Science Improving Nature

Big changes come on little cat feet to envelop us. Then we forget what life was like before. Polio, the scourge or childhood, disappeared like many other afflictions nobody much remembers. Most American kids don’t get cavities any more - amazing to those of us old enough to recall one cavity per dental visit was a great result. Change often comes in little packages, but it is compounding* and that makes a difference.

One recent great event that happened without our notice is biotechnology. If you are wondering whether you should use biotech products, forget it. I said happened, not happening. Almost all of you have eaten biotech foods, probably today. The cotton in your t-shirt was probably grown with the help of biotech. If you buy a new house you will be living in a partially bioengineered structure. Biotechnology will revolutionize the manufacture of medicines, the production of energy and the preservation of the environment.

We have been cultivating biotech crops commercially for about ten years now. 400 million hectares (hectare = 2.47 acres) of genetically enhanced biotech crops have been grown. Farmers are adopting biotech crops faster than any crop varieties in the history of agriculture. Since their introduction in 1996, genetically enhanced biotech crop use has grown at a rate of more than 10% per year. In 2004 it was up to around 20%. The main crops carrying biotech genes are soybean (56%), maize (14%), cotton (28%), and canola (19%). Percentages are of the worldwide acreage for these crops. In the U.S., biotech soybean (herbicide resistant), maize (herbicide and insect resistant), and cotton (herbicide and insect resistant) account respectively for approximately 85%, 75%, and 45% of total acreage. Reference

Want renewable energy? We can talk about wind, solar AND biotech. Advances in biotechnology have enabled the production of large amounts of inexpensive cellulases that convert cellulose to simple sugars that that can be fermented into fuels such as ethanol. Biotechnology could enhance biomass yield density, improve processing of biomass feedstock and decrease the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides. In other words, we can literally turn garbage into gasoline substitute.

This is really nothing new. We have been altering plants and animals since before we were fully evolved humans. But biotech can do it faster and with fewer unplanned side effects. We can use less fertilizer, less pesticide and we can do it with less work. Read the story of wheat.

A big innovation comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over our lives on silent haunches and then moves on (with apologies to Carl Sandburg). When it’s over we just think that is how it always was. But we are better off.

* Albert Einstein called compound interest the most powerful force in the universe.

Posted by Jack at December 25, 2005 8:37 PM
Comment #107406

I think the argument you make ignores a number of important potential consequences.

First, reductions in biodiversity from standardized, single-environment-engineered crops exposes us to greater risk of mass famine. That is, in a world with a single type of wheat—or very few such types—a species specific virus can more easily destroy an entire crop. The “yeah for technology” chorus would continue in this case right until it was too late.

Second, conservatives in general should be ambivalent about technology. From the atom bomb to the television, technology have done much to enable our various vices and cultural evils to be more widesprea and more destructive than they woudl otherwise. That is, it is more important what we think, read, sing, and believe than it is that our shirts are made of nubuck or microfiber. In the latter case, we’ll be well clad cretins or worse, or at least potentially so.

Finally, the entire modern project arguably consists almost entirely of the quest for more and more degress of comfortable self-preservation. From our culture of easy divorce, suicide, and the like, it’s not clearly working, or if it is working, it’s not clear if the benefits outweight the costs. There are eternal truths about human happiness and cultural strength that do not depend on technology. Technology is not all bad, but we should be wary of saying it’s all good either.

Posted by: Roach at December 25, 2005 9:36 PM
Comment #107410


I think you have given some valid reasons why America will continue move forward in this venture. The fear Roach expressed is a common one but, the kinks in this one should be worked out just like all the other problems science runs into. The good thing about the technology of today is that it rarely stops moving forward. These fears we have regarding this aren’t any different than that of any other new way we fear. Once again due to the lack of history/information to the public the country is once again split.

Posted by: chad at December 25, 2005 9:57 PM
Comment #107414

Chris, Chad

Take a look at the wheat article from “The Economist”. Biotech is not new. We have long been trying to change the plants and animals around us. It is just that our aim is improving - i.e. we can get the benefits with fewer side effects.

I cannot envision a decent future world without biotechnology. It is the only hope for a sustainable development and development is out of our hands. China and India are growing at fantastic rates. If they make the same demands on the biosphere as Americans and Europeans currently do (and they will), development is not sustainable.

I know that some people will chime in that we can all just live more simply, but that is not really an option. Without biological improvments, We would have to shed about three quarters of our world population and put most of our natural world under the plow. I don’t think we can wait for volunteers.

I was inspired to write this article as I was doing an online forestry course. I learned that we can now grow trees to saw timber size in about half the time it took a couple of generations ago. Some of this is technique, but much is genetics. We are talking sometimes as much as 30-50 YEARS difference. AND they require less fertilizer, pesticides and land. This is how we can help the poor develop without destroying the world. This is the result of ordinary plant breeding. What does plant breeding do? It manipulates the genes of plants. Biotech just does it with more certainty.

And Chris - if you are worried about lack of genetic diversity, you know that we currently use grafting etc. This makes real uniformity. For example, all the apples of one variety are actually genetically the same plant. Millions of them ALL the same. This is NOT biotech. We could actually make MORE diversity with biotech.

Posted by: Jack at December 25, 2005 10:26 PM
Comment #107463

Jack, the underlying issue to your article is pointed to by the question of WHY do we need all this technological engineering of crops. To save time whittling down through the layers, the end answer is over-population of the planet.

Technology is delaying, again and again, the inevitable consequences of overpopulation by extending, artificially, the earth’s carrying capacity. But these extensions come at a huge price to places like the Amazon, China’s rural areas, urban air quality across the globe, and especially our water ways.

Technology is neither inherently good or bad. It is a tool. One has to ask, as with any tool, whether the use to which it is put, is good or bad. My own view on this, is that we are using technology to support ever-increasing over-population of the planet, and that is not good. Even our own population in the US is increasing and will reach over 300 million in the near future.

300 million is not a magic bad number. It is a sign post however, of a human species out of control in terms of its own numbers. Very little of an effective nature is being designed into our governments, cultures, or educational systems to halt this headlong rush toward human calmity and suffering as a direct result of over-population, and we have seen a number of these calamities just the last 2 decades, in places like India, Indonesia, Africa, N. Korea, and the USSR. The population numbers are in places and times, outstripping the capacity of the governments, cultures, and economic systems to sustain them in a humane manner.

I encourage using human intellect to enhance the population sustainability of the earth’s carrying capacity, provided there is concerted and effective measures taken to halt the spiraling growth of that population. It is very much like taxes and spending in the US. There is nothing wrong with increasing or lowering taxes, nor increasing or lowering gov’t. spending, UNLESS the tax policy and spending policies continue year after year to produce deficits. In similar fashion, there is nothing wrong with technology extending the earths productive capacity, provided those increases are not producing other deficits which will kill wholesale millions of human beings due to inefficiencies in distribution, or wealth that requires overproduction and under-distribution to those who need the products to sustain life. But this is what we are seeing.

The single greatest humanitarian effort mankind can undertake for itself today is not technologically increasing production, but, curtailing the growth of the species. But, such thinking is antithetical to the economics of the capitalists. As long as a profit can be made from the spiral of population increases pushing demand, the carrying capacity of both the earth and human social systems will be ignored in the calculation of whether we should be supporting such population increases. Until the day comes when the horror of a couple billion people dying in the course of a few months creates the kind of shock, if it even will, that will cause capitalists to reconsider the moral implications of supporting out of control population growth in the world.

Humans have the miraculous ability to peer into the future consequences of their own actions. But, that ability today is subservient to economics of profit, rather than to some moral or humane obligation. Hence, it would appear, our species will continue to invent new ways of pushing the population envelope to the point of catastrophic rupture. This is, in my definition, uncivilized, and for all our technological advances, I don’t believe mankind has evolved very far from the moral and ethical systems of late homo-erectus and early homo-sapien.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 26, 2005 7:59 AM
Comment #107502


Good article. I happen to agree with you on this - surprise!

I’ve traveled many places in the world and seen first hand the beneficial effects of biotechnology in making third world agriculture more productive and sustainable.

David is right that there is a global population problem. But we can’t put the brakes on third world development in order to “correct” or slow global population. We need to feed the people on the planet as well as possible and use other technologies to help curb overpopulation.

Posted by: Burt at December 26, 2005 10:34 AM
Comment #107504

We should be careful in messing with nature. Nature’s complexities aren’t so easily manipulated at the clockwork of an engine or the computations of a computer. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes in biotech, and we should be prepared to learn from them, not sweep them under the rug.

I would say we need to make those mistakes first in the lab, then under controlled studies, before we can get to the point where we’re screwing things up with the general public at risk. It will be impossible to filter out or prevent all bad interactions, but we must do our best, or we’re exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk. We need to be careful and prudent about this, and we need to be prepared to see radical changes occur as a result of all this.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 26, 2005 10:39 AM
Comment #107508

I have to agree with Jack here. Biotech is a good thing, it’s already here and benefiting us greatly. And it’s going to become even more ubquitous in the coming decades.

I disagree that imposing childbirth limits on people is somehow better for humanity than growing better foods. Of course the restrictions would only be on other people right? That’s the way THAT argument usually goes. Rather than taking away people’s rights to bear children, how about we just use technology to solve the problem instead? Famine is so completely unlikely BECAUSE of using biotech that it’s not really worth discussing. Bottom line is that Malthus predicted that we would run out of food, and that family size had to limited way back in the 18th century. He was wrong then, and he’s still wrong today.

Nanotech is going to be even more important in the coming decades. It’s going to change everything. The combination of biotech and nanotech will completely eliminate any “lack of resources” problems.

Posted by: Kurt at December 26, 2005 10:52 AM
Comment #107520

I sure wish we had some of these new verities of grains when I was a kid. It would’ve saved me a whole heap of hours on a tractor.
Not only do these new verities make life easier for the farmer. They also increse yeild. This translates into more food availible, which means lowers prices at the food store.
I remember back a few years ago that folks where getting their panties in a bunch about geneticly altered food. I had to laugh at them as most food they eat has been geneticly altered. Any veritiy of a fruit of vegetable has been geneticly alterded from the original to get the qualities wanted. The same with meat. The different breeds of animals has come about by geneticly altering the genes. This is done through cross breeding.
All I see biotechnolgy doing is improving on what’s already out there.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 26, 2005 11:33 AM
Comment #107525

The lesson to take from Malthus is that Population tends to expand exponentially while the resources needed to take care of those people remains finite. The industrial revolution has improved our ability to produce greater yields of finite resources to cover our needs, but there’s no guarantee that we will not see the day where we no longer have the capacity to do that.

Biotech, like any technology, has to perform in the context of the real world. That means there will be limits to what it can do, and the potential for unforseen effects both positive and negative.

Nanotech will work much the same as all technologies have throughout time. All technologies must make the leap between drawing board and reality, and a large number of fantasy notions of what it can and cannot do will be seen to be unfounded. Human being have to operate, design, and adapt to the use of these technologies, and that will be no simple process. We will see some dreams fulfilled, some die, some miracles born that we did not anticipate, and some reborn as our mastery of the technology allows us to get past some real world obstacle.

Ron Brown-
Which brings me to you. Biotech has the capacity to improve our lives, but it too has to operate in a real world. The systems we’re trying to manipulate here are not deterministic. Unforseen consequences have a way of cropping up.

Genetic engineering significantly differs from ordinary breeding, in that nature tends to develop changes in the animals and plants in question from genes that are already part of the plant or animal to begin with, and therefore better integrated. Genetic engineering can introduce new sequences to an animal’s genes that aren’t necessarily that integrated with teh animal’s other genes. Nature doesn’t get to smooth the sharp edges, move the creature towards greater viability. This is not just about change, but the unpredictable nature of interactions within biological systems.

We’re already seeing the results in terms of wildlife diversity. A group of people trying to raise numbers among a prey species do so by killing off predators. But it doesn’t tend to work, because (a)The predators may be competing against more voracious hunters than themselves, (b)The Predators may be keeping down the prey species’s competitors, and (c) The predators may play some other role that supports the ecosystem.

All in all, we may think we can control the way species develop, but its a hell of a lot more complicated than that, and I bet you there are going to be some major screw-ups at some point. We need to learn how to make them under controlled circumstances first, so we don’t end up the subjects in our own biotechnology experiment.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 26, 2005 12:16 PM
Comment #107530

As you say, technology is not good or evil. But it can be efficient or not efficient. If our goal is to create the least amount of environmental damage, biotechnology is the way to do this.

Population is a problem. I suppose it is the key to other environmental problems. But there is good news, bad news and just news.

Development is the best form of birth control and popualiton growth is slowest among the richest market economies (with the exception of the former USSR). As you know, the population challenge for Europe, Russia and Japan is too FEW births. Populations are stabilizing all over the world, including places like Mexico and China. The population bomb fizzled out and population will begin to decline when many of us are still be alive. Malthus and Paul Ehrlich were wrong.

But we have a gap to fill. The population may reach 10 billion before it stabilizes. The Economist estimates that this would require 35% more calories than we have today, and that assumes nobody will want to improve his diet. The poor guys living in Africa or India deserve better and they can’t have it at today’s level of technology If we redistributed all the goods we produce with today’s technologies, all we would succeed in doing is making everyone poor. Tangible things are the key, not money. If we distributed all the money, it looks like we could make everyone well off. But there is more money than there is stuff to buy.

I see the world coming in a big circle, but at a higher level. In preindustrial times, mankind lived more or less in harmony with nature living off mostly biology based renewing technolgies. We should not over idealize these times. Life was bad for most people most of the time and we lived in harmony because natural limits were very clear. Industrialism, jump starting with non renewing resources, broke up a way of life that had lasted thousands of years. It made some messes, but we are generally better off for it. But industrialism alone is not sustainable. Now we are moving beyond it, coming back into a harmony, but at a higher level. The transition is taking about 350 years. That is a long time for you and me, but not so long really.

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 12:37 PM
Comment #107594

Jack, you still haven’t addressed distribution systems and affordability issues. Do you wish to ignore a glut of food while 100’s of millions starve due to unprofitable distribution costs and lack of income by growing populations in China, India, and and Africa, other places?

The WTO announced just last week more billions of debt forgiveness for 3rd world countries who have received food and medical aid under contract and have defaulted on that contract. This is going to be the way of it as long as human population continues to expand along with food stocks sitting in warehouses American warehouses waiting for the US federal government to assume the cost to buy it and ship it to 3rd growing population nations who can’t afford it.

If the socialism of this current and growing scenario doesn’t bother you, I am impressed. Because as the WTO is demonstrating, the transfer of wealth from the haves to the have nots, in the world is well underway precisely because technology can produce consummables far, far faster than nations and economies can create viable consumers out of the growing population numbers.

I think it is naieve for anyone to say a backlash on this scenario is not in the offing. And when it comes, billions will die while surpluses sit and rot.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 26, 2005 4:42 PM
Comment #107620

The WTO and the system of subsidies and tariffs is an abomination. However, your characterization of warehouses full of food not being sent to the hungry is a simplification.

I would also point out that the official U.S. programs make up more than 50% of the entire world’s food aid already and that doesn’t take into account our very generous private Keep this up and we will supply 100%. You know the Europeans object to our food distribtion. It is one of the stumbling blocks to the WTO agreements.

But mere distribution of food creates its own troubles. One of the causes of famine in Africa has been subsided food, which broke the back of poor farmers.

The biggest problem is tariffs and trade barriers (more EU but also U.S.) against agricultural goods from poor countries. The second biggest problems are tariffs and restraints of poor countries against good from richer ones. Then we have the distorting subsidies. We should eliminate them all. But there are caveats.

We have to make our estimates of needs based on real world possibilities, not an ideal situation nobody has ever actually observed. Politics happen. So does economics. The only distribution system worse than the free market we have today is everything else. You remember the success communists and socialists had in turning bread baskets into starving bowls. But even the most efficient systems don’t work 100%. There is a certain amount of waste in any system and a lot of waste in a large one.

But there are more permutations.

Agricultural yields boomed because of our use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Some of this was unsustainable. With organic methods, or even those of 1960, we cannot feed our current populations, much less the extra mouths we will soon have.

Biotech is more earth-friendly. Biotech crops require less pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer. They produce much more per acre, so we have to plant fewer acres. To grow the food we need to feed today’s people without advances made since 1960, we would have to plow down most of our forests and fields. The ONLY way we can preserve nature is through biotechnology.

I agree that populations must be controlled. They are. Populations will actually drop in Europe, Russia and Japan. The U.S. is near zero growth. Only immigration keeps it up. Even African rates are dropping. BUT even if everyone has only two kids, we have demographic inertia. Young people are coming of age in greater numbers. Many of the people who will be with us in 2050 are already born and to stop the inertia now would require that we don’t allow our young people to have children. We don’t have the power to do that and I am glad we don’t.

We have alternatives. Biotechnology is the best of them.

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 7:02 PM
Comment #107646

Nice to see I can agree with Chris Roach & Ron Brown on something (& Jack on trade subsidies too! a triple play!).
We use fire even though it’s a double-edged sword. We will move to reliance on nuclear power even though its’ dangers are clear. Biotech is no different.
I know Chris will agree with me that science does need to have its’ hand guided by well defined ethics. So for example the attempt to popularise crops that could not be reseeded was clearly imoral.

Posted by: Jon at December 26, 2005 8:36 PM
Comment #107656

Efficiency without wisdom is only the ability to make larger foolish mistakes than we are otherwise capable of. This is what free-market advocates neglect to understand. There are forces besides those of the market that determine the consequences of our actions, and we should be careful to consider those as well, and be willing sometimes to sacrifice economic gain for the sake of avoiding profitable errors and breaches of integrity.

There is suspicion among many doctors that the constant use of antibiotics in livestock is causing bacteria to develop immunity to antibiotics in humans. This is no light matter, as infections constitute one of the major hazards of hospital care.

A similar things happens with pests and crops genetically engineered with pest resistance farmers using such fields have to plant crops of unaltered plants in order to keep the bug population from developing immunity.

Other problems include the potential for engineered crops and creatures to escape containment and overwhelm other population. One such kind of fish could in fact sink their species because of the creatures accelerated development.

Am I saying no to biotech, no to GM crops? No. I am saying this takes more care than some might think, that we may regret our carelessness later if we do not watch our actions now.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 26, 2005 8:52 PM
Comment #107674


We have to use biotech carefully. But like everything else, there is no zero option. The anti-biotic abuse you mention is one alternative to biotech. Biotech gives us some options to get rid of some of the bad practices we use today.


One of the safety measures in biotech is to ensure that they do not reproduce in the next generation. Besides, they may not breed true. In a none biotech example, consider apples. If you plant a seed from your favorite apple, you will not get that apple on the tree that grows. It is not stable. that is why we graft apples.

Biotech is an alternative to heavy use of poisons, fertilizers or antibiotics.


I am consistent about some things. For example, I feel both abortion and the death penalty should be used, but used sparingly. Some people inconsistently support one or the other. I also support stem cell research and biotechnology. I bet a lot of those who are passionately in favor of stem cell research oppose biotech (which is in exactly the same category.)

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 9:20 PM
Comment #107677


Nobody mentioned the poem. Poetry is distilled language. Doesn’t “The Fog” really give the feeling for change?

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 9:22 PM
Comment #107685


Side point - I’ve always been suspicious of the claim that Einstein referred to compound interest as “the most powerful force in the universe”. First of all, no physicist would put a social construct like money on par with the true forces of nature. Secondly, Einstein was Jew who had to flee Hitler (perhaps after he made the claim). Surely the Jews understand as well as anyone that money is trumped by physical force!

That’s my two cents, anyway (which you can put in the bank and yield the wonder of compound interest).

Posted by: Woody Mena at December 26, 2005 9:37 PM
Comment #107697


I don’t know. I only know that it is widely believed and seems to have been widely believed during Einstein’s lifetime, when he could have complained.

Compounding works for lots of things, not only money. It works in most biological systems until it reaches a limiting factor. In fact that is why I chose to use it to describe the pace of change in biotech.

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 9:50 PM
Comment #107704

Your points are good. And I am in favour of both stem cell research & biotech in general. The terminator technology seemed to be outside responsible practice though (& I’ll freely admit the area is outside my expertise). From what I’ve learnt from others though is that the terminator gene can be transfered to other crops through cross-pollination, and that was a nasty suprise. Plus it seems retrograde to take away the ability in crops that do germinate, even if apples don’t others do. If Monsanto didn’t have dark intentions they did a bad job of convincing the public.

P.S. Einstein had a great sense of humour, but that quote may not be his, I don’t know.

Posted by: Jon at December 26, 2005 10:08 PM
Comment #107711

THe terminator can’t spread, since it is fatal. Only the actual plant could spread pollen. There wouldn’t be any in the next generation.

It is sort of like the old joke paradox that if your parents didn’t have any children, chances are you won’t either.

BTW - apples will germinate. They just won’t produce the variety you have.

An interesting sidelight to apples. We all remember the story of Johnny Appleseed. How could he plant apples all over? Well most of the apples produced by seed will be sour or deformed. People won’t want to eat them but they are good for two things: feeding pigs and making cider. People on the frontier liked cider, since it could be made into alcohol bearing hard cider.

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 10:27 PM
Comment #107720


To clarify, the trait is fatal. Fatal traits don’t pass along.

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 10:57 PM
Comment #107721

…oh, yeah, no, I understood that, it was my original take too…
It was more intended to highlight if you have two crops planted, one with the terminator gene and one without (normal). Taking seed from the normal crop to replant could not be guaranteed if the other crop had contaminated it. I understand we’re dealing with all sorts of probabilities here, and controls can be put in place.
It’s really the second part of my concern and the dubious ethics involved that bother me the most. Farmers being beholden to the grain ‘manufacturers’ every year for wheat, corn, etc (I guess here, like I said not a farmer nor a biologist, so someone with better knowledge needs to explain it to me if I am to be put at ease. I promise to be rational.)

Posted by: Jon at December 26, 2005 10:58 PM
Comment #107732

tree hugger,
You know I don’t disagree with you either. I’d say there’s a school of thought that we using everything at our disposal. To use someone else’s words, it’s a matter of survival. And I guess the ultimate gravity of that statement is what’s making me so agreeable. Or maybe it’s the accumulated amount of alcohol in my system right now. I’ll put our species continued existence before everything else: religion, reason, science, ideology, even the sort of car that puts a stupid grin on your face.

Posted by: Jon at December 26, 2005 11:26 PM
Comment #107734


Biotech gives us more tools to use. What we are doing now is use fertilizers, pesticides etc. This is a shotgun approach. It hits the target, plus a lot of other things. This is a better approach. As I said, we don’t always have as much diversity as we think. Every delicious apple you eat is genetically identical to the others and there are millions.

Biotech can be better than the alternatives - or not. But it is better to have more options.

BTW - my survey question - do you favor stem cell research?


That point I get. But there are reasons not to want the seeds to reproduce besides greed. One is just precaution. Maybe you don’t want these seeds to become self propigating.

Posted by: Jack at December 26, 2005 11:34 PM
Comment #107758

Good Post on the Study and Manipulation of our Agriculture Sector of Our Society. However, I’m amazed that no one commented on the fact that The Human Race has been doing Bio-Engineering in the food that we consume for over 12,000 years. However, it was not until 1977 that Governments invested heavily into the science and higher bounty of crops. Yes, many concerns are still valid in their argument and need to be heavily regulated, but most of the fears have been proved wrong. Nevertheless, I have to question the fact that exists between the obesity of our society with that of the type of food that we are consuming. Because my ill-informed opinion makes me want to lean toward the idea that maybe “Science” left out the “Real Nutrients” and thus we consume more to obtain the amino acids, minerals, etc. that our body needs. You know I still find it amazing that after 1,000’s of years a doctor still can not tell you the exact compounds we exact from the many different foods that we eat to give our body the energy that it needs to survive. Ever wonder why we eat three meals a day when the Human Body can exist for weeks with nothing to eat? Just something to tease your mind.

On the comment ““the most powerful force in the universe” being compounded interest, I would have to agree with that statement. However, do you or Woody Mena know why it is? Hint: the answer has something to do with the subject that we are talking about.

Posted by: Henry Schlatman at December 27, 2005 12:40 AM
Comment #107816

Jon, right. And let us not forget the lesson of Vioxx. Exactly the same pressures exist for biotechnology in the areas of food production, to cut the corners, ignore negative results, and profit from a debilitating product before anyone notices and asks for 1/10 of those profits back in the form of fines.

Only with bio-technology, the debilitating reach of foodstuffs could affect 100’s of millions or more people before the damage is halted and products removed from market. The biochemistry of the human metabolism is still a relatively new field and there is still huge amounts of we don’t know. The wrong enzyme introduced to the diets of pregnant women could solve our world population problem, “by accident” for a brief period, or even longer depending on many political factors.

Kind of makes one glad there is a World Health Organization not too closely tied to the profits of the biotechnology industry.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 27, 2005 2:40 AM
Comment #107915


I understand the risk of new things. But you have to know that (as Henry said) this has been going on for a long time. Beyond that, when we breed a new plant with conventional means (which since the 1960s has often meant irradiating it to create random mutations) we get a whole package of genes we didn’t ask for, some of which might be harmful. With biotech, we can be more precise.

I return to this theme so often I am sure people are getting sick of me, but it is true -

We don’t have a zero option. If we make no changes it means we will do what we are doing now, which is not sustainable. If we try to go back to the organic past, we have to liquidate most of the world’s population.

Biotech is our best option. We don’t have to use everything, but we don’t want to eliminate this tool from our toolbox.


People are fat because they eat too much and move too little. Everybody is trying to find some magic reason to explain it, but there is none. That does not mean that some diet choices are not better than others. Whole grains are better than processed foods. Vegetables are better than candy. But getting fat is just mathematical input versus output.

You can do things to make your metabolism work better too. Weight training (or heavy work) that builds muscle is a long term way to control fat. Even though the actual exercise might not burn that many calories, the change in your body composition burns more calories. It takes more calories to maintain a pound of muscle than a pound of fat.

Posted by: Jack at December 27, 2005 9:14 AM
Comment #107923


First, I agree with your post wholeheartedly; let’s just hope it’s not Pandora’s box. With that said, we need the brakes on, we need the oversight. Or else, it’s profit over all and we all will suffer.

Second, Americans are fat not only because of video games. Our diet is bad because fast cheap bad food is widely available (where the profit margins are higher) and good food is more difficult to prepare and often too expensive to eat out. It’s cheaper and easier to eat at MacDonalds, so many fall into the supersize trap. It’s our culture, convenience and Madison Ave rule.

lack of income by growing populations in China,India,
Posted by David R. Remer at December 26, 2005 04:42 PM
You’re kidding, right? that’s so 80’s, LOL.
Have you or anyone you know been Bangalored yet?

Posted by: Dave at December 27, 2005 10:07 AM
Comment #107940

I once had a high school teacher whose main thesis was that all technology degraded the human race. He would say that air bags in automobiles are a certain way to dilute the intelligence of the gene pool.

Posted by: Michael L. Cook at December 27, 2005 11:14 AM
Comment #107948

BTW - my survey question - do you favor stem cell research?


Yes I do, and there is just big enough of a loop hole there that allows me not to be a hippocrite— at least according to my personal interpretation. Consuming food that has been altered and then digested by our systems as energy has to be bad. In the same way that drinking milk with rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is bad. BTW, every other industrialized nation has banned the use of rBGH, why do we lag behind? Anyway, we are using the food to make energy, repair tissues and if it is altered in anyway how can that NOT affect your body?

Stem cells on the other hand aren’t made for day to day use, and i would oppose any product that is sold over the counter by means of that production. However, since this research at this point is to theoretically SAVE the lives of those affected with various diseases and abnormalitites then i say it is our duty to find a way to heal our sick. Stem cells MAY offer that opportunity. Its worth a good look.

So what do i do? I buy organic food grown with good ol’ poop fertilizer— trust me i was it first. Drink grass fed free range milk and eat the same kind of meat. It is pricier, but in my mind it is worth it in the long run. If more people thought and believed the same, it would be cheaper.

So i believe i am not a hippocrite, at least on this topic.

Posted by: tree hugger at December 27, 2005 11:39 AM
Comment #107964


The reason I ask re stem cells is that it has made some strange alliances.

I am convinced that if the President had pushed stem cell research, many of the same people who are supporting it now would be complaining about the Frankenstein nature of it all.

Stem cell research is only one part of genetic and biotechnology. I think it is a good thing to study, but I think that about most biotechnololgy. Most people supporting stem cell research have little idea of what it is. All they know if Bush wants to limit it, so they are for it.

Posted by: Jack at December 27, 2005 12:18 PM
Comment #107967

Yes, but jack im not one of those people who automatically want the opposite of bush wants. that is just plain silly and closed minded.

I support the RESEARCH and ethical APPLICATIONS of stem cells.

Also, many people want the same things as bush proclaims: security, freedom, health, etc but strongly disagree with the means by which such things are achieved. I am one of those people for the most part— for the most part.

Posted by: tree hugger at December 27, 2005 12:26 PM
Comment #107980

You said “People are fat because they eat too much and move too little.” Well, I have said that people are fat because they have to eat more food to obtain the nutrients needed for proper living. Altenating & Processing Food affect a food’s nutrient content as well as Fertilisers, Millling, and Canning take away from Nature’s source of energy (vitamins and minerals). Today, the medical field can only recommend what a person needs and that is only an educated guess at best.

No, we have done a lot of good in learning to use the Knowledge found in Nature to increase the World’s supply of food. Considering how far behind the eight ball that our society was 40 years ago, we can a long way, baby. Nevertheless, today we are just learning the need to design into our seed the added vitamins and minerals to make up for the lost in processing our food. In fact, Certified Organic Food has been found more benefical to the Human Body than twice the same amount as processed food.

Therefore, one can and are investigating the possibility that the reason most Humans are over weight is the simple fact that our food today does not meet the needs of the Human body and thus we eat more and do less to cover up for the lack of energy. Additionally, news articles like CNN in 2000 are teaching us that it is possible to make an “orange that contains all the nutrients found in a multivitamin.” So have faith in Human Nature that we will figure out how to consume properly someday.

Posted by: Henry Schlatman at December 27, 2005 1:02 PM
Comment #107987

Jack, and conversely, many who are opposed to stem cell research on the right, would be for it if Bush said he was. Talk about your sheepish behavior.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 27, 2005 1:09 PM
Comment #108006


I don’t know about that. Right now I have to get going to run, since it is a sunny day. I had a sauage, cheeze and egg bagle at McDonalds for breakfast, but the four miles around the Capitol Mall will take care of it.

Similar habits would eliminate virtually all obestity in our country.

Posted by: Jack at December 27, 2005 1:35 PM
Comment #108017

“In the U.S., biotech soybean (herbicide resistant), maize (herbicide and insect resistant), and cotton (herbicide and insect resistant) account respectively for approximately 85%, 75%, and 45% of total acreage”

Herbicide resistant crops are truly the scariest result of biotech. These crops allow farmers dump more and more herbicides on crops. And the weeds become more and more resistant to those herbicides.

Where do you think these herbicides (poisons) go when it rains? These poisons run off into streams and rivers, killing valuable plant life that provides food and shelter to fish and other riparian life.

I am more open-minded about insect resistance, but the best sustainable way to reduce insects in the long term is through integrated pest management.

Posted by: Mike K. at December 27, 2005 1:55 PM
Comment #108067

The herbicide resistance just allows the use of specific herbicides, with soybeans I think it is usually Roundup. If you can be more effective, you can apply less often.

That is the whole thing about the biotech. It works better so we have fewer inputs of the things we don’t want.

Posted by: Jack at December 27, 2005 3:02 PM
Comment #108097

Would you settle for a pill that met your daily food intake and produced no waste? Or do we design food in the amount and quality necessary to provide for the Three Meals a Day that Americans have grown accustom to. In this manner your four mile run would add positively to your life not just burn off a few calories.

Posted by: Henry Schlatman at December 27, 2005 3:39 PM
Comment #108113


I like to eat and I like to run. I don’t want a pill to take the place of either.

Posted by: Jack at December 27, 2005 4:02 PM
Comment #108140

“The herbicide resistance just allows the use of specific herbicides, with soybeans I think it is usually Roundup.”

Regardless of which herbicides…the end result of applying herbicides is the same: increased resistance of target species to the herbicidal poisons. This happens due to an obscure scientific concept called Evolution. As ever more herbicides are sprayed on crops to accomplish the same goal, non-target species and wildlife suffer.

Conservatives have been behind the curve on many things; alternative energy, global warming, and the destroying of wetlands around New Orleans are some examples. It would be nice if conservatives would listen to the greens for a change, and realize that the cheaper, less destructive, long-term solution often has the softest impact on Mother Earth.

I would suggest that the risks and inherent problems of genetically modified plants can be avoided by large-scale integrated pest management (IPM) programs. But the Mega Agri-Biz companies are only looking at short-term profits. They do not care about the health of our forests, wetlands, and fisheries.

Posted by: Mike K. at December 27, 2005 4:41 PM
Comment #108165


Most agricultural and forestry firms care a lot about their land and its long-term productivity. It is, after all, their land. I am a small forest owner and I guarantee that I care more about my forest than any government bureaucrat or Greenpeace activists. I am working on a stand of beech trees now that probably won’t be mature for more than 70 years. I don’t plan to be alive that long, but it still makes a big difference to me. Profit is important too. Profit and the environment are not incompatible. In fact the opposite is true. The worst environmental degradadtion was (is) done by communists and socialists.

I work with Georgia Pacific. I get good - FREE - advice on soils, waters etc and the key to everything in the forestry world today is sustainability. You need to update your stereotypes.

The wetlands around New Orleans? It depends on what you call conservative. The wetland destruction has been going on for many years. For most of that time Louisiana was Democratically controlled as it is today. In fact, it always had the reputation for being a little on the populist side. I also think if you look to who wants to rebuild New Orleans in its ecologically damaging glory and who doesn’t, you will find more rebuilders on the left.

I am also in favor or charging market rates for water etc. That would limit a lot of the damage we now inflict on the west.

Re alternatives - I would also say that we are on the curve on alternative fuels. They are now becoming economically viable. Before they were not.

And they are being developed with the typical use of R&D and science. Biotech will be important sources of alternative fuels.

Re herbicides, I will say again that the biotech allows for LESS use of herbicide. There are times when biotech will be the best and times when it will be not appropriate. But we need to develop it.

Posted by: Jack at December 27, 2005 5:23 PM
Comment #108352

“Re herbicides, I will say again that the biotech allows for LESS use of herbicide.”

You are completely wrong on this point. Think about it. The reason crops are bred to be herbicide resistant, is to allow more herbicide to be used on them.

Louisiana was Democratically controlled, but in those days southern Democrats were (and mostly still are) conservative. Party affiliation can be misleading. I’m a liberal, but would vote for Lincoln Chafee before a conservative Democrat.

Georgia Pacific may be interested in the sustainability of their tree farms (they prefer monoculture tree farms to mature, diverse forests), but are they concerned about the effects of silt in streams and rivers due to the roads that are cut to allow logging? Are they concerned that logging causes flooding and thermal pollution in streams, that harms fisheries hundreds of miles away?

I’m happy that you are caring for your beech trees. How about adding a variety of other native plants, then applying for a conservation easement, to preserve it for wildlife?

Posted by: Mike K. at December 28, 2005 8:56 AM
Comment #108368


I have wildlife jumping around all over. I don’t need a conservation easement. Native plants grow all over the place, as long as we fight off the kudzu and trees of heaven, which you have to do with herbicides, BTW. The work it would take to do it by hand would make it impossible. Kudzu can grow a foot a day and will obliterate all the native vegetation.

Re roads, yes. Forest roads are a major issue in all forestry discussions. Most of the silting comes from roads and everybody knows that. We build along natural lines to minimize run off. When it goes down hill, we build culverts. We build “rain gardens” to catch the run off and percolate the water. It takes about four days to soak away. These rain gardens are beautiful things.

We like to keep our soil and don’t want to run it into the waterways. The local population likes to hunt and wants abundant wildlife. We do a very good job of conserving and supplying timber and forest products.

Re monoculture, it depends what you are trying to grow. A hardwood forest can be mixed. A pine forest usually cannot. In most places if you find southern pine with hardwoods it is a transition forest and it is transitioning from pine to hardwood. If it is partially shady, you get oak. If it is very shady, you get beech and maple. If it is very sunny, you get pine or yellow poplar. I have some of all kinds. All these are natural and none is superior to the others except in the sense of what you are trying to get.

Most of the real work of conservation is done by landowners and much is done by hunters, who love their land. My investments (time, money and education) in my land are worth more than a hundred Greenpeace activists chanting and raising money so that they can chant and raise more money. Some people do. Others talk. Still others criticize those who do.

Posted by: Jack at December 28, 2005 10:04 AM
Comment #108377

Mike K
Georgia Pacific replants their farms within a month or two after the log them. So the risk of flooding and thermal pollution is limited. True is could happen. Particularly if there’s heavy rains right after they log. Also logging roads usually aren’t cut close to streams, creeks, or rivers. True some of them cross streams and that can cause some problems. But I don’t believe there’s a serious risk.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been past or on a tree farm. There’s a few around here. And they do conrtolled burns to keep under growth from becoming a problem, but most of them have enough under growth to sustain wildlife.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 28, 2005 10:21 AM
Comment #108382

You posted while I was working on mine. Interesting link. While I’m not a tree farmer, there are a few in this area. And what little I know of the subject comes from talking to them.
I’ve been thinking about the possibility of planting a few acres of trees myself.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 28, 2005 10:32 AM
Comment #108386


If you live in the South get the genetically superior loblolly.


Another thing about biotech. YOu may recall that the most important tree in the eastern hills was the American chesnut. It was destroyed by a fungus that arrived from Asia around 1904. Attempts at breeding a resistant strain have not been successful. If biotech can bring back this tree, it will have been worth all the effort. The same goes for the Canadian hemlock, currently under stress.

Posted by: Jack at December 28, 2005 10:44 AM
Comment #108595

Is South Georgia far enough South for you Jack?
However you lost me with lobolly.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 28, 2005 5:04 PM
Comment #108984

Kudzu: Wasn’t that one of the brilliant ideas? Just one of the reasons we need to use this stuff carefully, if at all.

I dunno about anywhere else, or Georgia Pacific for that matter. I do know that the loggers here in NC don’t have to do anything other than clear-cut and leave the mess behind. They are fully protected by the laws here, and can even cut in protected wetlands when even the owners of said wetland can’t.

It’s nice to see maybe some places using at least some responsible practices. It isn’t universal here in the US.

Don’t ask me how I know, I don’t want to get started.

Posted by: womanmarine at December 29, 2005 3:27 PM
Comment #109017

Kudzu: Wasn’t that one of the brilliant ideas? Just one of the reasons we need to use this stuff carefully, if at all.

Yeah, a real brilliant idea. Jimmie Boy had it brought over from Japan to fight soil erosion. Just another Japanese wounder.
I’ve accually seen this stuff cover a good size barn in just a couple weeks.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 29, 2005 6:22 PM
Comment #109076


Sorry, you’re wrong.

The history of Kudzu in the US

Posted by: womanmarine at December 30, 2005 1:11 AM
Comment #109212

OK, Carter didn’t bring it over from Japan. I was wrong about that.
However when he was Govenor of Georgia he had it planted on highway rideofways and other state owned property to fight soil erosion. The stuff took over a lot of these places and spread onto private property.
Fortunatlly we don’t really have much in this part of the state.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 30, 2005 1:37 PM
Comment #111242

I am frustrated by the doom and gloomers. Some people, no matter of what facts to the contrary, will always assume the world was born beautiful and is now hurtling toward doom. I believe the opposite is true - the world was born ugly and evil and society is rapidly improving. I could site a million examples, but consider the terms “war crimes” and “civil liberties” - a few hundred years back, these terms did not exist. We are bombarded with stories about greed and injustice and scientific progress is lumped into this, but the truth is, our recent generations did not invent evil nor injustice, or misuse of knowledge. In fact, we have done more to bring the world out of darkness in the last 200+ years than at any time in history. I believe it is our growing awareness of evil and potential misuse of applied science (true power) that discolors our thinking. The fact is we now have the luxury of thinking about all the harm we can do and our inhumanity to man and, as it should, it disturbs us. It was not that long ago when most of the human race was to busy trying to find food than to have a conscious, and now some nuts even worry about the pain we cause fish before eating them! It was only about sixty years ago where it was considered OK to unleash the terrible power of the atom, now it is unthinkable except in a situation of reciprocating. Having said all this, I think it is better to have the doom and gloomers around because they do end up as an effective check and balance. But I think the truth is, a higher power is driving it all anyway and it is doing a good job.

Posted by: Tom Robbins at January 8, 2006 5:50 PM
Comment #404097

Biotechnology is a very option if we are looking forward to yield more and bio processed foods have no side-effects. Researchers should increase the research the use of biotechnology in the field of mmanufacturing medicines. It is very important to protect the environment and if biotechnology can help why not replace other technologies with it.

- Medical Tourism Abroad

Posted by: Kanika Gupta at April 7, 2016 6:28 AM
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