Maybe Rupert Murdoch should just buy Greenpeace now.

An earlier post of mine was basically a rant against the misinformation put out by, in particular, the anti-GMO crowd; this is a good example. It was actually posted on facebook in response to a thread where most of the claims had already been rebutted but that seems to make no difference. It makes me wonder if these people have read ‘Animal Farm’? Of course, they probably have but they don’t realise I have them cast as the sheep.

5 (Bad) reasons

A good example of activist misinformation.

Even in its original facebook post, all the claims were comprehensively rebutted multiple times. The rebuttals were all variants on:

  1. Most commercial seeds are patented, this is not unique to GE seeds and in any case the vast majority of farmers are not set up to save seed from one year to the next. That’s why we have seed merchants in the first place. (I also have a blog post on why farmers use expensive GE seed).
  2. All farming is chemical intensive (even organic farming). This is not a GMO issue. We certainly need to find a way to minimise chemical overload but if anyone thinks banning GE crops will solve the problem, they are mistaken. In actual fact, it is likely to make things worse, as explained in the above blog.
  3. Again, this is not a GMO issue, it is an issue of modern farming methods. It IS a serious issue but it has no particular link to GE crops.
  4. This appears to be a simple fabrication. A fellow eco-blogger has a long blog on the subject.
  5. This last one is interesting because it reveals the true agenda, which is against large-scale agriculture not only GE crops. Leaving aside the sheer utopian impracticality of the suggestion, many people have pointed out that security of the food supply is threatened, not enhanced by local-only agriculture. Going back to point 3, the Irish famine could not happen today because Ireland is is able to buy in food from outside and the infrastructure exists to supply it.

It is plain from the comments over on facebook that there are legions of fervent activists (well, like-button activists, anyway) who refuse to even read these rebuttals, preferring instead to react emotionally to a crisis they are told is happening. This leads to a situation where they can be, and are being, manipulated by vested interests. Greenpeace is an organisation I have a big beef with (and not just because of its wanton vandalism of a world heritage site). They have begun to communicate with this constituency of activists purely at an emotional level; making wild and unsubstantiated claims designed purely to scare them into line. In that regard they are exactly like Fox News (Faux Noise) and just like Faux, they are now part of the problem and have given up any credible right to be part of the solution. It’s a pity when an activist organisation founded to fight corporate interests becomes one of those interests itself.

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Bt CRY proteins are GMOs, so why are they also organic?

I’m still in the fairly early stage of my process of self-education on the topic of genetically engineered crops so I ‘m bound to make a few entertaining howlers  (not too many, I hope and of course I am very happy to have them pointed out). However, there is a mountain of information out there for anyone who genuinely wants to understand the subject so I have been taking a look at Bt – Bacillus Thuringiensis.   (Thanks to this website which goes into it in great detail and this one, which adds some interesting extra details about the specifics of transgenic Bt.)

Bt is a naturally-occurring bacterium which was found in the early 20th century to be toxic to lepidoptera – moths and butterflies.It started being used as an insecticide in the nineteen-twenties but was never very popular because it was very specific to moths and didn’t last very long in the environment. By the 1950’s it was understood that the production of a toxic crystal protein (CRY protein) during spore production was responsible for the insecticidal property: this crystal is activated by the peculiarly alkiline environment of the insect gut and then binds to receptors in the gut of the insect larva and attacks the gut walls, causing death. There is some evidence that the actual cause of death is due to blood poisoning by bacteria released by the perforation of the gut walls. The CRY proteins of Bt strains are very specific as to which receptors they will bind to, making it a highly specific insecticide (hence its unpopularity in the early days, when a more general insecticide was desired).

Of course, this very specificity is highly desirable when you want to target only certain species, and once research work on Bt started in earnest, many strains were designed which extended the toxicity outside the moth family to other pests. This, along with the facts that the bacteria did not last long in the open and that the CRY proteins have no effect on fish, mammals, etc, meant that Bt has become a mainstay of the organic farming industry as well as conventional agriculture.

In the last twenty years or so, GE crops have entered the picture, and it didn’t take long for scientists to work out how to get the plants themselves to produce the CRY proteins by splicing a gene from the bacillus into the plant, and to extend the number of insects affected by them. Corn, potato, tomato and cotton have all been modified in this way.

So what is the difference between using Bt on organic produce and the transgenic CRY proteins used in GE crops? After all, they both rely on the production of the very same proteins. It turns out the difference is actually very significant because in traditional usage, the toxin-producing spores  are sprayed or otherwise applied to the plant and break down very quickly if they are not eaten. The transgenic CRY proteins, by contrast, are expressed in every cell of the plant and hence cannot degrade in the environment or be washed off. Basically, we now have the opportunity to eat food products which contain a new ingredient.

Thus the question to be asked about transgenic Bt is simply whether or not it is harmful to humans and that’s where the search gets a little difficult. The position of the pesticide industry is that the CRY proteins are a naturally occurring substance which has never caused harm to humans, which is true, but it’s also true that the transgenic proteins are different from the naturally occurring variety (they are already soluble and don’t need the alkiline action of the insect gut to activate them).

I’d like to know more about this as it does seem to be an issue but finding information is difficult (as opposed to finding polemic: that’s easy!). GMWatch.org argues, as I do above, that the difference between regular and transgenic Bt could be significant (they say it is, without any evidence) but then spoil things by referencing a series of studies by  Vasquez et al  which they claim show ‘ill effects’ in animals when in fact, the first paper recommends the possible use of Bt to help aid in the efficient delivery of vaccines in cows!

All other studies I can find lead to Professor Gilles Seralini, or one of his students, and show some worrying findings but unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any studies which repeat them and rule one in science is that no study is worth anything until it has been independently repeated and verified. I’m always very suspicious of any body of research which constantly identifies the same small group of people as its authors – all valid and interesting research is always quickly picked up and carried forward by multiple teams, especially in a critical and potentially lucrative field like this one.

That’s as far as I have got. I’m sure there are people out there with some knowledge in the area, so let’s hear from you in the comments. Is there any evidence of harm caused in humans by Bt from GE crops? Enquiring minds want to know!

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So farmers aren’t actually stupid, after all.


Well, I never thought that in the first place but some people must, given the  insistence that growing GE crops brings no economic benefit. You’d have to be a pretty poor businessman to pay out top dollar for a seed that brings no return, and of course it turns out that our farmers are no rubes.

I was able to get the data I needed from a fairly predictable source: farming states have universities that specialise in ag and lots of professors there spend their time analysing farming practices to see what is working, what is not and making recommendations for improvement (science at its finest!).

I tracked down some interesting research done by a prof at one of those ag schools, Stephen Metzger in North Dakota, which gave a great insight into this exact issue. You can find the report here it lists the direct and indirect costs of growing GE and non-GE soy; that’s a crop which is “roundup ready” rather than insect resistant so it nicely isolates a single genetically engineered modification for examination.

The quick summary is this: yes, GE seeds do cost more than ‘traditional’ seeds – a whopping 70% more – but the bottom line shows that the GE crop is 15% more profitable than the traditional one.  That’s make or break for many farms.

The full report makes interesting reading (and it is very short with a refreshing absence of opaque discussion) and it has some very interesting insights.

Two things that stand out are that, while GE crop yields are no greater, growing traditional crops results in a much greater use of  herbicides as well as 16% greater fuel consumption (understandable, since more tractor journeys to spray the crop use more fuel). There are a number of other small extra expenses which contribute to the higher cost but seeing those two leads me to conclude that GE crops have benefits which go beyond simple economics; reduction in fossil fuel use is an objective we need to keep in mind.

I was interested to find out the makeup of the extra herbicides applied to the traditional crop so I wrote to Prof Metzger and asked. His response was that “The herbicides that would be most commonly used with non-GMO soybeans would be Result, Flexstar and Raptor, which would be applied on the plants and Authority/Spartan, which would be applied to the soil”.  It’s enough for now to note that these herbicides cause just as much hyperventilation among the anti GMO crowd as does Glyphosate but I will leave it for another time to look into the relative properties of these poisons versus roundup.

Of course, the best way to reduce pesticide use on soybeans is not to grow them at all which, given that their use is mainly to produce bio-diesel and animal feed, would be my preferred solution. On the other hand, the range of alternative uses for soy is so vast and diverse that perhaps a redirection rather than cessation would be the best way.

Posted in Genetic engineering, soybean oil, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Genetic engineering: A technique for emptying minds of thought?

I try not to rant. There are lots of reasons for this but I suppose the most important is that, while a good rant gives satisfaction in the short term, a more measured and better thought through post has more staying power and leads to better things in the future. A bit like sex, really, where a rant is the equivalent of a quick wank.

I’ll make an exception today (OK, stop sniggering) because I have been quite stunned during the course of my background research into genetically engineered plants by the level of sheer, wild-eyed fanaticism on the part of opponents of what amounts to a very promising technique for continuing in our millennia old practice of making things better for ourselves.

Let’s start with a fact. Most, but not all, GE plants are produced with two objectives: resistance to herbicides and resistance to pests, usually lepidoptera (which includes butterflies but they are not the target species). Herbicide resistance is a question of modifying a plants reaction to (usually) glyphosate but insect resistance requires inducing the plant to produce an insecticide within its tissues, in other words, it now contains a new substance which it previously did not; a substance we can ingest when we eat the plant. These two things seem to me to be qualitatively different, with the second being the more troubling.

The problems with herbicide resistance are not insignificant. Resistant strains of weeds are of course being encouraged but this is not a consequence of genetic engineering, it is a consequence of crop monoculture and over reliance on a single method of weed control; lessons we learned as a society many years ago and which were codified by Jethro Tull at the dawn of the English agricultural evolution.

Tweaking plants to produce toxins (even if they are toxic only to specific insects) is different. It might, or it might not, be safe for humans and there are methods to determine this which are not being followed at the moment but the anti ‘GMO’ movement does not recognise this difference from herbicide resistance, or even the distinction between the production of toxins and the production of beneficial substances such as beta carotene. As far as they are concerned, it is all frankenstein science to be opposed with every pitchfork at their disposal.

And to be sure, they have some very impressive pitchforks after several decades of the refinement of misinformation techniques in the style of Carl Rove and his ilk. It is extremely difficult to search online for any information on the topic without falling into a bog composed entirely of self referential articles, all of which sound spookily similar and which promote a very specific extended equation. GMO = Pesticides= Monsanto = Toxins = Cancer. Examples include statements like “GMO crops and the pesticides they require”. “Pesticide promoting GMO crops”, “Cancer Causing GMO foods” none of which have any basis in fact. There was even an attempt to link genetically engineered crops to the recent die-off of bees, which has very complex causes, none of which seem to be linked to GE crops.

It seems to be impossible to get these people to stop and think long enough to understand anything at all about what they are criticising – and there is plenty to criticise! We are in possession of a tremendous knowledge which, like all knowledge, can be used for good or ill and here we have legions of people forming themselves into a peanut gallery chanting ‘Four legs good: two legs bad’ and congratulating themselves that they are vanguard of truth and understanding!

These people do tremendous damage for the very simple reason that the binary internal world they have created for themselves and within which they choose to exist is not the real world in which we all must live. Shades of grey do exist, even in the absence of handcuffs, and we must be able to recognise them in order to make valid judgements.

Enough! More on GE foods later.

Posted in Genetic engineering, palm oil, Rant, soybean oil | 7 Comments

We’re eating the rainforest! Or are we?

I wrote in “What do cows have to do with it” that US consumption of beef has very little to do with deforestation; and that worldwide the primary driver is still population growth.  Even so, cattle ranching is a very significant, and growing, user of deforested land in Brazil even if it’s not the initial cause of the deforestation itself so it’s useful to understand our role in that.

Americans eat an enormous amount of beef; even though consumption has declined about 7.5% over the last decade, we still get through 25 billion pounds annually (that’s over 11 million tonnes). But the US is a major producer of beef, so how much of what we eat every year is imported from Brazil? The Brazilians are very proud of their beef industry – especially the export sector – so information on that is very easy to find; there are mountains of very detailed statistics at the ABIEC, which conveniently has an English language website.  The first interesting bit of info I found there was this very nice infographic:

Brazilian beef profile 2013

Which really has  pretty much all of the information needed to relate US beef consumption to exports and, importantly, to the amount of land devoted to it. The only extra bit of information needed is the proportion of Brazilian livestock farming conducted in the  Amazon and  it will be possible to see exactly what effect US beef consumption has on the rainforest.

Exports are broken down into three types: fresh meat, processed meat and offal. Fresh meat appears in the form of steaks or hamburgers, while processed beef typically comes in cans as corned beef and other manufactured foods. Offal is, well, offal.

It’s possible to pull the statistics for 2014/2103 and for 2012/2011 and they show that Brazil has a very rocky trading relationship with the US as far as beef is concerned. Repeated bans on the import of fresh meat due to fears about both foot and mouth disease  and BSE are combined with import quotas which severely limit imports. 2012 was the last year of fresh meat imports and in that year the US ranked 58th in the list of recipients of fresh beef from Brazil: we imported a mere 155 tonnes that year. The story is very different for processed beef, where the US ranks 1st with an annualised rate of 18,000 tonnes. Offal accounts for 825 tonnes.

So now we can do a little arithmetic. Even if we imagine that the ban on fresh meat is lifted, the US total of just over 19,000 tonnes compares with Brazil’s 10.2 Million tonnes and translates into 315 thousand hectares of Brazilian ranches devoted to beef eaten in the US.  That’s 1215 square miles, or about a quarter the size of San Diego County.

But what we really want to know is how much of that is in the Amazon, so we need to know the proportion of Amazon to non-Amazon cattle and that information is available from an article in Tropical Conservation Science. The data in that article is a little old, the most recent figures are from 2009 but the proportions seem to have stabilised several years before that at 70/120 so we can factor that into our arithmetic and come up with 448 square miles as the amount of Amazon rainforest devoted to feeding Americans.

That’s almost exactly the same as the land area of California’s third-smallest county: San Mateo.

So who is eating all that beef? Well, it’s the Brazilians of course, which brings us back to the real driving force behind deforestation there, as well as elsewhere: population growth.

 

 

Posted in climate change, cowspiracy, deforestation, global warming, logging, veganism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima meltdown and glow-in-the-dark Californians?

I’m a big fan of recycling and this is a re post of something I wrote in 2012 but which is still worth reading as a reminder that chicken little syndrome can be combated by a little background reading.

It seems people are getting all bent out of shape about this report.

http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/7/3/034004/article?v_showaffiliations=yes

Temporal evolution of absolute peak concentrations (in Bq m−3, logarithmic scale; grey shaded) and within individual regions (see figure 4(d)) from the 0.1°-model simulation, assuming a total input of 10 PBq of 137Cs. Regions: western Pacific (I, black), off North America (II, green), Hawaii Islands (III, light blue), off Baja California (IV, blue), Aleutian Islands (V, red). The inset is a zoom into the part of the figure with levels below 2 Bq m−3 (pre-Fukushima values) on a linear scale.

Caesium isotopes coming our way are not a good thing and there may be a problem but not based on this report.


The peak level of isotope on the US pacific coast is projected to rise to double the current background radiation, which sounds bad but even at the peak, it will be less than 4Bq/m^3. To put that in perspective, you would need to drink over 250m^3 of the contaminated seawater (that’s well over 250 metric tonnes) to exceed the maximum safe contamination level of a single kilo of food (WHO recommendation, which assumes consumption of 750kg of food contaminated to that level per year) so unless you plan to drink 250 tonnes of seawater twice a day for a year you shouldn’t experience any problems.


The other statistic (gleefully misreported by the press) is that excess contamination levels on the US pacific coast six years from now will be ten times the level experienced in Japan; a truthy little factoid which has been seized on by a number of eco-bloggers who are in major panic mode that we are all going to start glowing in the dark.

Now, ten times sounds bad, but only if you think that, by some miracle of concentration, they mean ten times the peak level immediately after the fukushima meltdown but what they actually mean is that, by the time the excess radiation level here reaches the same level as existing background radiation (doubling the total), the excess radiation in Japan will have fallen to only 10% higher than background. So our excess radiation will be 2Bq/m^3 when theirs is down to 0.2Bq/m^3; that’s 10x sure enough but the TOTAL radiation levels will be 4Bq/m^3 vs 2.2Bq/m^3 which is less than twice and our level will never come within four orders of magnitude (1/10,000) of the levels seen in Japan.


By the way, the biological half life of C-137 (ie: after it has been ingested by an animal) reduces from >30 years to about 30 days so this is not something which is going to persist in the food chain.
So I think I can say that I feel pretty reassured that there will be no water borne problems in California as a result of the Fukushima meltdown.

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What do cows have to do with it?

There is a movie doing the rounds called Cowspiracy. The central proposition seems to be that the evils of climate change can be avoided if we can halt deforestation and that since deforestation is driven primarily by agriculture aimed at beef production for consumption by the US, we can avert catastrophe by all becoming  vegan.

There seem to be a number of problems with that but I might be misrepresenting the movie so I will defer comment until I have seen it in full but I do want to take a look at a central plank of the thesis, which is that livestock farming, and specifically agribusiness driven by US consumption, is the primary driver of deforestation.

NASA is a wonderful resource for this sort of thing and I went to their Earth Observatory site for information: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/deforestation_update3.php  Their verdict is:

Direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization.

but in particular:

“The single biggest direct cause of tropical deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock to meet daily needs.”

In other words, local people clearing land for their own use is responsible for the majority of deforestation. That seems to be a knockout blow to the idea that agribusiness is responsible but things are rarely so simple. Here’s another quote:

“Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role.”

So maybe it’s not so cut and dried. And I should say that they also identify some non-agricultural drivers, such as logging, as major factors second only to subsistence farming in the process of deforestation. So then, if industrial agriculture is a factor, however small,  what products are driving the process?

“In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.”

So there we see it: cattle ranching! Is it true? Are we really eating our species into an early grave? Right about now is a good time to introduce a graph:

deforested area by country

 

 

 

 

 

 

It tells a depressing story; the amazonian rainforests lead the world in area cleared but wait: Indonesia? The cleared acreage is right up there with Brazil and looking back at the quote, we see that it has nothing to do with cattle ranching or even soybean production. The Indonesians are planting palm trees for biodiesel production; in other words, the culprit there is our old friend the internal combustion engine.  Even worse, this depredation is caused by the noble intention to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Taking another look at the graph, it’s easy to see that if we add together the deforested areas in Africa (that’s all the blue bars) the total is as great as Brazil and no-one is suggesting that agribusiness is a factor in that case: it’s all subsistence farming. So what are we left with?

In the amazon, which contributes perhaps a fifth to the total deforested area, there is a proportion which can be attributed to beef and soybean production. I lump those two into one because, as everyone knows, soy is grown to feed cattle. Or maybe not.

I took a look at this website: http://www.ncsoy.org/ABOUT-SOYBEANS/Uses-of-Soybeans.aspx  – it’s a mine of information. They don’t seem to have any agenda, they just love to tell you what soy beans are used for; and what they are used for turns out to be amazingly diverse. They start off with this revealing statement:

“Nearly all soybeans are processed for their oil.  
Soy processors (such as Cargill & ADM) take the raw soybeans and separate the oil from the meal.  The oil may be refined for cooking and other edible uses, or sold for biodiesel production or industrial uses.  The processors bake the high-protein fiber that is left after the oil is removed and sell it for animal feed.”

“Nearly all soybeans are processed for their oil”  and once again we see the internal combustion engine in the background, with its insatiable appetite for hydrocarbons. So, sure, soymeal is fed to livestock, but not before the primary uses have been satisfied.

In fact, there is one report (admittedly old)

http://agpolicy.org/pubs/soybean.PDF

which identifies demand for soybean oil as a cause of a glut of soybean meal but goes on to say that that is no reason to curtail production. In other words, the demand for oil, not agribusiness aimed at feeding cattle, drives soybean production. And in any case:

 

“Over half of the soybeans processed for livestock feed are fed to poultry, about one-quarter is fed to swine, and the rest is used for beef cattle, dairy cattle and petfood.”

(that’s ncsoy.org again)

So where does this leave us? We have seen that the primary cause of deforestation is still population growth. Even where industrial agriculture is a major factor, logging takes first place, while biodiesel production, whether from soybeans or palm oil, is the next most important. Livestock agriculture comes in a distant fourth place. Even soybean production is driven by transportation needs and the residue feeds our pets as well as agribusiness.

US meat consumption is a factor only in Amazonian deforestation, which is 20% of the world problem. Of the factors in Amazonian deforestation, it ranks fourth, fighting for the last 10% in competition with soybean production and logging.

Should we go vegan, or should we fight the real enemies? Overpopulation is driven by lack of education, lack of womens’ control over their economic circumstances and a backward looking campaign by the religious to prevent women’s control over their own  reproduction. Biodiesel might be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Both of those are topics worth addressing; veganism? Not so much.

 

 

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