Wednesday, September 14, 2005

And you will suffocate in your waste

Surely we are at a point in history when someone can come up with a better word than "blog". I shudder every time I even think it. This started before my mom asked me what a "blog" was, even before some douchebag invented the "-osphere". [Who was that? Mickey Kaus? He seems like just the kind of douche who would do something like that]. Remember in the '90s when people realized how pathetic it sounded that they were going out to a "club", so they starting calling them "parties" instead? Ultimately even more pathetic, but at least everyone stopped saying club, except for 50 Cent. Now is the time for a similarly transparent ploy to make teh internets seem less lame. Please help.

Back in the olden days, this "blog" got started, more or less, when I got excercised about genetically modified food. I just wanted to figure out what the deal was without all the bullshit. So I did a little reading, then realized that no one else could read the interesting shit without 10 million subscriptions to page turners like Nature Biotechnology and Transgenic Research (those 2 alone would cost you more than $2000/year). A "blog" was born.

Of course, no one paid attention until I got bored and started writing about stupid food writers instead of stupid scientists. Not that anyone's paying attention now. But still no one really knows what to think about GM food, except in a general Frankensteinian way.

[Mere days after I praised the pluot, one of the guys selling them at the farmer's market (not a farmer, obvs.) told a customer that they weren't hybrids, because hybrids aren't organic. Clearly we have some work to do.]

Thus I direct your attention to Peter H. Raven, "Transgenes in Mexican maize: Desirability or inevitability?" PNAS 102/37: 13003-13004. For those of you without a subscription:

It has generally been accepted for about three decades that the process of producing transgenic organisms does not pose any threat in itself. Furthermore, no credible argument has been offered as to why such organisms would, as a class, pose a threat to human health. Hundreds of millions of people have been consuming foods derived from transgenic plants for ~10 years, and no health problems have been reported, nor has any credible reason been advanced as to why such a problem should be expected. As for environmental problems, such as the origin of novel weeds, none has been observed with the transgenic crops currently grown, although such problems certainly remain a theoretical possibility for novel genes not yet approved and introduced. Modern agriculture of any kind, with its cleaner, more productive fields, certainly harbors less biodiversity than more traditional, less productive forms of agriculture, but that is not a criticism of transgenic crops....

Whether or not transgenes are present in landraces in Oaxaca at present, they will inevitably be found in them as time passes, because of the nature of the indigenous agriculture I have just described. There they will persist if they confer a selective advantage on the plants in which they occur, or they may disappear if they do not confer such an advantage in the prevailing conditions.... As Ortiz-Garcia et al. have pointed out, it is unlikely that the presence of transgenes could reduce the genetic diversity of the landraces in which they might occur. In general, for the landraces of maize in Mexico or for any other populations, their genetic characteristics should remain essentially unchanged unless there is strong selection for whole constellations of characteristics from radically different strains of maize, conditions that have not been observed in southern Mexico.

My overall conclusion, therefore, is that the introduction of the transgenes currently in use for maize poses no danger to maize near its center of origin, to the Mexicans, or generally.

There are reasons to demur about all of these points, but they are theoretical. All the evidence -- and there is a good amount of it now -- points to the safety of GM crops. Not to say that there never will be any evidence to the contrary, or that they survive a cost-benefit analysis for anyone but Monsanto, but hysteria is unwarranted.

One may still argue that the scientific-industrial approach to the problems of industrial agriculture is not a solution at all, but rather an infinite deferral thereof, with ever-diminishing returns. In this case, it is hard to see how industrial corn addresses the problems of Oaxacan subsistance farmers except by forcing them off the land.

Raven alludes to this delicately:

Some of the genetic variability of landraces can be maintained by encouraging indigenous cultivators to keep growing their distinctive strains. To do so effectively would probably require economic incentives for the cultivators, because they are often poor and apt to seek alternative lifestyles outside of the areas to which they are indigenous.

The important point, notwithstanding Raven's cavalier attitude to Oaxacan "lifestyles," is the poverty of his understanding of maize. One need not invoke mesoamerican creation myths to appreciate that for Oaxacans (and millions of other Americans) maize is a bit more than a commodity crop whose cultivation "rationally" responds to the market's dictates. Maize is more than a "staple", more even than a "cultural signifier"; dismissing the chance, however small, that the CMV promoter, or sh2, or any other trait from US factories will inadvertently end up in the "landraces" that Zapotecs and their neighbors have been selecting carefully for millennia is, simply, colonialism.


Well. That took longer than I thought. Let us never speak of this again. Probably won't get to the rest of the internets for a while. See the Cod for this week's DI/DO madness.

If I had server space, I'd post the appropriate soundtrack here: Soundgarden's cover of "Into the Void" with lyrics by Chief Seattle. Genius. Instead, I'm going to try to enable comments, which is free, and see what happens.


Blogger mzn said...

I really like the word blog. I like the way it sounds like "blah, blah, blah," and I like the way it wounds like "blob." It makes me grin when I say it, never shudder.

Thu Sep 15, 02:04:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your website, keep it up. I have one that you may enjoy.


Thu Sep 15, 03:31:00 PM GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, this one was me, not the other one. That must have been genuine spam, which seems appropriate given this is a food blog.


Fri Sep 16, 04:09:00 PM GMT  
Blogger skimble said...

I like your science opinions and skullduggery mixed up with your food opinions.

Tue Sep 20, 11:37:00 PM GMT  

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