Friday, May 8, 2015

What's so scary about gmos? Continued

Let's recall, the question on my mind is "what's so scary about gmos?". As curious individual trained in the sciences, it is our responsibility to understand and explain this fear fairly, with an insight that will be sufficiently penetrating that it will clearly indicate a route through which it might be addressed.

My argument is that the scientific and journalism professions have abdicated their responsibility to provide true popular transparency on the issue.

Let's be honest, the page at on gmo regulations at might as well been written to intimidate. The language is thick, the font is tiny. It spends most of the space naming authorities, but very little on the substance of their enforcement. Hunting through the document for the most substantive passage, I settled on this one:

The consultation procedure is meant to enable the FDA to determine if regulatory action is needed with respect to food derived from the new variety such as “significantly increased levels of plant toxicants or anti-nutrients, reduction of important nutrients, new allergens, or the presence in the food of an unapproved food additive.”
In a 1992 policy statement, the FDA reaffirmed that in most cases it would treat foods derived from GMOs like those derived from conventionally bred plants, and that most foods derived from GM plants would be presumptively GRAS.

This is not a popular science document. To anyone who remembers the environmental catastrophes of the '50 and '60, who have fought industrial Goliaths with sweat and tears, who have suffered the blunt edge of the baton of the police officers sent to repress their protests, and who have passed on the memory of these fights to their children, this reads as stonewalling and naive. A "consultation" with once-murderous industries, which generally leads to a potential toxic product being stamped as "generally recognized as safe"? You've got to be kidding, they will say. The actual work the FDA might very well be excellent, but to a justifiably skeptical reader the language on that page gives the opposite impression.

There have been recent efforts to improve the situation.

The web newspaper was created for the explicit purpose to address the explanation deficit that I am highlighting. I rejoice at their existence, but their piece on gmo regulation is too short, and lacks specifics.

My own favorite piece on the topic is from July 2013, when a reporter at the fantastic reader-supported Grist Magazine made a heroic attempt to investigate the regulatory situation. And yet, after much effort and searching, even Grist, the best environmental reporters of all, failed to bring clarity in such a way that it could inspire confidence. This, above all, gives a measure of the information deficit that has been allowed to take place.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

What's so scary about GMOs?

A GMO can easily be made to be as toxic to as any pesticides. So think DDT, 2,4-D, Chlordane, Agent Orange, Heptachlor and all that.

To be technologically precise, one could not literally put these molecules in a plants' genome, but other similarly dangerous molecules are quite feasible.

Presumably, pesticide can be studied carefully, scientifically, and deployed under the supervision of an agriculture engineer who will express utmost respect for the health of their neighbor, and for the environment that supports all life including humanity's. In practice, that's not what happened.

Pesticides were applied indiscriminately, with wanton abandon and callous disregard for safety. Farm employees died, cancer rates exploded. It was decades after the publication of Silent Spring, the birth of the modern environmental movement, and massive million-people protests throughout the country that national politics began to take notice of the issue. Only then were somewhat effective regulation put in place.

So given the history here, it seems justifiable to expect large agriculture companies to behave with as little care for the health of the broader community as they displayed back then. Similarly, American politicians could be expected to be as laggard as they were back then, or perhaps worse in the eyes of anyone who believes this political system has been switching from democracy to plutocracy.

In sum, like all other novel technologies with potential for both profit and harm --medicine, cars, planes, rollercoaster rides, bodypiercings, etc-- GMOs raise questions of trust, regulation, enforcement, transparency, and struggles of interests. Technologists like myself and yourself would much prefer to see technology used wisely as a matter of course. Alas, it cannot be the case, and thus GMOs necessarily have a political dimension.

Given this, the question we should be asking is: what are the key features of the body of law that regulates the safety of GMOs, and can these be trusted to be effective?

Here with hit a wall. It is nearly impossible to know. Let's out me as the rather obsessive readers of news that I am. I can speak about the FDA drug enforcement rules, the FCC's, the EPA, the WHO, the Feds', the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. I could probably fill a page or two with details of how Obamacare work and why it works. I love watching crash test dummies videos; I listened to the all the Plane Crash Engineering Investigation episodes I could get my hand on. And yet, I have no clue about GMO regulation.

I challenge this reader to find a long-form piece in any national American newspaper, let's say between 1990 and now, that explains how this country establishes the safety of a GMO in a legally binding manner, and what penalties are scheduled for abuses. Who introduced the bill and who paid for their reelection campaign? What were the different schemes considered? How do American GMO safety regulations compare with those abroad? Are they better, worst, same? Nobody knows.

American science journalists have done a pitiful job of providing transparency to the situation. Now that it's 2015, there is nobody left to do it since nearly all science journalists at large newspapers were fired when Craiglist cannibalized the papers' ad revenues. A well-earned popular distrust of GMOs grew into that vacuum and it's just a sad situation all around.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What renewable energy products on the market today are capable of heating a Boston brownstone in winter?

The title started as a rhetorical question. Turns out it is actually quite easy to give a practical answer.

Step 1: Hire an architect house with experience in energy efficiency retrofits on old New England houses, such as the folks at

Step 2: Bring up the insulation rating of the house up to the Passive House standard. Think of it as LEAD Silver, one step higher. Check out This costs around $200 per sqft.

Step 3: Reap the savings. After the retrofit, heating costs are reduced five-fold, from $8 per sqft to $1.50. This has a Return-On-Investment period of 10 years, afterwards the energy savings are money in the bank.

Step 4: Generate the energy needed to heat the passive house by buying shares of a windmill coop. You will need one-fifth of 1/6000 of the Berkshire Wind Power Coop project, which is a one-time cost of around $2100 plus a few cents for maintenance.


The only reason people don't do this is because, either (1) they actually enjoy giving oil company their money (ah!) (2) they don't own their house, or (3) they don't know that the technology is available today, or (4) they cannot stomac the 10-year investment horizon.

If you are in that 4th case, keep an eye open. There are banks that specialize in doing these sorts of investments, Solar City does it for solar panels, for instance. But overall they are few and hard to find at the moment. Still, it's totally worth doing.

This article at talks about some folks in New York who did just that.