Saturday, April 18, 2009

Musing: That Elusive Truth

Venus was rising and Jupiter was snuggling up to a moon on the waning side of half when Koko and I went walking this morning. All the stars were gone, save for Antares in the west, and as the sun — blood red and bold — peeked up over the horizon, it and the planets were scrubbed from the sky, leaving the moon white and all alone.

Mist huddled densely over the pastures, drifting up to cling to the lower extremities of the Giant, and the craggy face and flat summit of Waialeale, buried in clouds for so many weeks, flushed pink in the dawn. Spider webs, some weighted at the bottom with a dead leaf or tiny stick, hung from utility lines or anchored on fences, their perfection back lit by the sun.

It was all so magnificent that when I ran into my neighbor Andy, and his dog, Momi, it was easy to extend the walk so we could catch up a bit. I haven’t seen Andy or farmer Jerry in a while, and I enjoy their take on things. We think enough alike that our conversations don’t turn into heated standoffs, yet we’re different enough that they always leave me with some new perspective on an issue.

Today it was GMOs. I related how a friend who works with UH-CTAHR had responded to an email I sent asking what type of genetic research was being done on taro with the information requested — no research is currently under way on taro in Hawaii, but one project had been looking at three different GE applications to confer disease resistance to Taro Leaf Blight in Bun Long (Chinese) taro — as well as his concerns:

….because funding ran out, these plantlets are sitting in suspended animation in the laboratory, and being maintained on a shoestring. If funding does not resume, and/or if the taro moratorium bill is passed in the legislature, then these transformed plants will, too, reach the end of the line.

The really sad thing about this is that this kind of research is simply that, research. This is not any sort of evil conspiracy. The vast majority of the anti-GMO/GE groups do not even know what is going on because they choose not to inform and educate themselves of what the facts are, and continue to perpetuate and fuel fear mongering. In my opinion, to stop research is akin to burning the books.


Andy said he doesn’t have any problem with research, either, but as I pointed out, once a lot of time and money has been invested into research, it becomes very difficult to prevent its application, especially if the work has been done by a private company with shareholders to satisfy.

As The Maui News reports today, the Lege has found a sort of middle path in this dispute, with the so-called “taro security bill” passing the Senate this past week.

Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-Kahakuloa, Wailuku, Waikapu, Kahului, Lower Paia, said the bill was pragmatic since it allows the science to continue moving forward while respecting the cultural perspective.

"Wouldn't it be ironic if one of these genetically modified taro species saved Hawaiian taro someday from being wiped out," Tsutsui said.


Only Republicans Sam Slom and Fred Hemmings dissented, which tells you something, and I’ll let you decide what that is.

The House already approved its version, HB 1663. Now the two bodies have to hash out their differences, but the final bill will be something like this: a five-year prohibition on developing, testing, propagating, releasing, importing, planting or growing any genetically engineered Hawaiian taro varieties. Open-field testing on non-Hawaiian GE varieties also would be banned.

So it looks like the research my friend was concerned about can continue, if it gets funding. And considering that taro research is still in its infancy, all the bill really does is put the fight off to another day, giving both sides a chance to regroup and re-arm.

While the taro research is being done by UH scientists, the same isn’t true for the other GE crops. And as I told Andy, I’d feel a little more comfortable about the technology if it wasn’t being developed by the same folks who brought us Agent Orange and dioxin. It’s kind of hard to believe these guys when they say, “trust us, GMOs are completely safe.”

Meanwhile, Germany joined Austria, Hungary, Greece, France and Luxembourg in banning Monsanto’s GE corn because it is dangerous to the environment. But as Spiegel Online International reports, that claim may be tough to prove in court.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists this week released a report that contends that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields and “is unlikely to play a significant role in increasing food production in the foreseeable future.”

So much for that oft-repeated industry claim.

With so much conflicting info out there, the question becomes, who to believe? Unless you’re doing the studies yourself, it’s hard to know for sure. But when you consider those with financial interests in the technology are proclaiming its virtues, and those without aren’t, it does raise a few doubts, at least in my mind.

It makes me think of a conversation I had the other day with my sister, who was stunned to discover that something she’d read in a news story was a blatant lie. “I realize that sometimes they might not tell the whole story, or maybe they spin it a certain way, but to present an outright falsehood as the truth, well, I just didn’t think the newspapers did that,” she said.

Ahhh, Grasshopper. It’s a shock, I know, but they don't call it the "corporate media" for nothing.

I think Pink Floyd had it right when they sang: “Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words, and most of them are lies?”

Or as my philosopher-scientist friend from CTAHR observed: “Truth is simply one's perception.”

Hmmm. Is it?

10 comments:

Andy Parx said...

GMO research is nothing but a pseudo science. This “you can’t prove there’s anything unsafe so it’s safe ” is not science where the precautionary principle is supposed to be pre-eminent. It’s up to the producer of any product to prove it’s safe, not for others to show it is unsafe. The precautionary principle IS science- page 1 in the textbook... anything else is bulls—t.

Every GMO “researcher” I’ve ever heard speak apparently rejects the basic precautionary principle, apparently because the research pays their rent. Most real scientists I know won’t touch it.

The arrogance is astounding. All we hear is “I know more than you do and it’s way to complicated so don’t you worry your pretty little head-” ... just like from the bank bailout cabal or anyone else who doesn’t really know what they’re doing but doesn’t want interference.

I’d suggest your friend “educate” him/herself and stop the paternalistic notion that others need to be “educated”.

I know quite a bit about genetics- it’s not that complicated. Most people understand the very basics which is why they oppose it wand want the safety proven. And I obviously know more about science than someone who asks others to prove their project is unsafe instead of proving it’s safe.

How many of these GMO researchers are willing to have the FDA approve new medications on the same “can’t prove it’s unsafe” basis.

And I’m not just talking about safe to ingest- I’m talking about safe to even produce. What lab precautions are there that this will never ever ever be taken out of the lab until it is proven safe? None- as a matter of fact as long as it does what they want it to do- kill bugs, produce fluorescent goldfish or anything else- that’s the end of their “research”. Then it gets used in open air risking every plant that it can breed with all with no assurances it is safe.

Don’t let ‘um fool ya- that’s not fear mongering, that’s safety first.

Anonymous said...

"precautionary principle"

-- easily, easily blown out of the water (were PP, if applied to the degree sought by hawaii ant-GMO GEDs, to become law - no mobile phones, chlorinated water, irradiation, high power electric lines, etc)

"Most real scientists I know won’t touch it."

-- then you dont know many (good ones)

"The arrogance is astounding"

-- id use the word "misunderstanding," but w/e

"it’s way to complicated"

-- not too complicated actually, much like evolution is not (i offer the view that one need not be able to run the bio-chem calculus-level equations to have a respectable understanding of such areas)


anyways, for the record: not against labeling (as is done w/ irradiated food), more long term studies, deference to the sci method, cross pollination controls, etc

buy hey, if you think that fda approved GM corn, soy, etc that americans and others have been eating for 20+ yrs is giving anybody cancer...i dunnno, just sucks to be you i guess (and leave your email; ill sell you some bridges)

ps - not great but decent recent GM article:

http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2209168

Anonymous said...

"The precautionary principle IS science"

Maybe the most uninformed statement Andy has made yet. The precautionary principle is not science. It is a moral and political principle.

Joan said...

Thanks for the link. It makes some interesting point.

However, the author is mistaken in at least one of his assertions. The GE sugar beet is not commercially available. It's the subject of litigation brought by plaintiffs who believe an EIS should be conducted before it's deregulated.

And I really wish he would have provided some documentation for this claim, which I believe is totally bogus:

The cutting-room floors of research laboratories all over the world, in fact, are littered with successful examples of genetically engineered products that have enormous potential to further the goals of sustainable agriculture. Demand for these products remains high among farmers—it almost always does—but food producers fear the bad publicity that might come from anti-GMO invective.

Anonymous said...

"once a lot of time and money has been invested into research, it becomes very difficult to prevent its application, especially if the work has been done by a private company with shareholders to satisfy."

This statement is based on anti-market opinion, not facts, and it's just plain wrong. Research intensive industries pour billions into applications that never make it to market. In the pharmaceutical industry the proportion of drugs developed that actually make it to market is between 5% and 10%.

Anonymous said...

ah, well you are welcome

im not some slate.com kid, but this one is OK too:

http://www.slate.com/id/2196772/

"The four barriers to the genetically modified–food revolution—and why no one is talking about them."

-- the above makes good and fair points

"However, the author is mistaken in at least one of his assertions. The GE sugar beet is not commercially available. It's the subject of litigation brought by plaintiffs who believe an EIS should be conducted before it's deregulated."

-- ya i dunno, if you say so. i think the author of that article was a historian anyways

"successful examples of genetically engineered products that have enormous potential to further the goals of sustainable agriculture."

-- na i buy it. but look at the link above, it speaks in part to how hard ($$) it is to do some of this GM crop work. the "easy-to-do" and profitable stuff is already out there

anyways, if the big bucks get spent on GM foodstuffs for africa, ill be pretty impressed. and of course most corps are not going to rush to do that b/ there is no money in it, so i think that would be cool if some of the R-n-D work they are doing gets picked up by some NGOs (or governments) later on down the line and used to help with crops that could help feed africans (bill gates has already started to work on this some fyi)

irk said...

aside the aroids
"This statement is based on anti-market opinion, not facts, and it's just plain wrong. Research intensive industries pour billions into applications that never make it to market. In the pharmaceutical industry the proportion of drugs developed that actually make it to market is between 5% and 10%."
-Nony Mouse
April 18, 2009 6:17 PM

since you wish to open another box:
in my opinion, it is the pharming on the kekaha plain that is most objectionable. employees of singenta (sp) are daily exposed to multiple potent drugs in the field as well as seed process and packing areas.
today's news:
http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/P/PHARMAWATER_FACTORIES?SITE=HIGAR&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT
http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/P/PHARMAWATER_FACTORIES_RESEARCH?SITE=HIGAR&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

line of flight said...

I think genetic engineering and the more traditional forms of genetic modification by experimentation and cross-breeding needs to be differentiated. farmers for thousands of years have been genetically modifying plants to create drought and pestilence resistant plants. cultural systems of meaning, material conditions and the limits of technological knowledge are our reference to what is natural -- this has been different for different cultures at different times.

the distinction is important because all domesticated plants have been subjected to some level of genetic modification. what is completely beyond the scope of current human understanding AND research is genetic engineering -- that is engineering at the genetic level.

Andy's comments are astute regarding research arrogance. There is a major psychological inflation that necessarily results from a process of creation that has no serious limitations. Man yearned to fly and once the technology was available, saturation bombing followed. Being able to understand and harness the power of the atom was followed by dropping atom bombs on civilian populations.

I think as a human society, we ought not to discount the shadow side of the human psyche. The greater the inflation, the greater compensation. The call for greater awareness of the consequences of any human activity should not be met with ridicule or be dismissed.

Dawson said...

> Every GMO “researcher” I’ve ever heard speak apparently rejects the basic precautionary principle, apparently because the research pays their rent. Most real scientists I know won’t touch it. <> There is a major psychological inflation that necessarily results from a process of creation that has no serious limitations. <Bingo. Or as Jeff Goldblum's character said in Jurassic Park, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."The quote from a monster movie is apt: GMOs represent the mating of corporations seeking wealth and governments seeking political power, both in the pious guise of feeding the hungry. The danger is that, like the characters in the film, they are blinded by their own PR.

Sandhya said...

Ahh, Joan. Thank you for your word-paintings of the early mornings at the foot of Mt. Waialeale. Glorious.