Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    If an existing organic farmer’s crop is rendered un-organic by contamination from a GM neighbour, it’s pretty clear to all but the most one-eyed defender of agriscience that there is a victim. And that you are holding them responsible rather than the polluter.

    Ah I see your point. Setting aside the word "polluter" since this hardly qualifies as pollution by most folks understanding.

    The question is why do organic farmers consider GM to not be organic? Really that is a very serious question and one for which I have never heard a good answer. As far as I can tell GM is not organic because they say so. And for no other reason. Which is their right I guess.

    The Canadian case that Joe linked to was a group of organic farmers complaining about the possibility of being sued by Monsanto for accidental contamination. The only time Monsanto sues is if a farmer actively cultivates the contaminating seed, in which case blaming the victim is appropriate.

    They weren't trying to sue Monsanto for losses incurred by loss of organic status. As far as I'm aware nobody has tried to do that. Mostly because it's very hard to show any loss. If the crop is rendered un-organic (and I haven't heard of anyone having had that done) then they sell the crop as "normal". To sue they would have to show they lost income as a result. I just haven't heard of anyone doing that, but I don't circulate in circles where I would hear such cases.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to st ephen,

    kiwifruit?

    Meh kiwifruit is small potatoes in term of crop land. It's also not what I would call a modern crop, it essentially is a wild species still, almost no inbreeding at all. It's more a case of moving a wild plant from one part of the world to another. Even so it would be a consideration in deciding whether to make kiwifruit herbicide resistant.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    This seems to work really well

    and you’d think science might learn from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    Really, we have. Also bacteria are different to plants and animals with rather more generations to evolve weird shit than any plant or animal.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • st ephen, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Even so it would be a consideration in deciding whether to make kiwifruit herbicide resistant.

    Yeah, one consideration of many. Profit might be another one, I guess... ;-)

    dunedin • Since Jul 2008 • 204 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    That’s more responsible language than the absolutes you have been using

    I consciously use absolute language when discussing this in the public. I would never use such absolutes in scientific discussions. The reason is because of the language being used by opponents of science.

    Contamination and pollution are just two words you've used to describe events that 99.99% of the population would never notice and the last person out of 10000 would only notice because you'd told them.

    There is some amazingly emotive language used. And there is also a real lack of understanding of the language scientists use when discussing probability and risk assessment. When a scientist has said a "small risk" it has been jumped on by opponents and presented in terms that would make a Wellywood executive think disaster movie here I come. The public don't understand that p=0.001 means absolutely certain and leap on the tiny chance of uncertainty. When a scientist says I don't know for sure, they mean they can't think of any possible reason anything bad could happen but they know there are things they don't know. The opponents act like lawyers on a TV drama and say "ah hah" so you think a disaster is possible then...

    So I make no apology for using absolute language. It conveys the level of certainty that a lay person is expecting. And no it isn't really absolute, but for real world application, as opposed to paranoid fantasy, it is certain. Much much more certain than I am about my chicken fried rice.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • stever@cs.waikato.ac.nz,

    I think that there have also been reports that toxins in crops which are "GMed" to produce them (for protection of the crop, I guess) are turning up in people's systems.

    I think there were claims (or fears) that those toxins could be toxic for people and other animals, not just the pest they were meant for.

    The theory was that the toxins should have broken down into harmless components.

    Hamilton • Since Nov 2006 • 55 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to st ephen,

    Profit might be another one

    Not our fault. Your government has insisted all research in NZ must demonstrate a profit for a NZ business.

    But most of us just want to make better food. More nutritious. Less damage to the environment. Less land used to grow the same food.

    Farm animals that produce healthier food with less damage to the environment.

    Better medicines made using better safer methods.

    These sound like slogans but they are the actual motivations of the scientists. Most of us could give a rats arse about profits.

    There's something about science that isn't complex but also isn't communicated well.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to stever@cs.waikato.ac.nz,

    I think that there have also been reports that toxins in crops which are “GMed” to produce them (for protection of the crop, I guess) are turning up in people’s systems.

    I haven't seen anything in the literature that describes that. I don't read all the literature (heh) so if you find the reference please link it.

    As far as I'm aware none of the compounds in any GM food are toxic to humans even in pure form. I'm pretty sure that's right but I may have missed some of the newer crops.

    All the insect resistance genes produce proteins that are harmless to animals and harmless to most insects as well. All the herbicide resistances are modifications of normal plant genes so as far as a human could tell the plant is normal, certainly not toxic.

    Worth remembering that we've been eating GM crops for 20 years. That's a lot of people unharmed.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • st ephen, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Not our fault.

    Once they go up who cares where they come down?

    dunedin • Since Jul 2008 • 204 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    And there is also a real lack of understanding of the language scientists use when discussing probability and risk assessment.

    Oh I agree. I've encouraged some to use firmer language about their specialty in public media myself. However being more certain than the field warrants doesn't help either.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16759 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Worth remembering that we've been eating GM crops for 20 years. That's a lot of people unharmed.

    See, that's a pretty good message.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16759 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    Just a chalice guy?

    First and most likely is cross pollination between
    the same or related species.

    aaah! So Jesus pollinated the cross with his blood,
    thus sowing the seeds of Christianity....
    After all his dad was a carpenter!
    Or was he?
    We need some God Particles to test!

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 5049 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    All the herbicide resistances are modifications of normal plant genes so as far as a human could tell the plant is normal, certainly not toxic.

    But the actual herbicides that the herbicide-resistant plants get drenched in, I'm thinking that's the toxic part.

    Worth remembering that we’ve been eating GM crops for 20 years. That’s a lot of people unharmed.

    Perhaps we're unharmed, but the environment is damaged by monoculture, highly-mechanised farming, and use of strong pesticides. Look at what's happening to honeybees and butterflies.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Ian Dalziel,

    We need some God Particles to test!

    Snap, Crackle, Pop!
    Breakfast foods grow odder and odder
    It’s a wise child that knows its fodder.

    -Ogden Nash

    [he also produced a Latin version of this, of which I can remember only the title, Strep, Crep, et Frag!]

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Lilith __,

    O lovely! An Ogden N rhyme I didnt know!
    Thank you Lilith!

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Islander,

    You're very welcome! It comes from a book called Ave Ogden! with matching versions of rhymes in English and Latin, which I wish I owned. Now there's someone with an excess of cleverness!

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lilith __,

    But the actual herbicides that the herbicide-resistant plants get drenched in, I’m thinking that’s the toxic part.

    That would be glyphosate which is less toxic than table salt. The formulations usually contain detergents which is what give each brand its point of difference. Not great to drink detergent but not likely to be a problem either even if you drank it neat - well getting the runs might be an issue. In the trace amounts left after withholding periods I can't believe that is a problem for anyone.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lilith __,

    monoculture, highly-mechanised farming, and use of strong pesticides

    You know that those problems are exactly what we are trying to solve using GM. All those problems come from existing culture methods. GM, particularly of minor crops allows them to produce at levels that make them viable, they also allow less pesticide use we are talking huge differences in pesticide use. Add that to no-till agriculture as a result of GM and it's hard to argue GM has made those problems worse.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    You know that those problems are exactly what we are trying to solve using GM. All those problems come from existing culture methods. GM, particularly of minor crops allows them to produce at levels that make them viable, they also allow less pesticide use we are talking huge differences in pesticide use. Add that to no-till agriculture as a result of GM and it’s hard to argue GM has made those problems worse.

    Maybe you’re trying to solve them, but I don’t believe that large agribusiness is. It’s not the technology that’s at fault, but how it’s applied. As I understand it, the GM crops we have now require large-scale use of oil-derived fertilizers and pesticides and also long-distance transport to market, all of which is completely unsustainable in a post-peak-oil world.

    And there are organic proponents of no-dig agriculture who grow food plants that are well-matched to soil and climate. GM is not the only way.

    I think the industrial-scale-agribusiness solution is not the only workable model for providing food security. With the collapse of the USSR and with the USA’s trade blockade, Cuba had to adapt to growing their own organic food locally, or starve. Result – 85% locally-grown organic produce, and a well-nourished population. They struggled initially, but they made it work. Yes, it’s more labour-intensive, but it’s sustainable and it doesn’t depend on oil or oil-derived products.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Lilith __,

    Hunting it down even as we speak…

    I have a weird gift/synchronistic sense?
    I go to secondhandbook shops/recycle centres – and there it is! The one I’ve looked for!*
    That’s called ‘library angels’ in other circumstances.

    Most recent: I was talking to my mother about Kilgore Trout and she was pretty bored by it all – suggested we go to the Oamaru Recycle centre to drop off the recyclables…and what did I find, pristine condition?

    “Venus on the Half Shell”
    by Kilgore Trout


    like striking a -pounemu piece you never thought was real?

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Islander,

    Ooo, library angels are the greatest! I sometimes wonder if some supernatural being has put particular books in my path in the library! But I tend to get overexcited among large gatherings of books so it could just be that. :-)

    Wait - isn't Kilgore Trout a fictional author??

    ETA: wow, it's complicated!

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Lilith __,

    Exactly!
    My copy was published in 1976 by Star Books, and is 207 pages long… (I think there may’ve been different versions of the P.H.Farmer urrrm acknowledgement of a very famous sf meme-)

    but – “library angels”? I know they exist and I am fairly sure they have to do with the heightened senses us bibliophiles bring to any book situation – we just notice that kind of stuff…

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • James Green, in reply to Lilith __,

    Perhaps we're unharmed, but the environment is damaged by monoculture, highly-mechanised farming, and use of strong pesticides.

    And yet all of this is true of some organic farming. In particular, I'm not sure that the organic pesticides are less nasty than some of the mainstream ones. (And I'm obviously not looking at the guy I buy my hogget off)

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 689 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Sacha,

    the closest to the front end of the project you get, the more experienced and better paid the people tend to be

    I bet frontline tech support folk wish you were correct about that

    They're one of the main groups I'm talking about, although I think I expressed it badly. I meant the front end in the dimension of time. Tech support are there at the end.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8591 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lilith __,

    the GM crops we have now require large-scale use of oil-derived fertilizers and pesticides and also long-distance transport to market, all of which is completely unsustainable in a post-peak-oil world.

    None of those problems have anything to do with GM.

    And while some organic producers use no-till agriculture it has been GM soybean and GM corn that has seen the implementation of it on a scale that has made a significant difference.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3417 posts Report Reply

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