Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, August 29, 2014

What am I missing?

This seems to me very simple and obvious. It is not among the goals of police work to shoot and kill unarmed citizens. If that happens, we can conclude that the police officer did not follow a proper protocol, and the officer's conduct was not what we expect of police officers. The proof of this is the dead person.

It is preposterous to say that the officer may be justified in his actions and that this may be a "good shoot," as they say. Res ipsa loquitur. You had a live, healthy, unarmed person presenting no danger to anyone. Now you have a dead person. That is bad. The police officer did it. The police officer did a bad thing. We can go ahead and learn more about the events but we already know enough to say the above. QED.

And, if I may go on, what Americans do not seem to understand is that the purpose of guns is to kill. Guns are machines designed and manufactured for the sole purpose of killing large metazoans, including humans. That is all they are good for. That is why they exist. That anybody would think that a child should be taught that it is fun to shoot guns is just sick. If you happen to be among the few people on earth who feed themselves by hunting wild animals, then it's your job, and maybe you need to teach your children how to do it assuming they will survive by the same means. Otherwise, the purpose of guns is to kill humans. That is not fun.

Automatic rifles are for the latter purpose -- killing humans -- only. If you think that you should provide your nine year old child with the fun experience of using a machine that exists for the sole purpose of slaughtering humans, you are depraved. And depravity is, of course, a God-given right embodied in the sacred Second Amendment to the Constitution, the only one that counts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GMO Deception: the final word

It pains me to write this, because Sheldon Krimsky is a friend and mentor, and someone I really admire. But I have to tell it like it is.

As I said last time, all new technologies are likely to have unintended consequences. Furthermore, corporate patent owners aren't in business to save humanity, they are in business to make profit. It is indubitably wise to approach new technologies, and the promises of their purveyors, with skepticism. I believe that the following are entirely respectable arguments:

1) The Roundup/Roundup Ready system is a bad deal for farmers, for consumers, for the rural economy, and for all of us as inhabitants of the biosphere. It does not increase the food supply, it just substitutes capital for labor in agriculture. And that won't last long, as glyphosate resistant weeds proliferate. By the way, one more thing, glyphosate has been killing the milkweed that normally like to grow on the edges of farm fields, devastating the monarch butterflies that depend on it. Roundup is not harmless to animal life either, as Monsanto claims, especially because of its so-called "inert" ingredients which are actually toxic surfactants. There is a good case to be made for banning this system.

That said, this is not an indictment of GMO technology, but of a single implementation. Glyphosate resistance could have been achieved by conventional breeding, in principle. That wouldn't make any difference.

2) Crops that produce Bt are less problematic because farmers would use insecticides anyway. If anything, Bt crops mean less pesticide exposure for farmers and farmhands, and as insecticides go, Bt is among the least obnoxious. Although it is possible for relatively small scale farmers to use pest control practices that seldom require use of insecticides, it is not practical to feed the world without them as of now. But there's a good chance that your local insects will become resistant to Bt and you'll have to start spraying other stuff again in due course. So it's not a long term solution to anything.

3) It is true that GMO crops with useful properties other than chemical pest control have not been taken up on a large scale. They don't seem to work very well and aren't particularly appealing to farmers. Conventional breeding can apparently do about as good a job of improving drought resistance and salt tolerance, and achieving reduced nutrient requirements, and so far there haven't been any major breakthroughs in these areas from GM.

4) You can certainly argue that new technologies could have unpredictable effects and that we need to do more research to establish safety than we have been doing. Probably the regulatory regime is inadequate and we're certainly nuts to trust the manufacturers to do the research, decide what gets published, and assure us that it's all safe. I'm not as alarmed about the safety and nutritional properties of GMO crops as the editors and contributors to The GMO Deception seem to be, but it's not crazy to take precautions.

So yes, we ought to be having more of a public discussion about not only GMO, but agricultural practices, pesticide regulation, and the farm economy in general. There are extremely important issues, including fossil fuel inputs, nutrient runoff, the exploitation of farm labor, water shortage, hunger (which is not because there isn't enough food in the world, at least not yet), we could go on and on. Genetic engineering vs. conventional breeding is not really a meaningful category here, in my view. Every question must be considered on its own merits.

So that bring us to the book. The publicist's e-mail to me was headlined "Easily digestible look at the GMO debate." Alas, it is not easily digestible. On the one hand, the dozens of essays repeat the same information and arguments innumerable times; on the other hand, they leave perplexing gaps. As I said before, their chronological order is completely random. You'll read a set of dire predictions written in the 1980s and never learn if any of them came true. You'll read an alarmed critique of the regulatory regime in 1990 and you're on your own trying to figure out if the information is updated somewhere else in the volume. Slogging through this is nearly impossible.

At the same time, the depth of analysis and quality of evidence presented is often very thin. There is much argument by assertion, and generally a failure to seriously engage the arguments of those with opposing views. The reader does not get any sense of the debate, only an unrelenting polemic, some of which has already been debunked.

The world is crying out for a coherent, readable, intelligible and intellectually responsible discussion of these issues. Kudos to the editors for trying to bring attention and rebalance the debate, but this book isn't it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Another GMO deception

Alas, the publishers of The GMO Deception had bad timing in one respect. One of the essays in the book, by Indrani Barpujari and Birendra Brau, alleges that suicides of farmers in India are caused by the widespread adoption of cotton that expresses the insecticide Bt. The basic idea is that the seeds are much more expensive than traditional seeds, driving the farmers into debt. (The essay was first published in 2007, and no attempt is made in the volume to bring the information up to date, a highly annoying feature of this book I mentioned in my first post about it.)

Now Michael Specter in the New Yorker gives this a massive, compelling debunking. It turns out that yeah, the seeds cost more, but the farmers save more than that on pesticides. And they also avoid exposing themselves and their families to sprayed insecticides. Although agriculture in India is economically stressed, it has nothing to do with GMO crops.

As I posted to Pharyngula:

It’s unfortunate that the discussion of GMO crops has been polluted, as it were, by tendentious hogwash on the part of opponents as well as proponents. It makes it very difficult to have a reasoned discussion of the issues because if you take a critical stance on some particular, you get lumped in with the anti-GMO crazies, whereas if you have anything nice to say about any particular application of GM you get lumped in with the rapacious capitalists.
I hope we can avoid that here. Every technology — every technology — has unintended ill effects. Take for example the automobile. It is a scientific fact that internal combustion engines work, and get you from point A to point B faster than horses. They can be made more or less safe, and more or less polluting, and there may be ways to make the other social externalities (e.g. urban sprawl and obesity and highways that slice through communities and all that stuff) less bad. But the costs and benefits of automobile-related policy and regulation are properly subject to debate, the possible costs now including the devastation of the planetary ecology and human civilization. And the automobile manufacturers obviously cannot be taken at face value when they make claims. The same goes for GMO crops and Monsanto.

Unfortunately, The GMO Deception is often tendentious and fails to contribute to the prospects for such a reasoned discussion. People just get dug in and then there's no possibility of movement.

To Be Continued.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Roundup Ready

Okay, back to the GMO thing. Although GMO proponents claim that genetic engineering can produce crops that are drought resistant, salt resistant, higher yielding, need less fertilizer, and all sorts of other wonderfulness that can benefit small farmers and help feed the world, in fact all but a tiny fraction of actually existing GMO crops are engineered for one of two properties: herbicide resistance, and natural expression of the insecticide Bt toxin.

The biggest sellers are Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soy, corn, cotton and canola seeds. These are resistant to Monsanto's big-selling herbicide Roundup, which is a formulation of the plant toxin glyphosate. I happened to do some research on glyphosate back when I was getting my M.A. in environmental policy. It's a very broad spectrum herbicide, i.e. it kills everything that's green, ordinarily. Roundup contains what Monsanto calls "inert" ingredients that aren't even regulated. In fact they are powerful detergents, added to help wet the leaves, which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. But I digress.

Roundup Ready crops actually have lower yields than their competitors. The benefit to farmers is that they reduce labor crops. You don't have to till and otherwise manually control weeds. Just spray the whole field, kill everything, then plant. You can spray again if you want to. But, you aren't allowed to save your own seeds and plant them next year. You have to buy the seeds, and the Roundup, from Monsanto every year. As you can see, this gives an economic advantage to large, capital intensive farms over small, labor intensive farms. More about that later. For now . . .

If you keep spraying a single herbicide in the same place year after year, what do you think will happen? If GMO organisms can be glyphosate resistant, well, plants can evolve that same property on their own. And they do. A distaster is now in the making. Quoth the New York Times:

Botanists call the weed palmer amaranth. But perhaps the most fitting, if less known, name is carelessweed. In barely a decade, it has devastated Southern cotton farms and is poised to wreak havoc in the Midwest — all because farmers got careless. [er no, as the article goes on to say that's not why] . . .

Palmer, as farmers nicknamed it, is the most notorious of a growing number of weeds that are immune to the gold standard of herbicides, glyphosate.. . .  After Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate in the 1990s, the herbicide’s use soared. Farmers who once juggled an array of herbicides — what killed weeds in a cotton field might kill cornstalks in a cornfield — suddenly had a single herbicide that could be applied to almost all major crops without harming them. But constantly dousing crops in glyphosate exacted a price. Weeds with glyphosate-resisting genetic mutations appeared faster and more often — 16 types of weed so far in the United States. A 2012 survey concluded that glyphosate-resistant weeds had infested enough acreage of American farmland to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and that the total infestation had grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Ga. Nine years later, they are in at least 24 states.
So now farmer are going back to manual extirpation and rotating herbicides. But for many, it's too late. Palmer is almost impossible to eradicate. It produces thousands of seeds that can germinate throughout the growing season, has a large dense root system, and grows back after you cut it down. Some farmers have had no choice but to mow their entire crops. The Roundup/Roundup Ready system is now useless for them and it may take decades for some farmers to regain control of their fields. So you can go ahead and eat the GMO food, but you still might have a guilty conscience.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I wouldn't want you to miss . .

This New York Times correction.

An Op-Ed essay on Monday described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

I'll get back on the GMO thing shortly. But I interrupt that series to note something deeply shameful about the United States. Kurdistan has accepted hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, most of whom are neither Kurdish nor Moslem, despite that (de facto) country's limited resources. Nobody there is visibly complaining about it, and they're doing what they can. As the linked article says, the UN is finally making a major relief effort. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and Syrians, are also in Jordan and Turkey, as well as Kurdistan.

A few tens of thousands of desperate, hungry and frightened children show up on our border and the locals organize demonstrations to prevent them from being sheltered, carrying racist signs, and blocking buses. We are a sick society.

Monday, August 18, 2014

GMO, continued

Okay, back to work. (I did a site visit on Friday and didn't feel like blogging over the weekend.) The GMO Deception is a collection of essays, mostly short, and mostly reprinted from the newsletter Gene Watch. They may date anywhere from the 1980s to the present, and they are in no particular chronological arrangement. This makes it quite difficult for the reader to develop a coherent understanding of the history, or even of the current state of affairs. One must pay close attention to the dates of the various contributions and then try to put things in order. It's always a chore and sometimes impossible. We'll read a passionate polemic decrying the regulatory regime of 1990 or worrying about gaps in knowledge in 1985, and then we're responsible for trying to find, somewhere else in the book, what has become of the situation.

This puts a substantial burden on the reviewer, because I'm not even sure I have everything straight and I've even had to do a bit of independent research to figure out what's going on. I also would recommend that Skyhorse hire a copy editor. There are some serious, fundamental howlers. These include Ralph's introduction which repeatedly refers to the herbicide Roundup as Roundup Ready, which is actually the brand name Monsanto's glyphosate resistant seeds. The error is reproduced in the introduction. Fig. 4 of the introduction is supposed to show the difference between GMO proponents' view of what happens when you introduce a single gene into an organism, and the reality. Unfortunately, both halves of the figure are identical, so there does not appear to be much difference. I won't go on because they didn't hire me to copy edit.

Anyway, Fig. 4 notwithstanding, the argument is sound. As even GMO proponent PZ Myers will not just admit, but enthusiastically affirm, gene effects are "pleiotropic." That means genes don't just do one thing. Some even code for more than one protein, by cutting and splicing at different places. But more generally, they interact with other genes, affect expression of other genes, and their products are typically involved in more than one developmental or biochemical process. So inserting one gene can cause a lot of changes in a plant beyond what is intended. (The process can also cause additional mutations.)

The regulatory regime for GMO foods in the U.S., as I understand it, requires only that manufacturers provide the FDA with a case that the single protein product of an inserted gene is safe to eat. This does not have to be based on any original animal or human research with the organism. In other words, you don't have to feed it to rats or monitor people who eat it, you just have to argue that Bt or whatever is harmless to humans. The editors and contributors to The GMO Deception don't think that's good enough, because the foodstuffs could differ in other ways from their non-modified precursors.

Well, maybe so, but others may find this a bit tendentious. After all, conventionally bred foods often differ in unintended ways from their ancestors. Conventionally bred tomatoes developed to be firmer and ripen more slowly for transport taste like cardboard. Mutations that alter proteins happen naturally all the time. Natural insect resistance, which is enhanced by intentional cross breeding, implies the expression of toxins. (This is a reason why many plants are toxic to humans, including the foliage of tomatoes and potatoes.)

It isn't clear, therefore, that genetic engineering presents any unique dangers to the food supply. We're already eating food that sacrifices nutrition for other properties, food allergies are already common, and completely natural foods contain carcinogens and other harmful substances as well as the good stuff. The fact is we have had 15 years of experience with most of the U.S. population consuming large amounts of GM corn and soybeans, and no sign of any harm except for the low quality diet that comes from eating a lot of processed corn products.

So, this is really the weakest part of the case. Yet it is the one that proponents focus on, as a handy straw man. The other objections are stronger, I think, but don't get as much attention in the political debate. It's easy to scare people with talk of "Frankenfoods," but that's a pretty speculative issue in my view and I find it tendentious. So I'll get to the more persuasive arguments in coming posts.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The GMO deception?

I received a review copy of The GMO Deception: What you need to know about the food corporations, and government agencies putting our families and our environment at risk, Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, eds. Skyhorse publishing, 2014. $24.95.

Major disclosure: Shelly Krimsky was my master's thesis adviser and I also took his course in environmental policy at Tufts. Ralph Nader, who wrote the foreword, was my employer in my now distant youth and I met him on a few occasions.

GMO means genetically modified organisms, but that's a bit of a misnomer since humans have been genetically modifying organisms since the dawn of agriculture, originally through selection and eventually through deliberate cross-breeding and selection. But GMO refers more specifically to organisms -- most public attention is on food crops -- that have been genetically engineered, that is they have had specific genes inserted into their DNA using modern laboratory techniques. These genes may come from different species or even different phyla or even kingdoms. It is possible to insert animal or bacterial genes into plants.

GMO foods are banned completely in Europe, but are pervasive in the U.S. food supply. Any product in the supermarket that contains corn or soy that isn't labeled "organic" will likely contain GMO products. As you probably know, there is currently controversy about whether manufacturers should even be required to label foods with GMO content. Right now, they are not. The conventional wisdom in the United States, including scientists who you likely respect such as PZ Myers and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is that any objection to GMO crops is anti-scientific nonsense equivalent to climate change denial or creationism.

Krimsky and Gruber and the dozens of contributors to The GMO Deception beg to differ. The objections fall into three major categories.

  1. Has it really been adequately established that GMO organisms are safe to eat, or at least as nutritious and healthful as conventionally bred organisms, and are regulations to insure this adequate?
  2. Are there possible harmful environmental impacts of GMO crops and again, is research and regulation adequate to prevent them?
  3. GMO crop systems are ultimately harmful to the agricultural economy in that they displace farm labor, promote capital intensity and larger scale thereby driving smaller farms out of business, and make farmers dependent on seed and pesticide purveyors at cost to their incomes and independence.
Each of these issues is complicated, and I'm afraid I do agree that they are far more complicated than Dr. Tyson believes. He is an astrophysicist so he has no more expertise about this than I do. The book has some serious shortcomings, which I will address. But first, in the coming days, I will take up the three areas of controversy in turn. There are some additional controversies involving GMO animals, which have a distinct ethical dimension. These are mentioned much less prominently in the book, but I may have a few words to say about this subject as well. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or opinions about these controversies before we begin, please comment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Political Malpractice

No, you probably didn't read it here first, but the RW Johnson Foundation has a new analysis of the fate of people in those states that refused to accept the Medicaid expansion. Since I never know for sure how much readers may already know, I feel compelled to maybe bore and talk down to you about exactly what the Medicaid expansion is.

Prior to the Affordable Care Act, in order to be eligible for Medicaid you had to be a minor child, an adult caring for minor children or a pregnant woman, and you had to be disabled. That's called "categorical eligibility." Also, generally speaking, you had to be below the official poverty level. States set varying income eligibility limits and other requirements, but every state provided Medicaid to people with no income --which means that it was the working poor who were left out in the less generous states, even if they were categorically eligible. States are reimbursed anywhere from 50% to 80% of the cost of providing Medicaid for those people, depending on the economic circumstances of the state. That is still true, it hasn't changed. That was a good enough deal that every state took it, and kept taking, no matter how conservative their government.

The Medicaid expansion eliminates categorical eligibility, which means that non-disabled adults without kids can get it. It also raises the income eligibility threshold to 138% of poverty. And it reimburses the states 100% for these newly eligible people initially, falling to 90% by 2020.

In the ACA as passed by congress and signed by the president -- AKA tyranically imposed by the socialist usurper -- states had to accept the Medicaid expansion in order to continue participating in classic Medicaid. But John Roberts, a jurist who only calls balls and strikes and would never legislate from the bench, rewrote the statute such that states can keep classic Medicaid without accepting the expansion.

As a result, 24 governors decided not to allow the federal government to provide health care to their poor and low-income citizens. Also, those people are not eligible for subsidies to buy insurance on their own because the ACA assumed they would have Medicaid. Not that they could afford it even with the subsidies. So they're out of luck. Also out of luck are the hospitals and health care workers who would get paid to take care of them.

As the RWJ Foundation tell us, by the time the dust settles in 2016, 6.7 million people in those states who would otherwise have been insured will not be. The states will forego $43 billion in reimbursement by that year, for which they would have had to spend $291 million in their own money. The main argument the Republican governors make against accepting the expansion is that cost, but accepting the money would obviously boost their economies and tax revenues, while those same states will happily spend $45 billion in incentives to private business during that time. So they are, in other words, total hypocrites. (Hospitals and physician practices are private businesses, by the way. But evidently they don't count.)

There are only two reasons why the Republican state governments have rejected the Medicaid expansion. 1) The president is Barack Obama, and there's just something about him, what could it be? and 2) They want low income working people in their states not to be able to get health care, because they're just takers and the part where they make stuff by having jobs doesn't count. And note that it is mostly working people who are deprived because disabled people and parents without jobs are already covered.

Another way to put this is that they are psychopaths. Nevertheless that seems to be popular with their citizenry and they expect to do well at the polls this November. Explain it to me.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A catastrophe of our own making, and largely ignored

I am a long-time Iraq buff. I contributed to the blog Today in Iraq through most of its existence (it is now today in Afghanistan), and I have followed events in that country closely since then.

The situation right now is appalling. The Islamic State has captured predominantly Christian and Yazidi towns in the north and the inhabitants have fled in panic. (The Yazidi practice a pre-Islamic religion.) The Christians have fled to Kurdistan, while thousands of Yazidi fled to a mountain where they had no food or water. The UN now says that they have been rescued but that at least 40 children died of thirst. Update: It turns out the Yazidis have not been rescued,  but they are receiving airdropped supplies.

IS has captured the Mosul dam, which provides electricity to 3 Iraqi provinces. If the dam is breached, the ensuing flood would destroy Mosul and inundate Baghdad.

So, how did this happen? Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki systematically discriminated against Sunni Arabs, depriving them of government services and jobs, and leadership positions in the military. He replaced competent military leaders with his cronies. The army had a system in which soldiers' pay was given to commanders for distribution, and many soldiers cut deals whereby they would go home, take other jobs, and split their pay with the officer. So, when ISIL swept into Anbar and Ninevah provinces, the Iraqi army collapsed, and Sunni Arab militias joined forces with the Islamists.

The Kurdish peshmerga is a competent fighting force, and they held the dam and protected the Christian and Yazidi towns in the north, simultaneously moving in to territory they coveted for themselves in Kirkuk and environs. But they are lightly armed, and Maliki cut them off from ammunition and military equipment in the possession of the central government. Since Kurdistan lacks sovereignty, they have great difficulty purchasing military goods on their own. So, they ran out of ammunition and were forced to desert the towns they were protecting. They held on at the dam for weeks but were finally overcome. Note that none of this action is inside Kurdistan -- the Iraqi military would ordinarily be responsible for this territory but it is incompetent.

The United States initially supported Maliki's installation as PM, and has continued to support him ever since, despite his outrageous misrule. This is a predictable consequence of invading a country our political and military leaders knew nothing about, smashing the existing order, and grossly mismanaging the restoration.

I don't know a lot about the Islamic State or the socio-cultural forces that produced its genocidal ideology. They appear to have been shaped largely in the crucible of the Syrian civil war and are partly blowback from the Gulf monarchies proxy war with Iran. But there they are, filling the vacuum created by the hubris and evil of Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their weakling tool George W. Bush. Americans appear not to care about the people of Iraq, but this is our fault and our responsibility. Not sure what to do beyond humanitarian relief, but at least we need to be offering that. And we aren't.

By the way, Americans want to turn away a few thousand children who are seeking refuge here, whereas the much less wealthy people of Jordan, Kurdistan and Turkey are doing their best to house millions of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. That's American exceptionalism for you.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

And speaking of theft . . .

Acthar is a drug approved in 1952 for a pediatric seizure disorder. Back then, the manufacturer didn't have to prove it was effective to get approval. But now Questcor is marketing it for multiple sclerosis, even though there is no clinical trials evidence that it works. It's expensive -- Medicare paid an average of $41,763 per prescription in 2012. It turns out that just 15 prescribers accounted for 10% of those prescriptions, and that most of them take money from Questcor.

Apart from human greed, the problem here is that Congress forbids Medicare from not covering any drug which has FDA approval, or from setting prices. This is because drug companies have lobbyists and you and I do not. Also, too, even today to get FDA approval you don't need to prove that your new drug is better than an existing, cheaper alternative. You only have to prove that it's better than placebo. So we finance all these ripoffs. 

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Christianity is good business

I doubt I've ever linked to CNN before, but this bit on the palaces of the archbishops is worth a gander. As we know the new Pope is getting all humble and poor, but the princes of the church have yet to get the memo. Ten of 34 U.S. archbishops live in houses worth more than $1 million, and some of them a lot more. Archbishop Dolan of New York, one of the world's sleaziest scumbags, lives in a mansion on Madison Ave. that's been appraised for $30 million.

That's just the Catholics. You may have seen, between innings or while you were zoning out to Rachel Maddow, a scam called "Christian Mingle." You can "find God's match for you" but God is requiring you to pay these people money in order to perform the miracle. Now they're letting us know that sometimes we're waiting for God to make the move, but God is saying it's your time to act. They actually know what God is saying to me, even though I can't hear it!

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, does not believe in wealth redistribution. That's probably because he owns $25 million. Can't be redistributing that shit, instead he's been pureeing camels and pushing them through the eyes of needles.

It's bad enough that it's all bullshit. It's also theft. We can begin by eliminating the tax exemption for religious organizations.