation is inadequate, and certainly not enough to explain the changing demographics.

It should be noted, for instance, that, during the middle ages, the amount of children born in cities were no less then those on the countryside. What *did* change, though, is the empowerement of women (most notably in matters of procreation) and social and medical advancements. THOSE are the real reasons why demographics change. It also follows that, if, by some disaster or serious economic and scientific decline we would degrade into former levels of welfare and reduced possibility for women to control any family planning, demographics would go up again. It is therefor not an absolute certitude that the world-demographics will continue to decline...this is only true as an extrapolation, if everything remains more or less the same. However, it is exactly the danger of this sort of extrapolation that the author is (also) lamenting against.

As for genetically modified (GM) crops, I fear he really simplifies the subject too much to be useful in making a rational decision about the pro's and cons. Basically, he over-optimistically only conveys the pros, while barely mentionning any of the cons - as if they were unimportant.

It should be noted however, that with living organisms, you can not simply test it out in the wild, and then expect to be able to put the genie back in the bottle when things go wrong. Once you contaminated a natural area, and the contamination has a sufficiently advantage (in a darwinistic sense) to stay around in the genepool, there is no way in hell you can get rid of it completely, when it turns out it is damaging humans, or other species and ecological systems.

Now, his counterargument that those won't survive in the wild seems rather weak. In effect, some GM genes *already* have contaminated other 'wild' crops, and it didn't sizzle out in the wild, on the contrary (a prominent example of that are some strains of GM corn in south-america). So... it may be that some GMs will not survive in the wild, but you can bet some *will*, however. And he, nor anyone else, can garantuee that such GM or hybrid crops can't be damaging or unhealthy to the ecosystem or local species, including humans.

Also, the reductionistic view of "we're not doing anything else then what people have been doing for centuries" is somewhat misleading too. Yes, people have been breeding crops, and cultivated crops are not 'natural' in the sense that they occur in the wild...but it's an unfair analogy, because one is comparing oranges with apples. For instance, with GM, it is perfectly possible to make genemodifications between two completely different species of plants. In effect, this trans-species swapping of genes with GM, can be done between animals and plants. In all those centuries that "we have always done this" I would like to see any example where this has actually been done before.

No; this is a totally new technique, with new possibilities, certainly, but also new consequences (which we don't know anything about) and new dangers. You can't just shrug those of with claiming, falsely, that we've been using those techniques for millenia. And you can't just merrily test it out in the wild, and see if anything happens.

Apart from that, even purely economically, I doubt it has all those beneficial effects the author claims it has or will have - but more about that at the end.

About his weather and nuclear fission chapter... well, I agree with that part, mostly. I do think the greens are just dead wrong in their crusification of nuclear power. Sure, as the author says, it has problems of its own, but those are really minute compared to the far larger and imminent (and worldwide) threat of global warming (ok, I know, there is debate about that too, but I think not many will actually dispute humans HAVE an effect on the climate, though the extend may not be as clear cut). Fine if you shut those reactors down, IF YOU HAVE A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE - but, wishful thinking aside, there currently is *none*. The author correctly points out, that, even if you combine all other alternatives together, you still will only have a fraction of the energy-production needed. Thus, logic dictates that you continue to use nuclear fission, untill those alternatives can actually completely replace them (which is doubtful, and in some countries outright impossible), or a new energy-source can replace it (like nuclear fusion reactors).

In any case, the problem of 'global warming' forces us to make choices, and I'd prefer the new, inherently safer NG reactors with their very limited risks and their total lack of CO2, then 'buying clean air' (which doesn't make the air cleaner) or dreaming about alternative energies that can never, pragmatically, provide the energy needed. And it certainly beats the ONLY other viable option: to mass build classic energy-facilities, which use coal or petrol and would constitute an enormous increase in CO2 and extra global warming.

So, in conclusion; the author is fully right about some things, but a bit too simplistic (and, perhaps, biased) in other points. The nuclear/weather point is, indeed, logical. The world-demographics is correct, though there is a need for caution as to determine what is the cause, and if simple extrapolation is enough to make a conclusion. As for the GM-crops, I fear he is a bit misguided himself; this is obvious by the naive assumption of how much 'good' GM-crops will do - which is, I suspect, derived from an overly (and typical USA) optimistic viewpoint on capitalism, which I don't share.

GM-corporations do not care about worldhunger, nor about the living quality of poor farmers in third (or first, for that matter) worldcountries. What matters to them is maximising profit for their shareholders. In the authors' view, this is fully compatible with eachother, but I rather think that, in the end, you can't have both: if it's really about maximising profit, then it is about holding control of the market, and if it's about control, then it's not about the freedoms and abilities and rights of the farmer. This already can be seen by the fact many GM corporations have forbidden the 'seeds-keeping' right of farmers (=the right to keep seeds of one season to use for planting next year). It's an age-old right, giving farmers some independence - but if it were up to GM corps, it would be abolished as soon as possible, so farmers become fully dependend on THEIR seeds. Or they would create plants that don't have seeds anymore, like a lot of GM corps have already done.

No, rest assured, GM foods are not going to solve worldhunger (which is primarely a matter of distribution, not production; there currently *is* already an overproduction in the West of many foods, after all!), nor liberate farmers, on the contrary. Prime examples can be seen at http://www.percyschmeiser.com/conflict.htm and http://www.percyschmeiser.com/MonsantovsFarmers.htm.

This is apart from the equally fundamental objection that I raised earlier, namely that one can not rule out the possibility of (damaging) GM effects that DO survive and thrive in the wild...and which can't be put back into the bottle once released. I doubt many people would be happy if some corp said: "we've got a whole bunch of genetically modified but potentially beneficial viruses and microbes; let's bring them out in the wild!" There, the dangers are obvious to everyone - but with plants, they fail to realise that it is the same dangerous principle.

I leave it up to the readers to determine the worth of my criticism, but at least I think I made some valid points. Indeed, not only hystorical analysis, but also gazing the future should always been done while using critical glasses.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice rebuttal, but I have one of my own. The rebutter states about alternative energy "you still will only have a fraction of the energy-production needed". There is an assumption as to what quantity of energy IS needed. If we changed our lifestyles to efficiently utilize the free renewable energy around us, we could vastly reduce what is needed. If one person can live off the grid, than virtually anyone can.

4:24 PM  
Blogger newsbyte said...

To the anonymous rebutal:

Yes, in theory, if humans were suddenly going to overturn their energy-consumption, one would need less energy-production as well.

But, alas, that sounds a bit like communism: it's all fine in theory, but in practise, it will never happen.

Don't get me wrong: it might be that a mentality change will happen, but at the end, it will only have a moderate impact. All the indications are, that our energy need is augmenting constantly, with several percentages each year (added, that is). If anything, we'll need MORE energy, not less. Seen the fact that the energy curve has been going up from the moment human civilisation was there, I'm inclined to see it as something inherent to human nature.

If some calamity happend and we went 'back to nature', then, ok, our energy-need would diminish drastically. But apart that, I think the need for immer more energy will continiously grow, as long as our civilisation(s) thrive and evolve.

Less energy will only happen if civilisation breaks down, or there is an external reason which is impossible to deny. Apart from that, I don't think it's in the nature of humans to confine themselves to less (at least, not in large numbers); people crave for more things (which use energy), not less.

Ofcourse, that doesn't mean we shouldn't improve on energy-efficient machinery, and try our best to limit our energy-need. It's just I don't think it will ever happen on a large enough scale to compensate for the overall need for more energy (production inherently needs lots of energy).

And, well, one could always hope that people will consume less...but I wouldn't hold my breath for it. If people can afford trinkets and gadgets (let alone useful things), they'll do it.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree to a point with your thoughts on population, I can't agree with you on genetic engineering. The only reasonable solution to potential genetic contamination is engineered sterility (thus enforcing seed dependence). Done properly (completely removing necessary genes as opposed to just mutating them into non-functionality) this completely eliminates environmental risks.

As for benefit to farmers, if the crops do not fetch them more money, they won't go to the trouble of ordering them every year. Furthermore, not all genetically engineered crops originate from corporations, for example Golden Rice.

You say that we cannot guarantee the safety of genetically modified foods, and it's true, we can't. But as genetically modified foods must undergo safety testing before approval, we learn much more about the potential risks of these crops than all the untested "natural" crops. After centuries of use, for example, people are just now recognizing sensitivities to wheat, which could have easily been discovered if safety testing had been done.

Genetic engineering has the potential to produce more food,more nutritious food. , with less fertilization, less water,less pesticides, and less herbicides. In short, better food with less environmental impact.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1)Hmmm...been such a time since I created this blog, I even forgot my password. But, anyway:

The basic tenet here seems to be: yes, it's dangerous, but it's also potentially beneficially. In the end, thus, it's an evaluation one has to come to, between the potential advantage versus the potential disadvantage. However, how does one balance such a risk assessment?

Let's first make some observations. First off all, as has shown numerous times, the testing - at least by commercial companies - has been rather limited, biased, and, in some cases, outright fraudulent. This is to say; I have very little confidence in the rigidity and professionalism and certainly neutrality, of testing done by the same company that has to declare it's product suitable for consumption. Golden rice not withstanding - which also uses patented seeds, btw - most companies in that area are purely commercial. What they seek is profit. This is not a complaint: that's what private companies do. It's an observation. And a capitalist free-market oriented liberal economy, while not perfect, rather works reasonably well.

That said, their prime concern is not public health, and all products not outright poisonous, will be addressed in a favourable manner, with biased testresults (impossible to counter this fully, since the company is both jury and judge). All this isn't new: the medical companies did and do the same.

There are a few basic, very important differences, though. First off all, the degree to which it is tested, is completely different: medicines are far, far more controlled then bio-engineered foods. Proposals that wanted to put an as rigorous testing phase on GM foods as is applicable to medicines, have not made it into laws, thanks to heavy lobbying.

Secondly, it is much easier to determine any overlooked disadvanatges are damaging properties with medicines, than with whole foods. The process to prove that a food is bad for public health after all, is extremely difficult to do if the symptoms are not readily noticable. See http://www.nature.com/news/rat-study-sparks-gm-furore-1.11471

And thirdly, the potential risk is much, much higher than with medicines. Let's face it: even if standards of testing were the best of the best, still some GM entities (I speak more than solely about plants here, because one is already GM'ing animals too, which will only augment in the future), the fact remains, that no testing is waterproof. We see the same happening with medicines: some have to be withdrawn after all, even if it was first considered 'safe'. And there is the next crucial difference: contrary to medicines - which can readily be redrawn from the market so no-body has any trouble with and from it anymore, you can't simply 'retract' a living organism who has spread itself successfully in nature.

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2)Claiming sterility will solve the problem, seems rather an optimistic take on it: as far as I know, no genetically engineered sterility has shown to be 100% working. If such a crop has a chance - even if remote - to crossbreed with a wild variant, it has the ability to spread further (it's not because some genes cross-over, the sterility gene will cross over too, after all, so a hybrid variant could well incorporate a lot of the 'new' genes which give it a darwinistic advantage, while still remaining highly fertile). The potential damage it could do to the ecosystem, including humans, is not remediated, thus. Apart from that; many GM crops pollinate and breed just fine; there is no restriction on it, not from the companies producing it, nor from the lawmakers. Instead, they now concede this point, and claim that farmers who sell natural 'bio-foods' may still contain up to 0,9% of GM. Because, so is the reasoning, otherwise they can't sell anything anymore, because of the genetic pollution of GM crops. IMHO, a rather absurd and reversed argument: it should be the GM crops that should have the burden of prove that they do not contaminate other crops. And if they can't, the bio-farmers should be able to sue those companies for polluting their own crops in a way they can't sell it anymore as natural biological foods.

As an analogy: they can't sell those foods as bio if there is pesticide on them neither. What the EU now say is akin to saying: ah, but a certain level of pesticide is allowed (even if it's certified that it may not have!!) because your neighbour may use it, and it can blow on your own bio-crops. So...it's not the fault of the ones spouting pesticides, the burden they have to keep it to their field? The EU isn't that lenient in the case of pesticides however! And if the cause of the inability to sell bio-food is due to the use of pesticides by your neighbour, a bio-farmer CAN sue for damages. The same should be applied with GM crops, imho. And if GM-producers can't guaranty it won't 'spill' over, well, they shouldn't start with it.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3)Note also that one can't readily foresee the future development of a biological entity in the wild.
To calculate such a chance of unforeseen possibilities - such as what happens when it cross-breeds, what happens with various hybrid variants (GM + all known wild variants it can breed with), etc., and that for long periods of time (negative effects may not be readily apparent, after all) is next to impossible to do. It would take a study decennia to check out all these variables - meanwhile it would have to be contained, because if it spreads during testing (open-air testing), it would defeat the exact purpose the test was meant for. Needless to say, companies like Monsanto do not feel like doing that.

Do take note I'm not totally against some form of GM crops being tested and produced, as some of the greens are advocating. As you said, in some specific cases, it *could* have *some* advantages - especially (for the farmer) if the patent falls away. For all the crops that are GM'ed, but which are done so with genes from the same species, I would only require normal testing. After all, as you said, natural crops aren't tested rigorously neither. The point being, ofcourse, that it is very unlikely that genes from plants of the same species suddenly have the potential to create havoc in the ecosystem. The burden of proof for those kind of GM's may be reduced to the level of natural crops, thus.

Concerning GM entities that use interspecies gene-transfers, however, I can't stress enough that this should be rigorously tested, even far heavier - due to it's damage-potential - than medicines. We really have no idea whatsoever what certain genes from bacteria or insects or whatever, transplanted into corn or oat or another species altogether, actually has of an affect, whether in the long-term, while breeding with others (hybrids) and the resulting mix of those new gene-sequences, or the effect it has on the ecosystem as a whole. Genes seldom have a simple, linear effect, after all: one gene can have an effect an a whole string of others, and while such things will seldom have a detrimental effect if it remains of the same species, we have no idea what it does when you introduce genes totally alien to such an organism. Current laws on this form of GM are far to lax, I fear.

PS.As for the benefit of farmers: http://www.responsibletechnology.org/posts/farmer-to-farmer-the-devastating-impact-of-gm-crops/

I fear you are being a bit naive. Companies like Monsanto (and most GM corporations are like that, and NOT like golden rice) just make sure that, once you start with their GM crops, you are effectively 'locked in'. In most cases, especially for poor, third world farmers who have little cloud to begin with, the GM-crops have been disastrous.

8:55 PM  

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