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Beginning with an article I whole-heartedly endorse.

This article talks about the food crisis that we're facing today, the real extent of which I hadn't even realized. One of the things that struck me was when it discussed the migration of farmers to cities. An excerpt:

One of the major factors pushing this mass and continuing migration to the cities—in addition to being landless or forced off land—is the difficulty to make a living as a small farmer. This has been made especially difficult, as countries have implemented the “neoliberal” policies recommended or mandated by the IMF, the World Bank, and even some of the western NGOs working in the poor countries of the third world. The neoliberal ideology holds that the so-called free market should be allowed to work its magic. Through the benign sanctions of the “invisible hand,” it is said, the economy will function most efficiently and will be highly productive. But in order for the market to be “free” governments must stop interfering.

This is just one in a long list of examples that can be cited of how international organizations have messed up when it comes to third-world countries, waving the banner of free-market capitalism to advocate short-sighted and harmful policies. It makes me rather cynical, especially when I read about economists like Jeffrey Sachs (whose advocation of shock-therapy privatization led to such harm in Russia, not to mention prolonging the East Asian crisis). In the case of Sachs, he'd been advocating his flawed policies for decades, and that it took him this long to realize that perhaps there was something wrong with his theory, that most other economists like him still haven't realized this, is rather sobering. What makes the situation unintentionally ironic is that, in this article, (the new! reformed!) Sachs is using Malawi as the support for one of his arguments, when the only way Malawi was able to make such drastic improvements was by ignoring everything that experts like him, from atop their Ivory Towers and their positions in the World Bank and the IMF, were advocating. Not to mention, some of the policies he now advocates are just as, ahem, reality-challenged as those he used to, just in a different Bono-endorsed way. And this seems to be an endemic failing of many economists, how convinced they are of the rightness of their simplistic Friedman-style models, that yes, do work sometimes, but only in limited real-world situations, and failing to acknowledge these limitations can result in wide-scale damage.

Now, to address what Professor Bhagwati says in the same article, about what's required to deal with the food crisis:
"For the long term, the measures to moderate the prices of foodgrains will require attention to at least three policies where we will have to rethink matters: (1) a moderation of the planned reliance on biofuels and turning to nuclear energy instead; (2) the acceptance of genetically modified foods which promise to continue the green revolution in the modern age; and (3) the shift in governmental investment priorities to agriculture."

I don't exactly disagree with (1), in that I do think planned reliance on biofuels is a mistake, but I think he's missing the larger picture here. He's doing what politicians and economists generally do, assuming that the problem is the type of energy we consume, when the real problem is the amount, that what we have to do is find ways to cut back.

As to (2) - ohboy, where to start? The assumption that the "Green Revolution" (I hate this name) was a great thing, which is problematic for some of the reasons I talked about here, but most importantly this. Using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is probably the linchpin of the green revolution, the reason that it became so successful, for such fertilizers were able to dramatically increase yields. Now, forget for a moment that their use reduces the nutritional value of the foods, results in long-term degradation of the soil, and that their runoff bleeds into rivers and creates dead zones. Even without this, the statement that Bhagwati made would still be tremendously dumb, because synthetic fertilizers require fossil fuels to make. So when someone so unthinkingly promotes the policies of the Green Revolution, what they are promoting is the substitution of fossil fuel energy for solar energy, a renewable resource that we don't have to worry about for at least a few million (billion?) years, and just looking at the sky-high oil prices today reveals the folly of doing so.

And um. Genetically modified foods are going to be the magic bullet that solves everything? Because we all know how safe such foods are and how solid the science underlying them is? Because they're magically going to create farmlands out of desert or ocean or land depleted by Green Revolution farming methods or perhaps yield a beanstalk so high that we can climb it into the land of never-ending Cargill-endorsed fertility?

Also, (3), while I can't speak for India or other countries, the government in the US already invests billions of dollars into agriculture. It's just investing in the wrong things, providing incentives not for sustainable small-scale farms but the chemical-rich pesticide-rich large-scale farms that've brought us to the impasse that we're in today.

Andd, I'm running out of time. More on this issue later.

.

Date: 2008-05-27 07:29 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
I do have to point out that the last link is full of misrepresentations: "genes don't operate independently" is not a new concept, and I don't think any biologist has ascribed to such a notion since the first epistasis experiment. -_- Though I agree that most of the lay public--including the nonscientists in charge of biotech firms--does seem to accept such ridiculous oversimplifications, which is why we need better science education and more careful science publicity. People need to stop publishing press releases that talk about "a gene for intelligence" or "a gene for [insert your favorite disease]" because such headlines are misleading.

My ranting aside, I agree that relying GM foods to solve all our problems is a mistake, but I think the generalized fear of GM foods is also a mistake. If we have a tool to make a crop 25% more drought-resistant and it proves to be cost-effective (this point, I think, is the debatable one), then why not use it?

Date: 2008-05-27 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] color-blue.livejournal.com
Thanks for clearing this up! I'm not a biological scientist, so I didn't know that this theory was so widely accepted. Most of the information I have on this issue is from the public policy side, which had led me to believe this might not be the case, since the FDA risk-assessment process seems to rest on the "genes operate independently" idea. I suppose that's the problem though. As you pointed out, nonscientists are the ones in charge of biotech firms and also, I think, of setting federal policy.


If we have a tool to make a crop 25% more drought-resistant and it proves to be cost-effective (this point, I think, is the debatable one), then why not use it?

From what I've read, though, we don't have the data in place to determine whether the GM-foods don't have damaging side-effects, and what's perhaps even more damning, no system set up that can gather such data. (Most of my information comes from articles such as this one and this. Do you disagree with any of their points? If you do, please let me know why! I don't have nearly the background you do in order to fully evaluate this. XD) So, yeah, I tend to err on the side of caution in believing that the companies that are producing the GM-seeds aren't as concerned with my health & safety as much as they are with their bottom line (a logical conclusion, I believe, because when it comes to corporate irresponsibility they're right up there with oil companies), that the FDA has not instituted enough checks and safeguards, and therefore I wouldn't eat a GM-food if someone paid me to do so because I have no intention of serving as a human guinea pig. (And what's alarming to me is that I might become one without my knowledge, because GM-foods have become so widespread that in some cases, such as those of GM-corn, even a farmer using conventional seeds might find his field contaminated because of pollen drift.)

Date: 2008-05-27 10:47 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
I was unaware that the testing system for genetically modified foods was so inadequate! O_O But I do believe that the methods for sufficient testing of health risks are available; it's unfortunate that the FDA hasn't hammered out a set of regulations for GM foods.

I think my perspective tends to be more laidback because I know that most organisms are optimized to resist expressing foreign pieces of DNA (immunity to viruses, for example), and if a successful transgenic organism is made, it usually only survives in the first place because the inserted vector has negligible effect on the organism's general physiological processes. Hence, I wouldn't be surprised if a GM food provides me with no health benefits whatsoever, but I'd be a little surprised if it's actively detrimental to my health yet appears to be a healthy crop on its own. (Plus, I think that a crop expressing a pesticide gene is less likely to be toxic to us than a crop sprayed directly with high concentrations of the same pesticide. Of course, one could always just eat organic produce, but the fact remains that many people don't.) That isn't to say that precautions shouldn't be taken, and I agree that there should be more federal regulation in place.

I don't think though that we should give up on GM foods altogether, and while I support better regulation, I don't support outright banning. Also, looking at the list of examples of GM foods, I'm a little surprised at the direction that the modifications are taking--I'd have thought that more effort would be taken to engineer crops to produce more nutrients but that doesn't seem to necessarily be the case.

Date: 2008-05-28 02:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] color-blue.livejournal.com
But I do believe that the methods for sufficient testing of health risks are available; it's unfortunate that the FDA hasn't hammered out a set of regulations for GM foods.

They're available if people had an incentive to use them, I think, but right now it doesn't seem like people do, and I don't see that changing. A rigorous risk-assessment process would require months, if not years, to determine the possible longer-term effects, and it would require that the crops be grown in a wide variety of environments, for different environments cause the genes to be expressed differently, right, and also grown in such a way that there was no chance of cross-pollination with other conventionally grown crops. This translates to a considerable amount of time and money, which would drastically cut into the profits that the companies would make (especially since such a risk assessment would make it more likely that the company's product was rejected), so it's no surprise to me that companies never make it. And the companies in question spend a lot "" of money lobbying the government, so its no surprise to me that the FDA's so lax about it, either.


I think my perspective tends to be more laidback because I know that most organisms are optimized to resist expressing foreign pieces of DNA (immunity to viruses, for example), and if a successful transgenic organism is made, it usually only survives in the first place because the inserted vector has negligible effect on the organism's general physiological processes.

That's comforting to hear.


Also, looking at the list of examples of GM foods, I'm a little surprised at the direction that the modifications are taking--I'd have thought that more effort would be taken to engineer crops to produce more nutrients but that doesn't seem to necessarily be the case.

You're right, that's not the case at all. I think its because the US agricultural system revolves around increasing yield at the expense of pretty much all other factors, at the present moment. Because crops such as wheat and corn are treated as interchangeable commodities, farmers don't get any extra money for producing a better quality than their neighbours; they do get extra money if they produce more than their neighbours. And they have no choice but to increase yields, really, because most of them are already deeply in debt and taking other jobs just to keep the farm running (though that might be changing now with higher prices; in the past few decades, however, the people that've really benefitted from the govt programs are the big agribusinesses such as Cargill, Monsanto, etc.) It's all about profits in the end, and the major agribusinesses have cut so many corners in the US and even more in other places in the world. And that's why I don't support GM foods - their safety is questionable, and in the present socio-political environment will remain so, and the technology has been abused, resulting in so much harm in third-world countries such as India, where millions of farmers have been driven into debt and thousands have committed suicide because their way of life was being destroyed by it.

Date: 2008-05-28 05:32 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
different environments cause the genes to be expressed differently, right

It depends on the gene in question (and the natural environmental range of the crop), but of course, that doesn't take away from your point. I knew that it would be expensive to conduct adequate testing--which is why I wondered initially whether GM foods would be cost-effective--but I suppose I was being a bit naive to believe that companies would actually make that investment. (If I were generating a transgenic to publish results in a scientific journal, I would in fact spend those months/years making those verifications--and some of the tests that I can think of off the top of my head may be time-consuming and expensive, but actually not that technically difficult to do--and so I assumed that staff scientists developing these products would do the same.)

Thanks for the last article; I wasn't aware of the situation facing small farmers, especially in third-world countries. >_<;; It's a bit of a Catch-22 because these technologies can't develop without corporate funding but corporate funding causes pressure to cut corners.

I suppose that what bothers me is the emotional response that people have to the idea of "foreign genes" in their food; I think people labor under the misconception that genomes are somehow stable and "pure" which is far from the case. But I do think your points about the sociopolitical climate are very important, and I definitely agree that a country shouldn't support a policy to use GM crops while regulations remain so inadequate.

Date: 2008-05-29 03:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] color-blue.livejournal.com
I suppose that what bothers me is the emotional response that people have to the idea of "foreign genes" in their food; I think people labor under the misconception that genomes are somehow stable and "pure" which is far from the case.

ohh, what is the case then? Because I think I'm one of those people right now. I'm very resistant to trying completely new things when it comes to eating. I wasn't when I was younger, but after going on a more natural diet I saw such a change in how I felt that now I'm pretty averse to trying anything that doesn't have a lot of history behind it to prove that its nutritious & safe (in some culture, not necessarily mine). And if that's an over-reaction, or not necessarily reflective of facts, I'd like to know. ^^

Date: 2008-05-29 07:19 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
I think it's perfectly fine to be conscious of what you eat and to look for high quality foods! What I meant was more the reaction that people have towards transgenics in general. Organisms get foreign genetic material inserted into their genomes all the time--transposons, retroviral elements, hybridization--and while I do understand that it may seem a bit scary to artificially insert a gene from one species into another, it's actually not all that different from a viral element, which unlike the artificial vector is optimized by years of evolution to take over its host's genetic machinery and replicate itself as much as possible. Bacteria regularly take up DNA from their environment in hopes of gaining a selective advantage; our own bodies probably exchange some genetic material with the millions of symbiotic microorganisms living in our tissues. Plant genomes are even more tolerant of such genetic flux because they are often polyploid and hybridize more readily than animal species.

Many genomicists now believe that major evolutionary changes may have actually been caused by such gene transfers. E.g. the reason why we enjoy eating starch is because we can break down starch into sugar in our mouth, which would not be possible if a viral insertion hadn't caused amylase to be expressed in the salivary glands as well as our intestines. And as viruses move between species, they can carry genetic material from their former host into the next. Our genomes are already littered with foreign genetic material, which is why I think that transgenic organisms should not be regarded as such horrible monstrosities.

Then again, I spend a lot of my time inserting genes into yeast, so my perspective is a little biased. ^_^;;

Date: 2008-05-27 10:56 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
Also, I wanted to add that I think testing should be done by an independent organization (for pharmaceuticals too!) since the case studies you linked to suggest that most GM companies don't know how to conduct proper controls. -_-;; I'm kind of disgusted at their staff scientists now...this is exactly why I want to stay in academia even if there are more job opportunities in industry.

Date: 2008-05-28 03:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] color-blue.livejournal.com
I'm curious about that, actually. How insulated is your department from the demands of the outside world? Asking because I took a class in nonprofits last year, and we looking at universities for part of the time, and I was really alarmed that they had no set guidelines for dealing with corporations & outside interests, nothing to protect professors who might not be too business-savvy from entering into bad contracts in exchange for research grants, no policies that said that professors carrying out trials had to reveal the affiliations they had with the company that had produced the product being tested, etcetc. And there were some truly horrifying stories about what had happened to a couple of professors that had broken their contracts (when I go home I'll see if I can dig up the article that featured that - don't remember any of the relevant details right now), and other stories that weren't quite as dramatic but still disturbing, because they revealed how dependent the universities had become on corporate money to fund their research (and Berkeley seems to be the center for some of the controversy, too).

Date: 2008-05-28 05:50 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
We spent weeks in our research ethics course discussing these controversies in fact. I would say that the amount of insulation depends on your area of research. If your research has a strong biomedical/agricultural focus, then you're much more likely to get funded by corporations and face potential abuses (losing intellectual property rights, being pressured to patent rather than publish, etc.).

On the other side of the fence, corporations have long been wary about funding academic research because most laboratories rely primarily on federal funding (NIH, NSF), which stipulates that research findings be made publicly accessible. It was only fairly recently that regulations allowed universities to lease licenses to companies to develop products emerging from basic science research (the university "owns" all licenses related to their faculty research). We read a lot of accounts from professors who talked about how frustrating it was to know that their research could have the potential to help people but companies wouldn't touch the idea on the basis of it not likely to make them any profits if they didn't have exclusive rights. For those professors, I suppose the current wave of university-corporate connections aren't such a bad thing.

Personally speaking, I don't anticipate that my research would invite any corporate funding--my interests fall fairly on the far side of basic science--and I also do not want to face the conflict of interest that can easily result from receiving corporate funds. (Professors aren't always the victims! We read numerous cases where professors were either consulting or outright executive officers in a biotech firm, which resulted in their directing their graduate students' research projects to benefit their company rather than the students' careers. Bad mentorship plus oonflict of commitment. Not to mention, cases like the professor who published a lung cancer study and was funded by a tobacco firm but did not report it in the paper. That case still horrifies me.)

Anyway, to return to your question, of course we're not insulated from the demands of the oustide world, in the sense that every laboratory must apply for grants, which usually carry stipulations. People point out that academia is not the safe haven that people generally perceive it to be, which is true, but I think that's glossing over the fact that nonetheless, academia still offers you much more freedom (at a much lower salary) to direct your research the way you want it to. E.g., my stipend is paid by the NIH, my research project is funded by grants that my advisor receives from nonprofit organizations. I would not have this level of freedom in other countries though; no country rivals the U.S. in the amount of federal funding provided for basic research.

Agh, sorry for all the rambling; I'm basically thinking out loud and not being very organized, but these are all interesting topics for discussion. ^_^

Date: 2008-05-29 03:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] color-blue.livejournal.com
It's not rambling at all - I find this fascinating! I'm so glad we're having this discussion, because I'm learning a lot from you, and I agree, these are such interesting topics.


I would say that the amount of insulation depends on your area of research. If your research has a strong biomedical/agricultural focus, then you're much more likely to get funded by corporations and face potential abuses (losing intellectual property rights, being pressured to patent rather than publish, etc.).

Yeahh, I can see that. I wish there was a way to push back against corporate influence in these fields, but I don't think many people are aware of just how pervasive it is.


(Professors aren't always the victims! We read numerous cases where professors were either consulting or outright executive officers in a biotech firm, which resulted in their directing their graduate students' research projects to benefit their company rather than the students' careers. Bad mentorship plus oonflict of commitment. Not to mention, cases like the professor who published a lung cancer study and was funded by a tobacco firm but did not report it in the paper. That case still horrifies me.)

UGH. Is that guy still a professor? Please tell me he's been run out of academia!


People point out that academia is not the safe haven that people generally perceive it to be, which is true, but I think that's glossing over the fact that nonetheless, academia still offers you much more freedom (at a much lower salary) to direct your research the way you want it to. E.g., my stipend is paid by the NIH, my research project is funded by grants that my advisor receives from nonprofit organizations.

That's so comforting to hear!


I would not have this level of freedom in other countries though; no country rivals the U.S. in the amount of federal funding provided for basic research.

Has the gap been closing recently? Curious because my mom works in a national lab, and the federal funding they receive has been decreasing in several areas, but I don't know if the same thing's true of universities. It also seems as if the US economy is doing worse right now than those of most other countries, and I could see politicians thinking that cutting such spending would be a great way of reducing our budget deficit (without realizing/caring that it would make economic recovery more difficult in the long-term and lose us our competitive edge).

Date: 2008-05-29 07:28 pm (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
UGH. Is that guy still a professor? Please tell me he's been run out of academia!

I'm afraid it was a she, and I don't know what's happened to her...I think her papers have been retracted, but I don't know if she's lost her faculty position. Unfortunately, once you have tenure, it's hard to be unseated.

Has the gap been closing recently?

I think it's definitely true that federal funding has been declining in the U.S. but I don't know if other countries have increased direct government funding of research. I know that in South Korea, most academic research is funded by companies (in fact, many of the top science universities were opened by corporations) rather than by the government, and I've heard that the case is similar for many European countries as well. I imagine the numbers will differ from field to field though, and I agree that we have reason to be concerned as the U.S. economy declines because yes, cutting support for scientific research does seem to be a very likely possibility. >_<;; In a climate when competition for funding has already grown intense, it doesn't bode well for academic researchers. ;_;

Date: 2008-06-10 08:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] color-blue.livejournal.com
So, so sorry for the late reply - was out of town, and it took forever to catch up with everything when I got back. Anyway, just wanted to say, thanks so much for the info; I find this stuff fascinating. Also, re: gene therapy, I think that I wouldn't be as biased against it now if I knew that the organizations developing it had the right incentives for doing so - that they were doing it to better people's health, and not just for profit. From what you said, it sounds like a very useful tool if used properly.

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