Tuesday, November 26, 2002

The future of the dairy industry [J. Agricultural and Food Chem. -- requires subscription]
The trend of commodity milk to ever decrease in economic value means that dairy farming has to continually become more efficient simply to survive. Economy of scale provides an obvious way of reducing costs. In developed countries, and excepting those where the small farm unit is being maintained by subsidies for cultural and other reasons, the single-family farm is becoming economically nonviable. The trend is either for a larger farm based around a family unit, with additional labor, typically milking from 200 to 500 cows, or for farms run as a milk production business based on herd sizes of 1000-5000 cows. Future trends will undoubtedly see a decrease in single-family units and migration to a larger herd format....

The consumer seems to have the power to bring about change. In reality, it is often the major retailing chains that have the real power, and they base their decisions on what they believe the consumers want. This is of some concern to the dairy industry because the supermarket chains exert enormous power over the dairy value chain, and consumer concerns can be strongly over-represented by vocal minorities. If the buyers for the retail chains do not fully understand this, there is a real chance of retail outlets distorting the true market for dairy (and other) products.

These industrial scientists have an incredible inability to imagine a logic that isn't inexorable. According to the UFW site just mentioned, 7� of every dollar you spend on apples goes to farmers, 4� to workers. 68� goes to supermarkets. If the dairy numbers are anything like that, isn't increasing concentration in an attempt to survive on ever-slimmer margins the least rational response to the problem?
Jim Hightower goes organic for Thanksgiving: good article, with some interesting links, like the local organic initiative in green Chicago, and the UFW fair trade apple project.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Holidays, moving, and the unfortunate necessities of work mean that I will be unable to maintain a constant stream of new outrages here for a while. But I'll do what I can. For the moment we have:

stupid aussie GM sheep;
researchers hard at work on ending world hunger... well, actually, they are just trying to reduce hay fever;
the latest USDA ERS newsletter attempts to deny the deleterious effects of vertical integration in the livestock industry;
British shitstorm over campylobacter infection in organic chickens [Independent | Soil Association] -- in which connection the Guardian reveals it costs £15 for an organic chicken. ouch.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

There's an absurd internet petition to Chirac not to pardon Jos� Bov� [see yesterday]. It is only notable as the creation of "Andura Smetacek," whose fakeness was extensively discussed by George Monbiot on Tues.
According to the Chron, a Hungarian inventor in Silicon Valley is claiming a patent on the fractal analysis of introns ("junk DNA"). Looking at his website, it's hard to believe this isn't a joke. On the other hand, Craig Venter appears to take himself seriously... [Post | BBC]
The LA Times magazine did a profile of Bill Niman on Sunday. The author (whose last name is undoubtedly, if circuitously, derived from the Indo-European word for cow) has some problems with english grammar, and has obviously never eaten at Chez Panisse
In the Bay Area, his home turf, where culinary passion is rivaled perhaps only by New York, Niman enjoys something bordering on rock star status. His is one of the few brands, as with Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Liberty Duck, that is touted by name on restaurant menus.
[I count 9 brands this week -- you must realize that when Alice says "Bob's turnips," it is a brand]. But it's mildly interesting.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

So little time: Jos� Bov� sentenced to 14 months [NYT]; Le Monde weighs in (rather gaulishly)
Pourtant, il est clair que Jos� Bov� n'est pas un d�linquant comme les autres. Il agit en militant politique, au service d'une cause, qu'il d�fend � sa mani�re, et il serait normal qu'il soit jug� comme tel.
You mean, by sending him to jail for breaking the law? [cf. this bilingual reactionary].
Forbes has a dilemma:
Increasing numbers of large corporations find themselves caught between two seemingly contradictory goals: satisfying investors' expectations for progressive earnings growth and consumers' growing demand for social responsibility.
And a very interesting paper [requires subscription to Blackwell-Synergy] in the new Plant Journal. I will attempt to decipher it later -- here's the abstract:
To more fully characterize the internal structure of transgene loci and to gain further understanding of mechanisms of transgene locus formation, we sequenced more than 160 kb of complex transgene loci in two unrelated transgenic oat (Avena sativa L.) lines transformed using microprojectile bombardment. The transgene locus sequences from both lines exhibited extreme scrambling of non-contiguous transgene and genomic fragments recombined via illegitimate recombination. A perfect direct repeat of the delivered DNA, and inverted and imperfect direct repeats were detected in the same transgene locus indicating that homologous recombination and synthesis-dependent mechanism(s), respectively, were also involved in transgene locus rearrangement. The most unexpected result was the small size of the fragments of delivered and genomic DNA incorporated into the transgene loci via illegitimate recombination; 50 of the 82 delivered DNA fragments were shorter than 200 bp. Eleven transgene and genomic fragments were shorter than the DNA lengths required for Ku-mediated non-homologous end joining. Detection of these small fragments provided evidence that illegitimate recombination was most likely mediated by a synthesis-dependent strand-annealing mechanism that resulted in transgene scrambling. Taken together, these results indicate that transgene locus formation involves the concerted action of several DNA break-repair mechanisms.
Good Idea, Poindexter [New Scientist]
Engineers are working on software to load every photo you take, every letter you write - in fact your every memory and experience - into a surrogate brain that never forgets anything.... "Imagine being able to run a Google-like search on your life," says Gordon Bell, one of the developers.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Justin Gillis had a pair of ProdiGene stories (1, 2) in the Post over the weekend, which revealed that 1) this has happened before; 2) the company is dying to get around the (rather limited) restrictions already in place. Yawn. The CEO says the (unnamed) protein was intended to prevent an (unnamed) viral disease in pigs. Now why don't I believe that? A google search on ProdiGene turns up this shady sponsored link, along with the fresh news that they are going to fork over more than $2 million to buy the contaminated soybeans... Strangely, these "revelations" come only 2 weeks after the biopharming industry announced "voluntary" restictions on itself (remember?) Must be coincidence... another fortuitous coincidence is that GE Food Alert's most recent report [scroll down] happens to be on biopharming (if anyone has the patience to wade through the stupid fucking .doc file, let me know what it says).

Meanwhile, Skimble has Monbiot's latest column in the Guardian, with further details of how industry-funded PR hacks are assuming fake identities to plaster message boards with anti-"activist" crap. Too bad the brilliant scientists who control our future forgot to explain TCP/IP to their whores.

Sticking with annoying formats, Pew will webcast a conference on media and biotech food on Thurs., for masochistically early risers and the east coast elite; IFPRI considers benefits and problems of the Green Revolution [pdf, but worth it]; you can read posts to the latest FAO biotech forum (on research in developing countries) in blessed HTML.

The economist John List has an article in PNAS online [subscription required; cf. NSU summary] that purports to test neoclassical market theory in the real world (using Ben Oglivie baseball cards):
Neoclassical theory assumes that the market is always efficient -- that goods are optimally distributed to those who want them. Defenders of free-market economics cite this as an advantage of unrestricted trade: it guarantees the most efficient allocation of goods....

It depends, [List] says, on buyers' and sellers' experience. Efficiency was highest when buyers who had been attending shows for years traded with sellers who were relative novices. This situation made it easier for buyers to get what they were after.

When both buyers and sellers were experienced -- a situation that better represents many real economic markets -- the average efficiency was lowest, at 82%. Here the canniness of both groups frustrated their attempts to buy and sell.

In other words, the market is only "efficient" when the "insiders" can screw over the rest of us. Just in case you haven't realized that yet. How's your 401(k)?

Monday, November 18, 2002

Industry naturally claims that the ProdiGene incident proves the effectiveness of our regulatory regime (stupid farmer!). hmm...
Plus, a dissection of the methodological flaws in Quist & Chapela's Mexican corn paper, for those of you who speak molecular.

Friday, November 15, 2002

From Science 298 (5594): 703
1) To avoid getting advice that is discordant with the administration's political agenda, the secretary [of HHS, Tommy Thompson] disbanded the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee and DHHS's Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, both of which were attempting to craft solutions to the complex problems accompanying genetic testing and research; solutions that apparently conflicted with the religious views of certain political constituencies.

2) To ensure that the department would get no unwanted advice from its environmental health advisory committees, the secretary has stacked them with scientists long affiliated with polluting industries. Fifteen of the 18 members of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) have been replaced, many with scientists that have long been associated with the chemical or petroleum industries, often in leadership positions of organizations opposing public health and environmental regulation. Similarly, the secretary has appointed industry-supported scientists to DHHS's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention, threatening a planned review by the committee of whether the Centers for Disease Control's definition of "elevated blood lead levels" in children is sufficiently protective.

From Science 298 (5597): 1335. Tommy is also fucking with low-level peer-review commitees:
In contrast to policy advisory boards, where the potential for political conflict is recognized and members are supposed to represent a range of views, study section members are selected for their expertise in research and may not consider the relevance of the projects they review to specific government policies.

This level of political interference with peer review is an ominous precedent for research throughout the federal government. I am not aware of attempts to manipulate the membership of other DHHS study sections, but many aspects of human biology and medicine are controversial, and there is no assurance that the same tactics will not be used elsewhere. All scientists who have served as reviewers or rely on study sections for expert, unbiased reviews should be concerned, and so should the end-users of the knowledge that federally funded research generates.

From Science 298 (5597): 1334b. An army appointee to its science board [ASB] was rejected by the White House (based on information from Open Secrets!) for contributing to McCain's campaign:
I went to the Web site (still active) and saw that a William S. Howard, a retiree from Fairfax, VA, had contributed twice for a total of $1000 to McCain's campaign. Because "S" is not my middle initial, I do not live in Fairfax, VA, and the zip code listed on the Web site is not the same as mine, and because I had made no such contributions, I asked the ASB to try to reverse the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] decision. They demurred, saying that they did not want to upset the OSD White House Liaison Office.
Tidbits from the Times today include an amusing dissection of how the new house leadership is too stupid to count, or was somehow unaware that the crazed anti-abortion terrorists (i.e., their confrères) were going to kill their dickensian bankruptcy bill; the latest installment in the venal saga of Jack Grubman; and a good point about stock "analysts":
Occasionally an analyst gives the bankers and their clients the higher ratings they want � often with a tepidly positive rating like "outperform." But in the candid conversations between analysts and institutional investors, the nuances of an investment are discussed. Official ratings almost never come up....

But someone forgot to tell small investors how all this worked. When analysts, more out of laziness than corruption, allowed reports or ratings to persist that didn't reflect their latest views, they misled investors who didn't have access to the financial world's cozy candor. For this, analysts deserve part of the blame for the losses amateur investors incurred.

More blame, however, should go to those who never explained to small investors how even the best Wall Street research is conditional, fluid and fallible. In their celebration of the limitless possibilities of stock ownership, online brokers, traditional brokers and the press created a culture of reckless, ill-informed investing. They were aided in this by a particularly unconscionable group of blow-dried analysts and fund managers -- mostly in the technology and telecommunications sectors -- who went out of their way to reduce the complex, hazardous investing process into breezy sound bites. They were partly aided by the bubble itself, which seemed to make everyone from about 1994 on forget that stocks could actually go down.

Update: The douchebags managed to get their act together, scrap the key abortion amendment, and pass the bankruptcy bill well after midnight. It will die in the Senate, only to be reborn in more virulent form next year.
McDonald's paid EA for placement in the Sims online. Tony Walsh at Shift [via AlterNet] has some ideas for virtual civil disobedience. Or you can just play the (dumb) French Flash José Bové game.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

This is the best fucking thing I've read in a long time [from skimble]:
Clinton wanted to do something about al-Qaida operations in Afghanistan late in his second term, his cruise missile attacks on the group's facilities in August 1998 having achieved little. He approached Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said, according to the book,"It would scare the (expletive) out of al-Qaida if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters in to the middle of their camp. It would get us an enormous deterrence and show those guys we're not afraid."
Who says Democrats are soft on foreign policy? Seriously, imagine how hard al-Qaida would shit their pants if the USAF dropped out of the sky and fucking formed Voltron on their ass? Ninjas are really kind of weak, Bill -- compared to a giant robot made out of mechanical lions. Sure you wouldn't rather send the A-team in there? About time for one of our plans to come together. (Saddam bears a suspicious resemblance to Megatron, who could definitely kick Voltron's ass, if his megalomania didn't foil his plans...)
Occasionally, Safire makes a good point. I'm not sure how much credit he gets for noting the blindingly obvious axis-of-evil Office of Information Awareness (particularly since Reason had the story in September -- oh yeah, me too). But at least the douchebags take him seriously. Don't they?

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Tormented vegetarians should read Pollan's article on "animal rights" (really, it's about industrial agriculture, of course) in Sunday's Times Magazine.
I believe your language has a word for this: Schadenfreude.
North Dakota State has commingled its "regular" soybean seed with GM soy (they're blaming the Chileans); Nebraska soy has been contaminated with human protein pharm corn in field trials -- Scott Kilman has more details (blame the farmer!) in the WSJ:
According to authorities, the problem in this case started last year when ProdiGene contracted with a Nebraska farmer to grow an experimental corn crop on a small plot of land. When the test was completed, the same farmer this year planted conventional soybeans on the land. However, some seed left over from last year's experiment grew into plants in that soybean field, officials said.

Cindy Smith, deputy administrator of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said one of her inspectors in early October noted the volunteer corn plants during a routine inspection and warned the farmer to destroy them. According to Ms. Smith, the government is investigating why that didn't happen.

The American Corn Growers Association says:
The history of the agribusiness sector is to exploit farmers, capturing the lion�s share of commodity value by holding down raw commodity prices paid at the farm level and then raising processed product prices to consumers. Why would bio-pharming and bio-products be any different?

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The people who are actually trying to "end hunger" are a little skeptical of the power of biotech [Independent]
The charities say GM crops are likely to create more poverty. They point out that hunger is not caused by a shortage of food, but because the poor cannot afford to buy it.
October 18, 1977 [NYT]
Ulrike Meinhof's daughter is suing the German government to get her mother's brain back.

Friday, November 08, 2002

The Institute of Food Technologists has announced that organic food is dangerous! The reason is highly complicated science stuff that you probably won't understand:
IFT reveals that scientific information is insufficient to ensure that foodborne pathogens are killed during composting and applying manure.
Oh, OK. Who wants more E. coli with their Broccoflower? Let's just engineer our food to outlive the bacteria (China likes it) -- that's probably easier than figuring out how to compost.

Plus, more on bio-pharming [cf. Tues.]; "civil society" weighs in on the Mexican corn (these people have issues, but no one else is doing anything...); Schmeiser appeals to the Supreme Court. Featuring this excellent Rummy-style quote:

"The actual case is pretty cut and dried," said Canada's spokesperson for Monsanto Co., Trish Jordan, "Mr. Schneider was found guilty of patent violation. This was no accident."

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Cyclonic research to improve irradiation:
Our invention eliminates off-odor problems produced by irradiation. Also, color changes in raw and cooked meat can be minimized. Currently, there are no known or available methods for solving off-odor and pink problems in irradiated poultry and pork. By using irradiation technology in meat, the safety of meat will be greatly increased.
Here's an idea: stop slaughtering livestock in a miasma of their own terror-induced shit spray. Maybe that would improve meat safety, asshole.

Or you could just devote a small fraction of the energy spent on violating OSHA regulations to improving conditions for your indentured immigrants and the meat they contaminate for us. Some meatpacking articles, by Schlosser, Olsson, Schlosser and Olsson.

Got meat?

Update 11/7: Just barely ahead of the curve: Patricia Callahan writes in today's WSJ

In the wake of two of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history, however, irradiated beef is becoming one of the hottest trends in the meat case. Supermarkets are betting that a rash of illnesses and deaths from meat contaminated with strains of E.coli and listeria bacteria will make the product more palatable to consumers.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Outrageous Fortune
The last two years was nothing. This is going to make the 80's look arcadian.
Deep into the night, the punditocracy's infernal fire added a thousand insults to the overwhelming injury of the senate. A mormon was elected governer of my home state. Oregon's GM-labelling initiative was crushed with a mere $5 million in last-minute agribusiness money. In my adoptive homeland of the liberal elite, a measure that would have sent people to jail for 6 months for selling non-Fair Trade coffee was resoundingly defeated (it would have been amusing to see what happened). At least a minnesotesque turnout sent our own voice in the wilderness to suffer through the coming rapture with 80% of the vote. Appropriate epitaph for American "democracy":
Local voters appeared to like the idea of hiring 100 new cops and spending more money on crime-prevention programs but didn't want to tax themselves to pay for it, according to early election returns Tuesday night.�
Details at 11.

Someone else named Max posted Wallace Stevens, apparently as an epitaph for the Democratic Party or the "American Left". Whatever, it's a great fucking poem. Let the finale be of seem.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Christmas is coming. Do you get the most important catalog in the world?

Actually, it's a good idea. I think.

It seems some people are less confident in the efficacy of our allegedly crippling regulatory environment to ensure the safety of the food supply than they normally let on.
Bio-pharming is widely seen as the next wave for the crop-biotechnology sector, which so far has focused on making crops easier to grow. Industry officials hope this nascent field, which exploits the ability of plants to make medically important proteins at far less expense than fermentation factories, will grow into a multibillion-dollar business by the end of the decade.

But politically powerful trade groups for the $500 billion food sector are preparing to lobby federal regulators for new rules that would make life far more difficult for bio-pharming firms. The food industry, which has been generally supportive of crop biotechnology thus far, might try to enlist consumers in its drive to take food crops out of the hands of bio-pharming businesses.

"If need be, we could even go to the public," said Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C. Most food executives have long supported the push by biotech companies into agriculture, anticipating the creation of crops that would taste better, stay fresh longer and no longer trigger allergic reactions in consumers.

But they don't want their favorite crops genetically modified for anybody else. Many food executives are afraid that vaccines, enzymes, antibodies and hormones might accidentally end up in their products, which would trigger expensive recalls. They are worried that handling mishaps might occur and that pollen from plants designed for pharmaceutical purposes might drift far enough on the wind to impregnate related crops intended for food.

[Article by Scott Kilman in today's WSJ].

Monday, November 04, 2002

Entertaining interview with Michel Chapoutier, France's biggest biodynamic winegrower, who compares California chardonnays to "giving Pinnochio a blowjob."
Nature Biotechnology reports on problems with India's Bt cotton trials
However, reports from non-government organizations (NGOs) suggest the crop is failing. Officials in Andhra Pradesh say that Bt cotton in the state is underperforming, and Gujarati newspapers have reported that there has been heavy bollworm infestation of Bt cotton, which was also found susceptible to leaf-curl virus and root-rot disease, and that in Madhya Pradesh, Bt cotton suffered greater damage due to drought than traditional varieties grown there.
Also, a discussion of peer review and the Nature/Quist and Chapela controversy.
11/15: more (& more optimistic) on the Indian Bt cotton crop...

Friday, November 01, 2002

The Globe has more on Harken.

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