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August 3, 2010

How to Feed a Hungry World

How to feed a hungry world Producing enough food for the world's population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices. With the world's population expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, a certain Malthusian alarmism has set in: how will all these extra mouths be fed? The world's population more than doubled from 3 billion between 1961 and 2007, yet agricultural output kept pace — and current projections (see page 546) suggest it will continue to do so. Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world's population in 2050 in itself seems “easily possible”. Easy, that is, if the world brings into play swathes of extra land, spreads still more fertilizers and pesticides, and further depletes already scarce groundwater supplies. But clearing hundreds of millions of hectares of wildlands — most of the land that would be brought into use is in Latin America and Africa — while increasing today's brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option. Therein lies the real challenge in the coming decades: how to expand agricultural output massively without increasing by much the amount of land used. What is needed is a second green revolution — an approach that Britain's Royal Society aptly describes as the “sustainable intensification of global agriculture”. Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs — created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots (see page 552) — and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)...

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June 28, 2010

Michael Specter

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30cMichael Specterwww.colbertnation.comColbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives By Michael Specter...

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June 25, 2010

Natural or Synthetic

The natural synthetic dichotomy is not useful when it comes to what's good for us. There are countless examples of "natural" substances that can do one great harm, and that's also true of synthetic ones. The converse is also true, there are many synthetic substances that are totally innocuous, and even beneficial, and so it is with natural ones. So where does this natural is good and synthetic is bad paradigm come from, and why are otherwise, intelligent people so eager to get on the "natural" bandwagon. I don't know the answers, but I do know that the sort of fuzzy thinking that leads people to believe it, causes harm. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the organic/conventional debate on food and how we produce it. The question isn't natural or synthetic it's harm or no harm. A recent study highlights the problem Organic Pesticides Not Always 'Greener' Choice, Study Finds Consumers shouldn't assume that, because a product is organic, it's also environmentally friendly. A new University of Guelph study reveals some organic pesticides can have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides because the organic product may require larger doses. . . The study, which is published in the journal PLoS ONE, involved testing six pesticides and comparing their environmental impact and effectiveness in killing soybean aphids -- the main pest of soybean crops across North America. "In terms of making pest management decisions and trying to do what is best for the environment, it's important to look at every compound and make a selection based on the environmental impact quotient rather than if it's simply natural or synthetic. It's a simplification that just doesn't work when it comes to minimizing environmental impact." Here is another link discussing the study....

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June 2, 2010

Druids are Dumb

The Austrians have actually spent money on this, and amazingly they are going to spend more. I'm flabbergasted. Druids use rock and magnets to stop road accidents Austrian authorities say druids have been so successful in dealing with motorway accident blackspots in one area that they plan to extend the project nationwide. ...‘These energy lines and their flow cannot be grasped or measured therefore their existence is rejected by scientists.’ But Mr Tessmann claims the proof is in the results. ‘If you ask me to give you a scientific explanation, I can’t, I just know it works, and even critics can’t argue with our success rate,’ he said. I know he said we can't argue with his success rate, but I'll give it a try anyway, Regression toward the mean...

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May 18, 2010

Can Monkeys Talk

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May 11, 2010

Commentary and Links on Norms Latest Obsession

On Mother's Day we ate organically, at least the salad and steak were organic. I'm not sure about the lovely garlic bread we also consumed. I grew up during a time when grass fed beef was commonly available and the corn fed was the new kid on the block, but my sons had never had grass fed beef. Corn fed beef has more fat which probably makes grass fed beef a better choice. The cost of the grass fed beef however is double that of the corn fed, and it may be healthier for you (because of the fat content) but, didn't measure up in the taste department. It is considerably tougher, their is no melt in your mouth component here. I know it's a result of the difference in fat content, but that explains why corn fed beef dominates the market. Most people go for the taste over more healthy choice every time. The nutrional content is similar, but if you're concerned about lowering your fat intake the grass fed is the better choice. It's the better choice if you have the means to pay double for your food that is. A similar choice is evident when you buy eggs, I choose the organic free range eggs, mainly because I'm appalled by how chickens are treated, I don't think there any significant nutritional difference, but I pay three times as much for them as I would for the alternative. It's easy to take the moral high ground if you have money, but for those watching their pennies it's not even a choice. I know that part of the problem is subsidizing crops. It would be better if industrial farming wasn't directly subsidized, but economies of scale would still result in significant price differences. I often hear the argument, that GM crops are being forced on the farmers that they have no choice, but certainly they have a choice of whether they plant GM crops or not. I know the arguments, one I believe is exaggerated. It is one that receives a one-sided presentation in most of the current documentaries such as The Future of Food and Food Inc. etc, but lets say the Monsanto et al unfairly bully the farmer. If Monsanto claims someone is using their seed and the farmer claims they're not, or that the plants are there do to genetic drift the farmer has recourse to the courts. I understand the argument here too, the farmers don't have the resources to defend themselves, but why can't they band together pick a critical case or two and share the costs, and why don't they get Friends of the Earth, and other organizations to help them with the legal costs. That's where opponents of GM Crops should put their resources in my opinion. Finally if the court rules against them and they think it unjust they need to contact their representatives to change the law. That is another thing that the numerous organizations could put their resources behind, but instead we get a noun and a verb and MonsantoFinally, please when you make your arguments distinguish between arguments directed at industrial farming and GMOs I share most of your objections to industrial farming, including crop subsidies, use of corn for ethanol etc, but conflating that with GMO's is not helpful.And remember Organic Non-Organic is not an either or question. Updates on Golden Rice and vitamin A here and here Biofortified Lettuce not a bitter pill. King Corn A worthwhile documentary, you can currently get it streaming from netflix if you have an account. News flash: Organic food can still make you fat Monsanto Wins FDA Soy Omega 3 Approval When this reaches market will you continue to take your omega three capsules or will you purchase a soy product made using Monsanto's technology, or . . . E.U. Signals Big Shift on Genetically Modified Crops Thinking Beyond OrganicIn other words, we need the best biology to achieve a truly sustainable agriculture. This includes not only conventional tools for seed improvement such as pollination, tissue culture, mutagenesis, and grafting (mixing two species to create a new variety) but also, modern molecular tools such as marker assisted breeding and genetic engineering. This is one of the points that Karl Haro Von Mogel, a geneticists, beekeeper and blogger, makes in his recent blog post. Because both genetic engineering and more conventional approaches to plant breeding lead to the creation of seed that carry new combinations of traits, it does not make sense to reject either one based on the reasoning that the processes are "unnatural". Every time a breeder makes a cross between two plants he or she is creating an organism that has never before existed. And every time a breeder crosses two plants, the genetic combination represented by the offspring has never before existed. And that's how nature, how evolution works - by creating new combinations. The question is not whether GE crops can be used in organic agriculture (they cannot as they are currently banned by the National Organic Program Standards), but rather -can GE crops be used to help shift our current agricultural systems towards enhanced sustainability? As you know we have several individuals beside myself posting on the blog. We agree on most of the topics we post on, but sometimes we dont'. The subject of GMOs is one of those, Red has different views and so as not to confuse the ocassional visitor to the blog who assumes all the views are mine Red has started a discussion on the Forum The Argument Against GMOs You can make your views known there as well....

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April 27, 2010

Confirmation Bias and Guilt by Association

We all have a problem with confirmation bias. We look at the sources that support our point of view and ignore those that don't and sometimes we attack sources rather than the arguments they make. We employ guilt by association and it's a mistake. I try to find good sources of information, but even information from sources with a vested interest shouldn't be discarded without addressing the arguments they make. I recently posted an article by Janet Carpenter who has links to industry sources and rather than those commenting addressing her arguments they attacked her associations. Dr. David Tribe wasn't quoted in the article, but since I've cited him in the past one commentor decided to play the guilt by association card and said: Among the scientists who have promoted GM crops from IPA platforms are CS Prakash, Klaus Ammann and Steve Hughes. Amongst its published materials are items by CS Prakash and David Tribe and linked to Lobby Watch He even put Dr. Tribe's name in bold print, I suppose that was to emphasize that he couldn't be trusted. He was guilty by association. The connection seemed tenuous to me and even if there was some connection the statement was nothing more than one of guilt by association so I decided to contact Dr. Tribe and ask him what if any connection there was, and he responded. I have not "promoted GM crops from IPA platforms". I have voluntarily corrected errors of fact and given scientific comments on public issues about technology choices and policies, which they have quoted. In America this is called Freedom of Speech. Please ask Lobby Watch why that is a problem. I know Prakash and Klaus personally, and think they are wonderful people, and I am glad to know the IPA quote them too-- they are very knowledgeable. Lobby Watch have never contacted me to check any details of the statements they have made about me. Since Lobby Watch use claims of guilt by association, they should also show they get no income from EU government channels, or from EU funded organisations such as Friends of the Earth, as they are indirectly favouring EU trade barriers. I am employed by a public University full time, I am not employed by the IPA nor do I have any relevant corporate income. I have deliberately avoided having conflicts of interest that are relevant as I have correctly anticipated that they would be used to avoid accountability by activists who routinely use this device to avoid dealing with real issues. I have spoken and been involved with a wide range of organisations, such as the Governments of Vietnam, UNESCO, The Greens Political Party, Rotary International , IPA, High Schools, B'nai B'rith, The Anglican Church, VFF and you. That does not mean I am paid by any of them, nor does it mean that they or you influence my statements. What factual issue or process of logic sourced to me these readers criticise. If there are none, then why cite Lobby Watch about me. Isn't that dodging the point? My main driving force in speaking is deep disgust at the widespread use of misinformation and ignorance to delay benefits of better technology to farmers and poor people in the developing world. The deliberate avoidance by activists of the major issues such as the cancers caused by mycotoxins and the benefits of golden rice, while at the same time fabricating conspiracy theories such as Monsanto-IPA-funded websites is a moral disgrace. Some activists even using threats of legal action to stifle debate. That's the real PR-fraud they should address." Dr. Tribe is in my opinion an excellent source of information on GMO you can read his fine blog here...

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April 26, 2010

GM Crops can Benefit Farmers

LinkUnlike the argument recently put forward by Daniel Church, three reports published this month have documented the benefits of GM crops around the world. A review of peer-reviewed surveys of farmers worldwide who are using the technology compared to farmers who continue to plant conventional crops, published last week in Nature Biotechnology, found that by and large farmers have benefited. Another report released last week by the National Research Council in the US concluded that many American farmers have achieved more cost-effective weed control and reduced losses from insect pests. And a survey of farmers in Brazil, which is a leader in global adoption of GM crops, shows benefits for soybean, cotton and corn growers. New technologies, such as Bt aubergine, promise additional gains to farmers if allowed for commercial release, despite the debate inspired by a recent moratorium in India. Last year, 14 million farmers in 25 countries grew GM crops commercially, over 90% of them small farmers in developing countries, according to ISAAA. I've been studying the impacts of GM crops for the past 12 years. Given the growth in adoption rates around the world and the increasing number of studies that have been done to assess the impact of the technology on farmers, I was interested in looking at how the results of all these studies stacked up. In my review of global farmer surveys, results from 12 countries indicate that most surveyed farmers have increased yields, decreased costs and improved economic performance. The benefits were found to be greatest for the mostly small farmers in developing countries. The average yield improvements for developing countries range from 16% for insect-resistant corn to 30% for insect-resistant cotton, with an 85% yield increase observed in a single study on herbicide-tolerant corn. On average, developed-country farmers' reported yield increases range from no change for herbicide-tolerant cotton to a 7% increase for insect-resistant cotton. It is often claimed that biotech crops are more expensive for farmers. However, the evidence shows that while seed costs (including technology fees) were nearly always higher for farmers who planted GM crops, this was usually offset by decreased costs of pesticides. The combination of increased yields and decreased costs has translated to improved economic performance in nearly three-quarters of the cases studied. And the economic advantage may be even greater, as surveys have also found that farmers value additional cost savings that are not included in a traditional accounting of costs, such as management time savings, human and environmental safety and reduced yield risk....

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April 13, 2010

Michael Specter: The danger of science denial

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (tip to Joel)...

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January 9, 2010

Don't Panic

Power Line Panic and Mobile ManiaHeadlines in the news periodically highlight the “latest” investigation into the link between cancer and either use of mobile (cell) phones or residing near power lines. Some reports claim that there is statistically significant evidence for such linkages yet others deny this. However, both typically include a disclaimer that “scientists claim that there is no physical basis for such a linkage.” The purpose of this piece is neither to investigate the large amount of data that has been generated nor to persuade the public health authorities on the utility (or otherwise) of such investigations. It is to bring out as clearly as possible what scientists mean when they say “there is no physical basis for such a linkage.” The strength of this argument may enable individuals to be less worried about this “panic and mania.” What is the physics underlying the operation of both power lines and cell phones? Quantum mechanics. How well is this theory established? If this theory were used to calculate the diameter of Earth using paper and pen, one would get a value that agrees with the measured value within the thickness of a human hair. There is really no “experimental” reason to doubt quantum mechanics. It can be called the crown jewel of all science. What is the relevant idea of quantum mechanics we need to understand power lines and cell phones? The first idea is that all electromagnetic radiation consists of small particles called photons. The energy of a photon is determined by a formula called Planck’s law: the energy of the photon increases as the frequency increases. . ....

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