Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Ezra Kleinian hippie-distancing

A version of something I wrote on email struck a chord with some folks regarding the assertion "GMOs are safe":

The term "safe" should be bifurcated into "safe for human health" and "safe for the general environment".  
GMOs are health-safe so far, with complications regarding farmworkers exposure to pesticide. There are serious concerns and reasons to proceed cautiously on environmental safety, especially for genetic contamination of wild relatives of domestic plants and animals.  
 I think there's a "cool kids" attitude among some, the Ezra Klein types, that tries to show how they're not old-school dirty hippies by expressing love of GMOs.
Incidentally, the term "safe to eat" is carefully chosen - many people conflate that as "safe for people" or just "safe", when it's a nice dodge around the issue of farmworkers' increased exposure to herbicides.*

I think there's also a broader issue here that connects to Ecomodernism and its unhealthy relationship to the unnatural. They're not quite hippie-punching, but they definitely want to show a distance. So to them being unnatural is either everything to be avoided on the natural side of the earth that is to be decoupled from humanity, or nothing to be worried about (and maybe even encouraged) on the parts of the planet where the human footprint should dominate.

Unnatural is a something that needs to be considered, not an everything or a nothing. Unnatural means we can't rely on experience and must rely on our feeble brains instead:
To some, [Ecomodernism] carries a whiff of triumphalism. “For a long time, I’ve been a card-carrying pragmatist about environmental issues, but the pragmatism of the Breakthrough Institute is a pragmatism I don’t recognize,” Ben Minteer, a professor of environmental ethics at Arizona State University and a co-editor of the new anthology “After Preservation,” told me. “I don’t see any of the humility or caution that’s such a central part of pragmatism.”
That doesn't mean don't go ahead, but rather as John Mashey says, "proceed with caution". And maybe don't proceed in some cases - I wouldn't plant GMO crops in regions where the wild originator of the domesticated plant exists, or where the plant spreads widely as a weed.

Unnatural indicates caution in other ways, with nuclear power as an example. The unnatural concentration of long-term radioactive waste is a problem, not something we have experience or even a geological record to understand how it may go wrong in future millenia. Still, it's a limited problem with a limited geographic scope. I'd put it a distant third in terms of the problems of nuclear power, after the distant second of catastrophic accidents, and the by-far number one problem that nuclear costs way too much.

Considering unnaturalness can be done, pragmatically acknowledging our limitations while not letting them control all we do. Ecomodernism misses this.



*GMOs may also result in farmworkers being less exposed to more poisonous herbicides, and to some insecticides. It's complicated, making "safe to eat" a not very comprehensive vision.

39 comments:

Steve Bloom said...

My main concern about GMOs, a commonly-held one you don't mention, is the effect of forcing the evolution of weeds and pests. The worst consequences of that are decades in the future, reminiscent of climate change.

rabbettruncommenter said...

"My main concern about GMOs, a commonly-held one you don't mention, is the effect of forcing the evolution of weeds and pests. The worst consequences of that are decades in the future, reminiscent of climate change."

That's not an issue unique to GMOs, resistance issues occur wherever an organism is suppressed - conventional farming, medicine, organic farming, parasitoid-host systems, food warehousing etc. etc.

"Pest", "Weed" and "Superbug" are all terms for species with a certain trait - the ability to evolve resistance mechanisms quickly and to quickly disperse those mechanisms across the population.

None of this is made any worse by GMOs per se, in fact, certain lines of research are into ways of circumventing the "kill orgainsim-trait evolution-trait dispersal-not kill" cycle of traditional 'cides - through repellents or push-pull systems for example.

Tom said...

On an equally relevant front, Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutchner were married two days ago. Damn Ecomodernism! Damn it to hell!

David B. Benson said...

Nuclear power is less expensive than concentrated solar power, off-shore wind power and large hydro power dams. It is dispatchable which solar PV and on-shore wind are not.

Exusian Transplant said...

Once again Tom demonstrates both his irrelevance and impotence in the same post.

Nigel Franks said...

DBB: the alternative energies that you mention show a negative cost learning curve: their cost is coming down. You can't say the same for nukes. In addition, we need a solution for climate change now, we can't wait decades for nukes to be built.

There is also the problem of ensuring sufficient cool water for cooling and the potential lack of trained personnel. Did I mention the cost?

And why the emphasis on it being dispatchable? It will be many years before renewables make a large enough penetration into the market before that becomes an issue, if it ever doors. With sufficient dispersion of wind and solar and transmission capacity, the concept of dispatchable becomes moot.

Sam said...

Taleb had something out on GMO's a while ago, in which he frets about tail risk from GMOs. It can be read here: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf

Frankly I don't think I know enough to say if he's onto something or not, but I do get the sense that it's an area where we should be treading very carefully, what with our history of making inventions with unintended consequences.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

DBB: Nuclear power is less expensive than concentrated solar power, off-shore wind power and large hydro power dams. It is dispatchable which solar PV and on-shore wind are not.

BPL: Don't you mean MORE expensive?

Capital costs: Much lower for wind, slightly lower for solar.
Fuel costs: Don't make me laugh.
Electricity price: Already lower for solar, wind, AND hydro.

Russell Seitz said...

"That doesn't mean don't go ahead, but rather as John Mashey says, "proceed with caution". And maybe don't proceed in some cases - I wouldn't plant GMO crops in regions where the wild originator of the domesticated plant exists, or where the plant spreads widely as a weed."

That's pretty rich, coming as it does three centuies after Kew, the Jardin Du Roi, and the rest of the artificial archipelago of botanial gardens spread plants from the far corners of one empire into the furthest reaches of all the rest.

That man and nature have survived the homogenization of the biospher in the age of exploration's wake makes one marvel at the hubris of those who expect lesser catastrophes to produce outcomes more dire.

Kevin O'Neill said...

Russell writes: "That man and nature have survived the homogenization of the biospher in the age of exploration's wake ..."

Tell that to the Great Auk, the Dodo, the Quagga, the Passenger Pigeon, Steller's Sea Cow, etc., etc. Many parts of nature have NOT survived the age of exploration and many more seem poised to depart.

But you well know this - so what was the point? Contrary just for contrary's sake?

Gingerbaker said...

[b]"GMOs are health-safe so far..."[/b]

Lack of bad news may not mean safety. GMO foods are not subject to the rigorous metabolic analysis to which pharmaceuticals, for example, are subject. Most of the literature is merely whether GMO foods are as nutritious as control foods.

Pretty amazing, really, since what we might be eating when we eat GMO foods may include several active genetic agents. Agents which have not been fully characterized (alone or in combination with other factors) for their effects on various cell types in humans.

afeman said...

There's an interesting mirror-image parallel with organic farming in that the public emphasis is on the individual risk or benefit when the real difference in on the collective side (whether for labor or ecological considerations). GMO's can reasonably but provisionally tout "no harm proven" for eating, but seem more likely to introduce ecological problems. I've always understood the value proposition of organic agriculture as being primarily better for the environment, but the public stance seems to have turned into purity-based concerns about organics being contaminated with not just regular biocides -- which has always been a possibility -- but with contact with non-organic food. That is, individual consumption becoming paramount to ecological considerations.

Bernard J. said...
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Bernard J. said...
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Bernard J. said...

"None of this is made any worse by GMOs per se,"

Actually, not so.

Different methods of dealing with weed/pest species apply their different pressures in different ways and at different rates. In this regard the simple killing of non-resistant/non-adaptive phenotypes more rapidly selects for those that cope. In an ecosystem, whether natural or artificial, such different rates of response can have a have a profound effect on the evolution of the ecosystem's component species (and thus on the habitat as well).

"...in fact, certain lines of research are into ways of circumventing the "kill orgainsim-trait [sic] evolution-trait dispersal-not kill" cycle of traditional 'cides - through repellents or push-pull systems for example."

In other words, they're attempting to replicate the effects of many non-GE techniques. Why would they do this if the two modes were already equivalent?


"That man and nature have survived the homogenization of the biospher [sic] in the age of exploration's wake makes one marvel at the hubris of those who expect lesser catastrophes to produce outcomes more dire."

Again, not so.

Many species have not survived "homogenization". The loss of species as a result of the introduction of exotic predators, diseases, and competitors attests to this. The hubris, Russell, is to dismiss this loss as not being "dire" for the affected species and their symbionts.

And before anyone attempts to play down the problem by resorting to statistical comparisons of affected vs unaffected species, the globally-introduced disease Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is set to deliver a huge blow to a significant proportion of a whole class of vertebrates (Gascon et al 2007). By any reasonable standard I'd call that "dire".

Bernard J. said...

Ah, I see that Kevin pre-empted my second point. I must learn to refresh.

Hank Roberts said...

GMO -- in general, as a technology, has promise
"Roundup-Ready" GMO crops -- promise that failed.

David B. Benson said...

I use LCOE for the costs. Industrial uses require dispatchability; that will not change.

Of the low carbon dioxide generation methods only nuclear and hydro offer dispatchability.

France built up to about 80% nuclear in two decades or less. Nuclear is a good way to turn off the coal burners.

David B. Benson said...

No, BPL, the LCOE ranking is as I stated. In particular new hydro dams are exceedingly expensive.

Ban Homer Paxton because he's a useless imbecile said...

Thanks for letting us know what John Mashey thinks, Eli. I've always wondered why that colossus of a man hasn't run for president.

Bernard J. said...

From the perspective of farther shores, Mr Imbecile, the USA could do much worse than Dr Mashey as president, and probably not much better.

I'm glad that you agree.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

The cost of fossil fuels is artificially low because no one is explicitly paying for the damage they do. This is called an "externality" in economics. Google it.

Delivered cost of electricity is now lower for solar and wind than for coal in many places. Capital costs are definitely lower for wind, the main reason being that a wind farm takes about 9 months to set up, whereas a nuclear plant takes about 10 years. Even in a country like North Korea where they can set aside environmental and safety rules, nuke plants take 7 years to get up and running. Don't tell me the capital costs are lower for nuclear. It's too easy to look up the figures.

anon said...

From the perspective of farther shores, Mr Imbecile, the USA could do much worse than Dr Mashey as president, and probably not much better.

I'm sure the former shareholders of Silicon Graphics wouldn't agree.

Bart
Tell us more about externaltiies and how such things are computed. I've never heard of such a thing. Honest. Tell us, are benefits counted or just costs?

anon said...

Bart must be on the west coast as he's going seriously delusional smoking all that strong weed. Renews are NOT below the cost of coal, you doofus. Stop propagating the swill rent seekers peddle.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

Anon: Tell us more about externaltiies and how such things are computed. I've never heard of such a thing. Honest. Tell us, are benefits counted or just costs?

BPL: An externality can be a net cost or a net benefit. For example, building infrastructure is a net positive externality. Pollution is a net negative externality.

2nd anon: Bart must be on the west coast as he's going seriously delusional smoking all that strong weed. Renews are NOT below the cost of coal, you doofus. Stop propagating the swill rent seekers peddle.

BPL: You've been reading Dale Carnegie, haven't you?

John said...

To rab(b)ettruncommenter:

You say: " "Pest", "Weed" and "Superbug" are all terms for species with a certain trait - the ability to evolve resistance mechanisms quickly and to quickly disperse those mechanisms across the population. .... None of this is made any worse by GMOs per se,"

You seem to have it backwards.

The pest and weed have traits deemed deleterious to efficient agriculture.
Superbug is a micro organism that has been evolutionarily selected by "overuse" of a particular antibiotic.

None of THEM, per se, have/had the trait of enhanced rate of evolution of resistance that you claim. It is precisely intended mode of action of the (major part) of the extant GMOs (insecticide made/secreted by crops - RoundUp resistant crops) that supply the selection pressure to permit the emergence of pests and weeds that are impervious to those very GMO crops, like the overused antibiotic selected the superbug.

Monsanto finally did acknowledge that their products would eventually make themselves obsolete by selecting for resistance.

They said they are not concerned because they were ready to introduce crops resistant to one of the compounds of the Agent Orange cocktail into industrial agriculture. "The Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently gave Dow Chemical approval to manufacture and sell next generation, genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy that can withstand massive dosing of the herbicide 2,4-D."
http://tinyurl.com/n3ylg7j

Can't wait for the propaganda campaign that will insist on total harmlessness.

John Puma

Hank Roberts said...

This seemed relevant -- click the link for the full item, from author Peter Watts at
http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=6071


----excerpt follows-----
blockquote
“…progress isn’t directly worth the life of a single person. Indirectly, fine. You can be Joseph Stalin as long as you don’t mean to kill anyone. Bomb a dam in a third world shit-hole on which a hundred thousand people depend for water and a thousand kids die of thirst but it wasn’t intentional, right? Phillip Morris killed more people than Mao but they’re still in the Chamber of Commerce. Nobody meant for all those people to die drowning in their own blood and even after the Surgeon General told them the inside scoop, they weren’t sure it caused lung cancer.
“Compare that to the risk calculus in medical research. If I kill one person in ten thousand I’m shut down, even if I’m working on something that will save millions of lives. I can’t kill a hundred people to cure cancer, but a million will die from the disease I could have learned to defeat.”
/blockquote

I’ve stolen this bit of dialog, with permission, from an aspiring novelist who wishes to remain anonymous for the time being. (I occasionally mentor such folks, to supplement my fantastically lucrative gig as a midlist science fiction author.) The character speaking those words is a classic asshole: arrogant, contemptuous of his colleagues, lacking any shred of empathy.

And yet, he has a point....
-------end excerpt--------

Russell Seitz said...

KON
The point is to rumble those obtuse enough not to notice the impact on their environment of alien species: too bad the didn't ship around more dodos and Quggas with all the ornamemnt plants.

Bernard J. said...

It seems that Mr Imbecile is embarrassed that he didn't think through his nom de plume, and has gone entirely incognito...

"I'm sure the former shareholders of Silicon Graphics wouldn't agree."

Oh yes, why? Do tell.

neverendingaudit said...

Dear anon,

I'm sure auditors may not agree with your current line of inquiry.

Thank you for your concerns,

W

Hank Roberts said...

> next generation
Fucking crap, the guy's not making this up.

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gmo-food-20140930-story.html
"A division of Dow Chemical recently won the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for corn and soy that have been bioengineered to withstand spraying with both glyphosate and 2,4-D ..."

In other news: "In March the World Health Organization’s cancer arm classified glyphosate, the world’s most heavily used herbicide, as a probable carcinogen." They recommend not being downwind when it's used.

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gmo-food-20140930-story.html

http://www.agadvance.com/issues/jun-2015/the-great-glyphosate-debate.aspx
http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/07/09/farmers-caught-in-political-debate-whether-herbicide-glyphosate-used-with-gmos-causes-cancer/

______________________________
A committee of honeybees and Monarch butterflies, representing the socialist and the royalist wings of the insect world, has concluded that the simplest solution to this developing problem is to disfavor the primates as an unsuccessful experiment, and that Procyon lotor be brought forward as the next candidate having both thumbs and some potential for developing adequate intelligence to build the spacecraft that the insect world requires to for further expansion.

David B. Benson said...

The South Koreans are building 4 nuclear power plants in the UAE for US$4500 per nameplate kilowatt. The capacity factor will be at least 0.92 so that is US$4891 per deliverable kilowatt.

Assuming the proposed Blue Nile dam can be built for the estimated price and using the capacity factor of the Aswan High Dam, 0.545, this dam will cost US$7333 per deliverable kilowatt.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

DBB,

Watch those nuke projects for "unexpected cost overruns." It's more interesting to see the capital cost per GWe after construction is (eventually) finished.

anon said...

The South Koreans are building 4 nuclear power plants in the UAE for US$4500 per nameplate kilowatt. The capacity factor will be at least 0.92 so that is US$4891 per deliverable kilowatt.

Assuming the proposed Blue Nile dam can be built for the estimated price and using the capacity factor of the Aswan High Dam, 0.545, this dam will cost US$7333 per deliverable kilowatt.


Bespoke reactors are expensive to build. Your point is what exactly? Do you even have one or is this a non-sequitur?


I notice good Old bernardJ is here. Good old Bernard, if the internet is ever sold it will be sold with old Bernie comments at a discount.

Oh yes, why? Do tell.

Ask John Mashed, bernie. He worked there and ran just before it folded into a heap.

David B. Benson said...

South Koreans are building their standard design so have lots of experience. So far the UAE project is on time and at budget.

Brian said...

I welcome correction on this, but my understanding of Integrated Pest Management as it's supposed to be applied against evolved resistance, is that it's based on the assumption that the resistant strains of pests can't compete with the non-resistant strain in conditions where pesticide/herbicide isn't present.

That's the reason why you're supposed to leave an area of your fields free of the pesticide/GMO'd crop, so the non-resistant strain can persist there. I'm less clear on what comes next, but it seems to involve once in a while eliminating the use of the pesticide/herbicide entirely. The non-resistant strain then leaves the reserve area and replaces the resistant strain. Then you can start using the treatment again.

Supposedly this solves the problem of evolved resistance, if done correctly. Doing it correctly can be tricky, though.

Russell Seitz said...

Has the Ezra Kleine Nachtmusik distanced the hippies yet?

Jeffrey Davis said...

Surely the expression "GMOs are safe" means "some GMOs are safe as far we can tell after a few years of testing." It can't possibly mean "All GMOs are safe. Period." If it did mean "All GMOs are safe. Period." Monsanto (et al) wouldn't need to test future products and that GMOs would be in a class of safety far beyond oxygen and water.

Jeffrey Davis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.