Wednesday, November 5, 2008

GMOs - Friend or Foe

There is a little spot at Dr. Think Science's Place of Employment (Think Science U) where people leave their excess food. You know, like if they had a party the night before and there is a lot of cake left, they'll bring it in to work and put it in this space. It is the repository of left-overs, the recipient of random acts of generosity (as someone is driving in to work and just thinks it might be nice to pick up a dozen bagels), and the destiny for gardens that overfloweth. Every place of employment has this spot, I suspect. Ours is on top of an innocuous microwave oven.

A while back, this space housed some two-dozen or so really lovely tomatoes. I commented to a colleague that someone's garden must be doing really well, and thought I would take some fresh, wholesome goodness home to Offspring and Mr. Dr. Think Science. He replied that he initially thought so too, but then learned that Employee X had a spouse that worked for Large Agribusiness Company, and reckoned these were just some GM tomatoes grown in some large industrial field. He voiced the term "GM" the way that people tend to whisper words like "cancer", or "drug dealer". I'm not sure he was right. They were the reddest tomatoes I have ever seen. Redder than any tomato I have ever seen in a grocery store. But, they were also remarkably blemish free.

But, his reaction to the GM potential got me wondering...I mean, I know there is hype out there. But, I did not think that most scientists were on that band-wagon. After all, GM is just a fancy way of doing what we have been doing with our food and meat stocks for a long time. Breeding them for bigger, faster growing, stronger stock. Now, we're just doing it a little more directly. And, for the most part I reckoned most of us really embraced all that genetics was providing us. GM foods potentially offer a number of potential outcomes that should thrill even the strictest environmentalist: reduced water use, reduced pesticide or fertilizer use, use as bioremediators (species bred to take up heavy metal pollutants from the environment, for example). There is of course the economic advantage: increased cold resistance, increased growth rates, increased shelf lives. Plus, there is the possibility of producing foods with increased nutritional value, or foods that can produce some of the medicines that we need. Seems pretty good.

So, the bad. Most of the bad stems from fear, two basic categories of fear. There is a fear that eating these GMO's can somehow harm us. And, there is the fear that the GMO's can harm the environment. I'll treat these in two paragraphs.

Risk to Humans: Eating GMO's should not cause you any direct harm by any means that I can think of as an -ologist. But, there is one study out there that looked at the digestive tracts of rats and found an effect. Of course, the GMO studied was modified to produce a toxin, and not intended for consumption, but that apparently was not considered a reasonable reason for the results observed. SWF is skeptical. The other worry is allergens. I suppose this one is possible, but I am not sure if it is any greater risk than any other food.

Risk to Environment: In SWF's mind there is a very real worry that GMOs could interbreed with other stocks and pass on traits such as chemical resistance to nuisance species such as weeds. GMO's could also harm the larger environment through examples such as a the monarch butterfly, which is apparently consuming pollen from b.t. corn, which is "insect-resistant", meaning it kills insects that try to eat it, much like a pesticide would (the pollen from the b.t. corn is landing on the milkweed and killing the insects that eat the milkweed). A third argument is that insects could develop resistance to GMOs defenses - this is the least valid argument in my mind as I figure the risk is the same with chemical methods such as pesticides.

GM foods should be safe if they are produced sensibly, like the strains are reproductively sterile, etc. I suppose this is the biggest issue, as most people just dont trust large corporations or the government to behave sensibly. For example, there was one case where GMOs were being used to produce antibiotic resistant crops, until doctors expressed a real concern about this given the worry about antibiotic resistance in humans.

So, should you eat GM foods? The reality is you probably already are. The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimate that 75% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain a GM ingredient, mostly in the form of the b.t. corn, and soybeans that are herbicide resistant.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Scientists as Hypocrites?

I cannot take credit for this piece about the conservation biologist's dilemma. It was sent to me by a grad student in our department. It is entitled "When Swordfish Conservation Biologists Eat Swordfish." You might enjoy it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hip to Change?

I am afraid that when it comes to change, despite Obama's message and his momentum, people don't really give a rat's ass. At least, not when it comes to having to change yourself and your habits. I know this because I see it all around me. Cars are still big, and getting bigger. Gas is getting cheaper again (part of me is bummed about this). People are back to their same old habits.

My very wise friend suggested to me that it is because we have made people numb. We have hyped global warming and all of its possible outcomes to such an extent that people just cannot care anymore. If they think about it anymore, they will either 1) break down into tears, 2) become paralyzed with fear, or 3) go slowly crazy meticulously analyzing each of their actions and its complete carbon footprint, eventually ending up in the corner banging their head against the wall. It is actually hip to not care, in the way that it became PC to not be PC, in the way that I hear parents at my kid's [public] school say things like "it is so awesome we get to sing actual Christmas songs this year - it is about time they stopped letting a few people ruin it for the rest of us".

So, wise-friend said, we just need to make it hip for people to care. Hip in the way that carrying your own brand name water-in-a-bottle with you at all times, a bottle most wont even reuse even though tap water is just fine and costs like 99% less, is hip. Since 82% of those water bottles are not even recycled (according to the Sierra Club), we need to reach out somehow and get folks excited, not numb. Especially the folks who support a vice-presidential candidate that thinks that global warming is not a problem, it is all part of God's plan (just a little warning - God could be testing you, you know, to see if you are taking care of "His" earth. Given Noah's Flood and all, I am not so sure I would just blindy go through life thinking it will all be fine.). If you are bothering to read this, you probably already recycle. We need to hook the rest.

OK. Umm, how? Unfortunately, academics, especially scientists, are like the anti-hip. If there are ideas out there, I would love to know.