Organic manic

Gee, I'm so surprised:

The organic movement touts the sustainability of their methods, but its claims do not withstand scrutiny. For example, a study published earlier this year in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season. But organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched with plant demand.
The study found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. Especially with many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought and aquifer depletion–which was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on November 16–increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a mark of sustainability.
Moreover, although composting gets good PR as a “green” activity, at large scale it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases (and is also often a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops).

 From "Why Organic Isn't 'Sustainable" on Forbes.

Reagan and AIDS

I've seen this image posted on my Facebook feed from two very-different friends:



To which I have twice replied:

1981: # of AIDS deaths in US = 121, HHS funding per death = $1,600

1982: # of AIDS deaths in US = 447, HHS funding per death = $12,427

1983: # of AIDS deaths in US = 1476, HHS funding per death = $19,469

1984: # of AIDS deaths in US = 3454, HHS funding per death = $17,794

1985: # of AIDS deaths in US = 6854, HHS funding per death = $15,847

1986: # of AIDS deaths in US = 11932, HHS funding per death = $19,594

1987: # of AIDS deaths in US = 16908, HHS funding per death = $29,717

So, in 1983, the US federal government was already funding anti-AIDS programs to the tune of nearly $20,000 per death. The disease grew very quickly, from a trickle in the first few years, to almost 17,000 in 1987. It's hard to know in the early days of a new disease if it is going to have a wide effect. Very little was known in early days of how it was transmitted, what the death rate would be, or how many people were at risk. Would you have triggered a massive effort to eradicate a disease because fewer than 500 died in a year? What about fewer than 5,000?

As a point of comparison, probably somewhere around 75,000 people will die in the US this year of hospital-acquired infections.

Sources:

http://www.law.umaryland.edu/.../crsdocuments/96-293_SPR.pdf

http://www.nytimes.com/.../science/aids/timeline88-90.html

http://www.cbsnews.com/.../in-us-hospital-acquired.../

Not only us

WaPo catalogs how the Ebola epidemic in West Africa got out of control.

What goes unmentioned is what should be noted as a major turning point: when stories began to reach the west of local health care workers getting slaughtered during informational meetings about Ebola. We saw people that were trying help running for their lives from an ignorant population.

Once that happened, many people mentally washed their hands of the mess.

Employment

Today's employment report is one of the worst in a very long time.

The household survey showed an increase of only 16,000 jobs. The decline in the employment rate is almost entirely because 268,000 people have left the workforce--which is a huge number. The number of people looking for a job went up by 45,000.

In addition, on the employers' report, the previous two months were downgraded fairly seriously. Between June and July, the numbers were revised downwards by 48,000 combined.

Listening to NPR was interesting this morning, since they were trying to sell the household survey as good news.

Update: Adding a graph of preliminary vs final numbers over the last 36 months, in order of the size of the revision (in response to: this on the NRO Corner)


Google is blocking search results

I can't see any other way of interpreting this than the fact that Google is obviously blocking search results in the pursuit of environmental regulations and politics.

Type the following into Bing's search form: "united states" "air pollution" graph +improving

and you get almost 64,000 results, including several links to the EPA and to Wikipedia:


Type the same thing into Google and you get 6 results, which are mostly junk:


GMO's

You didn't stop me. Too late. This went out around 9:30 this morning...just over 2 hours after the last one.

The last link is one of my favorites, linking anti-GMO hysteria to climate science deniers. Nothing like having a petard and a length of rope handy.

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Food and Drug Administration [FDA]

3. Are foods from genetically engineered plants safe?

Foods from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as foods from traditionally bred plants

[That's a "yes", by the way.]

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American Medical Association [AMA] 

The American Medical Association announced in a statement this week that they saw no health purpose for labeling genetically modified foods -- those made with GMOs (or genetically modified organisms) -- as such.

"There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education," the statement read in part.

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World Health Organization

Q8. Are GM foods safe?

Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.

GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.

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Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Adacamies

All new crop varieties, animal breeds (see the cloning subreport), and microbial strains carry modified DNA that differs from parental strains. Methods to genetically modify plants, animals, and microbes are mechanistically diverse and include both natural and human-mediated activities. Health outcomes could be associated with the presence or absence of specific substances added or deleted using genetic modification techniques, including genetic engineering, and with unintended compositional changes.

... All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.

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Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine  (article)

Are GM foods safe to eat?

GM crops are tightly regulated by several government bodies. The European Food Safety Authority and each individual member state have detailed the requirements for a full risk assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed.34 In the USA, the Food and Drug Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are all involved in the regulatory process for GM crop approval.35 Consequently, GM plants undergo extensive safety testing prior to commercialization (for an example see http://www.efsa.europa.eu/EFSA/KeyTopics/efsa_locale-1178620753812_GMO.htm).

Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.

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Scientific American (article )

There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops (Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Committee on Environmental Impacts Associated with Commercialization of Transgenic Plants, National Research Council and Division on Earth and Life Studies 2002). Both the U.S. National Research Council and the Joint Research Centre (the European Union’s scientific and technical research laboratory and an integral part of the European Commission) have concluded that there is a comprehensive body of knowledge that adequately addresses the food safety issue of genetically engineered crops (Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health and National Research Council 2004; European Commission Joint Research Centre 2008).

These and other recent reports conclude that the processes of genetic engineering and conventional breeding are no different in terms of unintended consequences to human health and the environment (European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation 2010). This is not to say that every new variety will be as benign as the crops currently on the market. This is because each new plant variety (whether it is developed through genetic engineering or conventional approaches of genetic modification) carries a risk of unintended consequences. Whereas each new genetically engineered crop variety is assessed on a case-bycase basis by three governmental agencies, conventional crops are not regulated by these agencies.

Still, to date, compounds with harmful effects on humans or animals have been documented only in foods developed through conventional breeding approaches. For example, conventional breeders selected a celery variety with relatively high amounts of psoralens to deter insect predators that damage the plant. Some farm workers who harvested such celery developed a severe skin rash—an unintended consequence of this breeding strategy (Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health and National Research Council 2004)

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MIT Technology Review (article)

One advantage of using genetic engineering to help crops adapt to these sudden [climate] changes is that new varieties can be created quickly. Creating a potato variety through conventional breeding, for example, takes at least 15 years; producing a genetically modified one takes less than six months. Genetic modification also allows plant breeders to make more precise changes and draw from a far greater variety of genes, gleaned from the plants’ wild relatives or from different types of organisms. Plant scientists are careful to note that no magical gene can be inserted into a crop to make it drought tolerant or to increase its yield—even resistance to a disease typically requires multiple genetic changes. But many of them say genetic engineering is a versatile and essential technique.

“It’s an overwhelmingly logical thing to do,” says Jonathan Jones, a scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the U.K. and one of the world’s leading experts on plant diseases. The upcoming pressures on agricultural production, he says, “[are] real and will affect millions of people in poor countries.” He adds that it would be “perverse to spurn using genetic modification as a tool.”

It’s a view that is widely shared by those responsible for developing tomorrow’s crop varieties. At the current level of agricultural production, there’s enough food to feed the world, says Eduardo Blumwald, a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis. But “when the population reaches nine billion?” he says. “No way, José.”

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France's High Court

France's highest court on Monday overturned France's ban on growing a strain of genetically modified maize (corn) developed by U.S. biotech firm Monsanto, saying it was not sufficiently justified.

The decision follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in early September saying France had based its decision to impose a moratorium on the growing of Monsanto's insect-resistant MON810 maize on the wrong EU legislation.

Suspension or banning measures ought to be taken at European Union level unless a member state can demonstrate a potentially serious risk to human or animal health or the environment, the courts said.

"Drawing on the consequences of the ECJ's ruling, the State Council finds that the agriculture ministry could not justify its authority to issue the decrees, failing to give proof of the existence of a particularly high level of risk for the health and the environment," the highest French court said.

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Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division of Earth and Live Sciences National Research Council

[T]he effects of agricultural biotechnology at the farm level—that is, from the point of view of the farmer—have received much less attention. To fill that information gap, the National Research Council initiated a study, supported by its own funds, of how GE crops have affected U.S. farmers—their incomes, agronomic practices, production decisions, environmental resources, and personal well-being....

In general, the committee finds that genetic-engineering technology has produced substantial net environmental and economic benefits to U.S. farmers compared with non-GE crops in conventional agriculture....

Generally, GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally. The use of pesticides with toxicity to nontarget organisms or with greater persistence in soil and waterways has typically been lower in GE fields than in non-GE, nonorganic fields.

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Meta Study on long-term multi-generational consumption of GMO food: "Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review "

Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance. If required, a 90-day feeding study performed in rodents, according to the OECD Test Guideline, is generally considered sufficient in order to evaluate the health effects of GM feed. The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.

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Keith Kloor, Slate
I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.
Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they've been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

GMO's

(Stop me before I e-mail again!! )

This e-mail went out early this morning to the same teacher...

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Just Yesterday in The Atlantic

No widely accepted science supports the idea that GMOs are inherently dangerous to people’s health or the environment. To proponents, including many in the agribusiness industry, opposition to GMOs is nothing more than a dangerous mania, and the people in the grip of it are akin to those who refuse to vaccinate their children or who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate.Yet the grassroots fervor around the topic—driven by Internet rumors, liberal anti-corporatism, and mothers concerned about their children—is undeniable.

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The link above goes to this, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

There are several current efforts to require labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants, commonly known as GM crops or GMOs. These efforts are not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous. Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow “unnatural” and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm. Another misconception used as a rationale for labeling is that GM crops are untested.

The EU, for example, has invested more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GMOs. Its recent report1 states: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breed-ing technologies.” The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.

GMO's

Once again, the teachers at school are propagandizing against GMO's. I just knocked out this e-mail in response. Note, this needed to be sent to our 6th grader's science teacher. I would have hoped she'd know better:

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The one-sided discussion of GMO crops, always taking the negative position, frustrates and angers me. This is why (all bolds and italics are mine):

Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive. [ Amy Harmon, New York Times, "Golden Rice: Lifesaver?" ]

TWO MILLION DIE!! And another quarter to half a million children go blind because people living in the developed world, in air conditioning, with well stocked refrigerators and pantries, and where the biggest problem related to food is obesity, sit around and decide that their knee-jerk feelings about something count more that the lives of the poor, malnourished, sick and starving of the world.

On a petition supporting Golden Rice circulated among scientists and signed by several thousand, many vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fears of genetic engineering in both the developing and the developed worlds....

At stake, they say, is not just the future of biofortified rice but also a rational means to evaluate a technology whose potential to improve nutrition in developing countries, and developed ones, may otherwise go unrealized.

There’s so much misinformation floating around about G.M.O.’s that is taken as fact by people,” said Michael D. Purugganan, a professor of genomics and biology and the dean for science at New York University, who sought to calm health-risk concerns in a primer on GMA News Online, a media outlet in the Philippines: “The genes they inserted to make the vitamin are not some weird manufactured material,” he wrote, “but are also found in squash, carrots and melons.”

Mr. Purugganan, who studies plant evolution, does not work on genetically engineered crops, and until recently had not participated in the public debates over the risks and benefits of G.M.O.’s. But having been raised in a middle-class family in Manila, he felt compelled to weigh in on Golden Rice. “A lot of the criticism of G.M.O.’s in the Western world suffers from a lack of understanding of how really dire the situation is in developing countries,” he said. [ from same NYT's article]

Dire.

And not just Golden Rice:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting the final testing of Golden Rice, is also underwriting the development of crops tailored for sub-Saharan Africa, like cassava that can resist the viruses that routinely wipe out a third of the harvest, bananas that contain higher levels of iron and corn that uses nitrogen more efficiently. Other groups are developing a pest-resistant black-eyed pea and a “Golden Banana” that would also deliver vitamin A. [ibid]

The EU has been no friend of GMO's, yet here are excerpts from an EU funded study of 10 years worth research:

[ Excerpts from "A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research", Introduction by: Marc Van Montagu, Chairman, Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO,) Ghent University, Belgium ]:

Undeniably GM technology is an important tool in the fight against global poverty and food insecurity. Farmers all over the world face the challenge of doubling food production to meet the needs of a population that is expected to reach nine billion by mid-century – and all this while maintaining soil and water quality and conserving biodiversity.

The challenge is particularly daunting as it has to be accomplished with decreasing amounts of agricultural land and the unpredictable effects of climate change: mitigation and crop adaptation strategies to prepare today’s agriculture for climate change are a pressing issue. Our evolving environment requires the prompt and widespread adoption of more efficient and sustainable agricultural practices to improve food security and, at the same time, reduce the negative effects of intensive agriculture.

The task of enhancing productivity calls for greater innovation, not only in the dissemination of know-how and the development of infrastructure, but also in generating new crop varieties better adapted to specific local environments. Yet the possibilities offered by biotechnology are limitless. GM crops not only have the potential to ensure sufficient availability of food, they can also help domesticate many fast-growing high-biomass crops. [page 20]
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Now, after 25 years of field trials without evidence of harm, fears continue to trigger the Precautionary Principle. But Europeans [and Americans--Ann] need to abandon this knowingly one-sided stance and strike a balance between the advantages and disadvantages of the technology on the basis of scientifically sound risk assessment analysis. [ Page 22 ]
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Only science, using robust data, can disarm the detractors of this powerful and invaluable technology, demonstrating that GM crops are no more harmful for the environment than any other crop. On the contrary, there are clear ecological benefits when viewed within the framework of the role of agricultural systems in maintaining biodiversity.

The current focus on assessing the environmental risks of GMOs in isolation from other agricultural practices defies logic. Only balanced risk-benefit analyses and pro-active strategies for risk mitigation, if required, can lead to constructive decision-making. [Page 23.]

This from the abstract of another 10 year meta-study: "The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops."

GMO's offer the hope of growing more food on less land, in lower-quality soils, with more nutritious content, and with less use of polluting pesticides and fertilizers, and while preserving biodiversity. Decades of research--SCIENCE--says that they are not or need not be a hazard.

Luddite opponents need to answer the desperate calls of the poverty-stricken of the world.

Homework problems

Stupid activity of the week for our kids (this is for 6th grade):
  1. Select an object. (He chose a book.)
  2. Measure the dimensions of the object 
  3. Calculate the surface area and volume.
  4. If you were to place this object into a cylindrical mailing tube, what should be the dimensions of the tube?
  5. What about a triangular prism?
  6. Rectangular prism?
  7. What are the surface areas and volumes of these boxes?
  8. Determine which of these boxes fits your object best.
  9. Explain why.
  10. BUILD THE BOX!!
  • Time required: 90 minutes, minimum.
  • Educational value (0-10): 2. 
  • Opportunity cost (cost of time wasted which could have been spent doing something useful, instead of cutting and taping cardboard) (0-10): 9.
  • Teacher's perception of the "fun" value of project (0-10): 9.
  • Students' perception of the "fun" value of project (0-10): 0.
  • Potential student frustration level when the cardboard doesn't cut and the tape doesn't stick (0-10): 8.
  • Requisite parent participation level when frustrated kid wastes an hour and a half on a dumb-&^% and pointless assignment building a box, and parent gets exasperated by the time wasted and takes over (0-10): 6.
Addendum: Apparently, this got worse. In class today, they had to make up a story about where they were sending the box!