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skeptical queries on environmental issues
Posted: 28 October 2007 11:29 PM   [ Ignore ]
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As someone who is both an environmentalist and a skeptic, I am wondering about a couple of issues that are promoted by my fellow environmentalists, but I’m not sure they should be.
I’m wondering if anyone who knows more about these subjects than I do would care to weigh in.

One is genetically engineered food. Is this necessarily a bad thing? If I’m not mistaken the concern is that the plants that have been modified, when introduced into the ecosystem, would act in a way similar to “invasive” species - crowding out or even driving to extinction the native species, to the detriment of biodiversity. Another is that the modifications may have some as-yet unknown health effects.
Is there a way to assure that genetic engineering will be environmentally and health-neutral?

The second issue is the notion that vegetarianism is better for the environment. But I wonder, if the entire world were to go meatless, would we actually be better off, land-use wise, when you figure up the acreage needed to meet our nutritional requirements? Have scientific analyses been conducted, and what is the consensus among researchers as opposed to the theories of those who may have other motivations for their conclusions (like “animal rights”)?

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Posted: 29 October 2007 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’m sure there are others here who have more information than I do, but I’ll answer from what I understand as a retired chemist.

Yes, there is a real problem with genetic engineered plants transferring their genes to others.  For example, to kill weeds they engineered cotton (I believe) to be resistant to a weed killing pesticide.  They could then spray the pesticide and kill the weeds but not the cotton plants.  However, the genes seem to have transferred to some weeds.  Now they have weeds that mess up the crops and are resistant to the standard weed killers. 

It’s doubtful that the genetics of modified plants will cause humans a problem eating them, but it’s always possible because the companies work to make the products more saleable, not more nutritious, and the testing they do is the minimum required so they may miss something.  I don’t think there’s any way to guarantee that G.E. won’t have some harmful side effects, so all we can do is demand thorough testing, go slowly, and hope that the benefits outweigh any possible problems.

Vegetarianism.  Yes, with just a little work we can get adequate nutrition from vegetables.  I’ve forgotten the ratio, but it takes something like between ten and a hundred times the food value of vegetables to generate beef.  Chicken and turkey are much more efficient, something like between five and twenty times.  So eating meat and dairy products is far less efficient and more draining on the environment.  The other thing is that most meat and dairy products have saturated fats which tends to clog our arteries over time. 

Primates like us are omnivores but they get damned little meat - the occasional lizard, egg, or insect they catch.  I still eat chicken, fish and dairy, but only occasionally, not because of any philosophical prohibition against eating animal products, but just to prevent my arteries from getting any more clogged up than they got from many years of eating steak, lobster, and ice cream.  LOL

Occam  

(Damn.  Sorry about the long post, Brennen.)
(Wordpad LOL)

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Posted: 29 October 2007 11:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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That’s ok Occam, the first 10 lines were right on target! wink

I am also skeptical of the fear generated by GM crops. I can see theoretical problems, but I think the same can be said for any new technology. Ultimately, whether the potential harms outwiegh the benefits is far from proven, and I think additional testing and reasearch is appropriate. There is a tendancy to view these crops as “unnatural,” which is just nonsense since there is precious little natural about our modern lives, and yet we’re better off in most measurabel ways than in a state of nature.

As for vegetarianism, I also agree that the ecological calculations are pretty straightforward and well-documented. I gave up meat for a combination of ethical, health-related, and ecological reasons, but even if you take the ethics out of the equation I think the ecological arguments are sound. Again, if we’re interested in what is natural, our closest relatives the chimpanzees eat about 5% of their diet as animal protein, most of that from insects. But I’m not convinced that’s a useful way to look at the issues. I do think, however, that the land use and pollution issues associated with industrial agriculture are real, and that a plant-based diet, perhaps with some supplementation from less intensively-raised (and thus much more expensive and scarce) animal products would be environmentally healthier.

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Posted: 29 October 2007 12:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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JerPete - 28 October 2007 11:29 PM

One is genetically engineered food.

I have read somewhat on the topic and am stuck in a limbo. To be honest, I am utterly baffled.  On the one hand, I believe that it is important to keep a positive attitude toward the idea of progress and I want to welcome any new technologies that assist in feeding the people of the world.  On the other hand, I am suspicious that there is not enough regulation or safety testing of new agricultural technologies before they come to market.  I am also skeptical about the role of the profit motive as encouraging the development of technologies that may not be safe, simply for the sake of earning a quick easy buck.

Although I have not yet seen any specific evidence of genetically modified crops being harmful, I have also not come across many real scientific studies that seriously pursue the question.  I want to know more.  I have been looking but can’t find all of the answers that I have been looking for.  Are there any scientists who work in agricultural science here on the forum?

JerPete - 28 October 2007 11:29 PM

The second issue is the notion that vegetarianism is better for the environment.

There is little doubt in my mind that if everyone were to switch to a vegetarian diet the global impact on the environment would be significant for the better.  A reduction in the human population would also work equally as well, but the simple truth is that large amounts of livestock, particularly in large factory farm conditions, produce large amounts of waste and consume proportionately excessive volumes of feed.

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Posted: 29 October 2007 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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erasmusinfinity - 29 October 2007 12:55 PM

Although I have not yet seen any specific evidence of genetically modified crops being harmful, I have also not come across many real scientific studies that seriously pursue the question.  I want to know more.  I have been looking but can’t find all of the answers that I have been looking for.  Are there any scientists who work in agricultural science here on the forum?

I’m no ag scientist, but have done some research into the field, and have friends who are more-or-less involved in various aspects of plant science.

In order for anything new to be labelled as food in the US, I believe it has to pass through stringent USDA, FDA and EPA testing. I do recall seeing a university class in food science awhile back where they discussed this issue.

For some more about government regulation of biotech food, see HERE and HERE. I’d also suggest reading through the .pdf on ag biotech HERE, if it is something that interests you.

The irony is that much so-called “natural” food is largely untested; some of it is in fact carcinogenic and would not be allowed in the food supply if it had to pass the same regimes as biotech food does. Nevertheless it is considered “GRAS” or “Generally Recognized as Safe”. A typical GRAS food is: “one that has a long, safe history of common use in foods, or that is determined to be safe based on proven science.” (Note the “or”). Check out an FDA article on GRAS HERE. While the FDA could prohibit common foods that are GRAS, they typically won’t. Obvious natural examples would be tobacco (if it were regulated at all) and alcohol, although browning food also creates carcinogenic compounds.

Examples of some common herbs that might fall afoul of food regulations now: basil, fennel, green anise, star anise and tarragon all contain estragole, a known carcinogen in mice and rats.

See, e.g., THIS 2001 report from the European Commission. Note their conclusion:

Estragole has been demonstrated to be genotoxic and carcinogenic. Therefore the
existence of a threshold cannot be assumed and the Committee could not establish a safe
exposure limit. Consequently, reductions in exposure and restrictions in use levels are
indicated.

All that said, by far the largest known danger of food borne risk is through pathogenic contamination. For more on this, check out THIS paper from the CDC. Their abstract:

We estimate that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Known pathogens account for an estimated 14 million illnesses, 60,000 hospitalizations, and 1,800 deaths. Three pathogens, Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma, are responsible for 1,500 deaths each year, more than 75% of those caused by known pathogens, while unknown agents account for the remaining 62 million illnesses, 265,000 hospitalizations, and 3,200 deaths. Overall, foodborne diseases appear to cause more illnesses but fewer deaths than previously estimated.

Also check out THIS Wiki page on foodborne illness.

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Posted: 29 October 2007 06:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I am curious:  what about those of us who eat wild-caught foods?  This year, we put by almost 200 pounds of wild-caught “Copper River Red Salmon” - or roughly 45 fish - for our family’s use.  We freeze half in fillets and we smoke half.  This will get my husband, my daughter, my elderly parents, and myself through the winter.  We haven’t done so recently, but we used to get a moose or a couple of caribou ever two or three years.  One adult moose will feed our two households for 2 years.  The population crashed out at the cabin, though, so we haven’t hunted in recent years.  (Interestingly enough, the bear and wolf population out there is on the rise.)  The only moose we’ve gotten lately is salvaged from car accidents.

We can’t grow wheat or corn here.  We do pick lots and lots of berries, though.  =)

How do you think a subsistence lifestyle fits with modern ethics with regards to food production?

->T

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Posted: 29 October 2007 07:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I am no scientist but did a paper on GM food a few years ago and am all for it. Yes like others said we should go slow and have total transparency about it, but if it will one day lead to 10 pound mango’s with with all the daily vitamins then I say bring it on.

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Posted: 29 October 2007 08:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Teresa, since the moose population seems to be decreasing but the bear and wolf population is increasing, it appears that you should be looking on the Internet for recipes for bear and wolf.  LOL

Occam

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Posted: 29 October 2007 10:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Teresa,
I think sustainable hunting and fishing would be ecologically appropriate, the problem is it’s very hard to figure out what’s sustainable. It takes a lot of data, intensive management, and policing to make sure the harvest doesn’t exceed the capacity of the population being harvested to sustain itself. The contrast between the Alaskan groundfish fishery, which is pretty well-managed, and the Atlantic fisheries, which collapsed due to overharvesting, illustrates this. It’s easy enough to say that an individual or small group takes very little, but of course you have to look at the population being affected, the total numbers being taken (deliberately or by accident), the age/sex profile of the population, climate and habitat, etc, etc. For my own part, I don’t feel hunting or fishing is necessarily ethically unjustifiable, though people who are more hard line about the issue of inflicting pain or killing might feel differently, but I do think at current human population levels it’s pretty hard to do in a sustainable way.

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Posted: 30 October 2007 06:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Doug,

Thanks much for the links.  I will read through them all as I get the chance.  In the mean time I will keep an eye on this thread.  It seems that one must be something of an expert of ag science to genuinely know the specifics of harm that can come from each and every food eaten, and even then…

Plus, there is a whole lot of BS out there.

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Posted: 30 October 2007 07:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Well, honestly, I think the real take-home message here is not to worry yourself so much about food. Eat a balanced diet, relatively low meat consumption, make sure to thoroughly wash and cook food, do not cross-contaminate, etc., don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess ... that’s really about 99% of what you need to know.

People end up obsessing about the other 1%, but it’s really not worth the time and effort.

NB: much of the safety of new foods depends on aggressive and competent government agencies, who are willing to demand the sort of research necessary. Now, that’s not everything, since businesses are aware that if they poison people they will be sued into oblivion. But at the end of the day it’s the government that has to do its job to investigate and regulate. And they aren’t perfect, for sure. So I wouldn’t claim that we’re totally out of the woods. Just that there are almost certainly more important things to worry about in life.

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Posted: 31 October 2007 02:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Doug’s advice is excellent.  I would only add:  don’t eat more calories than you use each day, and get a moderate amount of exercise at least three or four times a week.

Occam

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Posted: 31 October 2007 09:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Just do a search on the business ethics of Monsanto, an agriculture biotech corporation. There is more at risk to the public than just health concerns. Here are my two cents:

Since 1998 Monsanto has been attempting to merge or purchase Delta & Pine Land Company. D&PL; has been involved with a seed technology nicknamed “Terminator”, which produces plants that produce sterile seed to prevent farmers from replanting their crop’s seed, rather than purchasing the seed from Monsanto for every planting.

Monsanto sparked controversy nationwide with the introduction of rBGH. Also known as Bovine somatotropin (rBST), it is a hormone that is injected into cows to force them to produce more milk. The hormone is alleged to cause several health problems in cows it is administered to and in humans who drink the resulting milk.

In January 2005, Monsanto agreed to pay a $1.5m fine for bribing an Indonesian official. Monsanto admitted a senior manager at Monsanto directed an Indonesian consulting firm to give a $50,000 bribe to a high-level official in Indonesia’s environment ministry in 2002, in a bid to avoid Environmental impact assessment on its genetically modified cotton. Monsanto told the company to disguise an invoice for the bribe as “consulting fees”.

Monsanto was fined $19,000 dollars in a French court on January 26th, 2007 for misleading the public about the environmental impact of its record selling herbicide Roundup. A former chairman of Monsanto Agriculture France was found guilty of false advertising for presenting Roundup as biodegradable and claiming that it left the soil clean after use.

Monsanto is notable for its involvement in high profile lawsuits, as both plaintiff and defendant. It has been involved in a number of class action suits, where fines and damages have run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, usually over health issues related to its products. Monsanto has also made frequent use of the courts to defend its patents, particularly in the area of biotechnology.

In 1997, Fox News reportedly bowed to pressure from Monsanto to suppress an investigative report on the health risks associated with Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone product, Posilac. Posilac, a synthetic drug used to increase milk production in cows, is banned in most first-world countries, with the exception of the United States, where it can be found in much of the milk supply.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#Environmental_and_health_record

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posilac#Controversy_about_rBST

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Posted: 31 October 2007 09:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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As far as the ethics of Monsanto, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re as guilty as many large companies of putting profit before safety. But that has nothing to do with the actual safety of the products we’re talking about. The BGH scare is BS. The product has been extensively investigated by public health organizations in the U.S. and abroad and the scare-mongering about it is not driven by any reliable science. The ban in Europe is related to the cultural anxieties about “un-natural” products, and it is irrational.  So while you may be right that not only public health issues are relevant, you then proceed to cite two public health concerns, the first of which I view as mistaken. (I don’t have any information or position on the second)

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Posted: 31 October 2007 09:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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And interestingly, Linda Fisher, who is head of the EPA, is a former Monsanto executive.  Bush Jr. appointed her and there are also strong links between Monsanto and Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice.
Hmmm…

I will make no bold assertions here because I have admitted to a lack of information, but it seems that I have every reason to be as skeptical of government food regulation as I am of new age whole food mystics.

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Posted: 31 October 2007 10:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Under the Bush Admin, no question the agencies are led by cronies of industry. But at the civil service level, there are a lot of committed scientists gritting their teeth and waiting for the madness to end. Politicians frequently get in the way of the agencies trying to do their job (Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch by far two of the worst). And the agencies can’t win. If they try to regulate something, people bitch about government interfering with their right to put whatever they want in their bodies. And if something bad happens, people bitch about why government didn’t protect them. An enlightening book to read would be Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry by Dan Hurley. Traces the history of “snake oil” in general and the ups and downs of government attempts to protect public health as manipulated by politicans and their corporate interests. I can tell you that the “natural” food and supplement industry is big business and spends a lot of money and effort denigrating the government agencies involved in public health regulation as a way of engineering public opinion to oppose effective regulation. So I, for one, am not inclined to blame the agencies for the bulk of their inadequacy but the idnsurties they regulate, the polticians these industries purchase, and the public who allows themselves to be mislead.

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