Sunday, June 05, 2011
The Germans are being sued by the Spaniards over the initial claim that the German E. Coli outbreak was caused by Spanish vegetables and will have to settle, because it originated from a German farm which was shipping contaminated vegetables, most specifically sprouts.
It's not utterly official yet - just certain. And it is a lesson to us all about how organic we want our veggies to be. Personally I like the modern, hygienic stuff grown with chemicals, but hey - if you like food poisoning, organic is just fine.
We also should ponder this lesson in correlation not equating to causation - the Germans are still telling people not to eat cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce after doing a nice scientific study which showed that 95% of the people who came down sick had eaten one of three. But since fresh vegetable prep area is common, and salad preparation areas are common, it is not difficult to see how contamination could spread between vegetables.
Now - does Putin come off it and back off the veggie-blockade?
There's a whole long line of history behind this story. The Germans have a long history of stringent food regulations, and they were forced to give up some of their safeguards by the EU's fair trade regulations. Therefore it is not that surprising that they would have intuitively looked elsewhere for the source.
The outcome could hardly be worse - a lot of dead or sick people, and an international hullabaloo, and Spain, which is in the grip of a truly fearsome economic downturn (unemployment over 21%) dealt another economic kick.
I think most people who eat organic because they want to eat good food are concerned about things like pesticides/herbicides and GM foods (bioengineered to produce their own pesticides/herbicides) and foods (whether via breeding or GM) made to taste like crap and be less nutritious. I think most of the people concerned about chemical fertilizers have more of an environmentalist angle than an "I want good food" angle.
At least I know I would prefer to not digest pesticides/herbicides (though "not digest" doesn't necessarily preclude their use in all cases). And I am really tired of the horrible monstrosities that tend to get passed off as "tomatoes" these days and now bananas seem to be taking a turn for the worse as well. But I don't really care where the plant got its nutrients as long as it gets what it needs to be yummy/nutritious and doesn't pick up anything nasty for the ride.
Somewhat contrary to your "modern, hygienic" comment -- currently the reason why pesticides and herbicides get used at all is because the environment in which plants are grown is *not* hygienic. If it weren't for all those weed and harmful insect contaminants, they wouldn't be used by anyone.
The insects are quite natural, I can assure you. So are most of the soil-borne blights.
To be honest, I was thinking more about fertilizers than anything else, though. You have to be quite careful about what herbicides and pesticides are used on crops for human consumption.
When I see "organic", I think "bug-ridden", having found my share of half-worms in my salad as a kid. It would be worth it if the produce at the fancy store was more ripe or more tasty, but it's not. It's just buggy.
I'm with foo on the sad, sad, state of store-bought tomatoes, though. You'd think that hydroponics could be ripened properly, but apparently not.
'Twas rather like Africa or many South American countries today. We have no idea how fortunate we are until we spend some time out of the country.
It is to laugh. We've been eating GM foods for a long time. How did we get so many varieties of apples, peaches, grapes, etc. Think a monk named Mendel figured it all out first. It's just that Monsanto and Bayer take shortcuts Mendel didn't know about. But of course that is SCAAARRREEE! And most of the people pronouncing it scary have never shucked corn or howed a row of beans or much else to do with farming.
Yeah, there is a lot of objection to fertilizers too. But Potash, Mosaic, BHP etal will all keep selling more as long as the Chinese and Indians keep multiplying and eating.
My word is cowse. How did it know my comment was about farming?
I've suspected for a while the word verification has some AI/natural language research project piggy backing on it. The better it gets, the stronger my suspicion.
But whatever those things we mostly get in the stores are, they aren't really tomatoes.
As for GMOs, I'm not especially in favor of those either. We have no idea what the long term effects will be. They are allowing them to contaminate fields by cross pollinization, without compensation the farmer that may not want GMOs. Worse yet, Monsanto has been known to sue the farmer with the ruined field for using the patented crop without permission. It needs more study.
Maybe it is from contaminated water, and maybe the water contamination was temporary from spring rains carrying contamination. I am sure that between every growth they wash the containers with bleach, so it could have been a temporary thing.
Teri - I don't understand why people obsess over cows. Ultimately there is always a human source. The cows can be intermediate vectors, but they'll be contaminated from water or in some cases, feed, which traces back to humans.
This is an organic farm, but they say they are not using any manure of any type, so you have to look at sewage contaminated water.
Behind this there is going to be a human being.
They probably will eventually track it to source. If they find it was a foreign farm worker (most likely), there will be a further outbreak of hostility toward guest workers.
For Europe as a whole, it will be difficult to resist the opportunity to take potshots at the Germans - and farmers and the countries under terrific economic stress truly are heavily burdened by the associated losses, and there will be more heated confrontations.
The debt stress among Euro countries is very real (as is this outbreak). I was reading through the list of who has what of the bailout bonds, and Germany does take a big hit. But the people of the debtor countries cannot survive and recover under the debt loads, and the specter of foreigners forcing the misery is going to leave a deep mark.
This incident will serve as an efficient, but malign, correlating factor of pre-existing strains and tensions.
This brings up a tangential question that recently floated into my mind. Didn't the IMF (several years ago) force "austerity measures" on several countries as a prerequisite for forgiving massive amounts of their debt? I think Argentina was one, don't remember the others. The question that started nagging at me was "did it work?" In other words, when countries have gone into "economic shock" before, have any of the prescribed "cures" actually been undertaken, and did those methods really solve anything or did they just prolong the misery?
Yes, it does work, but basically it is not done by loading on debt, but by restructuring the economy (less govt, more private, internal devaluation).
You can't load on the debt and do the IMF thing - the economy never recovers. There is a reason why we have bankruptcy courts - our entire country would have gone broke long ago if we didn't write down unpayable debts.
Take a look around. The answer is, "Not really." The reason is, as far as I can tell, the governments don't really change that much. As long as these countries have welfare state governmnets they will keep getting in unsustainable debt. Kind of like where our government is now trending. I saw Charlie Rangel on John Stossel's show last night. According to him (and he seems to reflect most of his party's attitudes) we haven't a care in the world. Just keep spending and taxing and running the printing presses. It's all good, according to good time Charlie.
The only time I have seen a country pull out of it was when Chile got rid of Allende and put themselves under a right wing dictatorship for a period of years (During which time many of the influential Marxists conveniently disappeared) before returning to a representative government
and free markets. That's pretty stiff medicine, but it might be the only cure.
GMO's are, and have been, thoroughly studied. As are crops produced through Mendelian ( classical ) breeding. The fact that a crop was improved through Mendelian means does not mean it is safe: there are some heirloom varieties of lima bean from Europe that can not be sold in the US on account of their high cyanide levels.
Bayer is working on a GMO potato that will be resistant to late blight, the blight that caused the Irish potato famine. Until such a variety is created, a major source of human nutrition will be vulnerable to the possibility of another outbreak as virulent as the Irish experineced in the 1840's.
And field mice going #1 and #2 is also quite natural, but it's still considered a contaminant when it ends up in your wheat. All kinds of bacteria is natural but is still considered a contaminant when it ends up in your wound. When it comes to insects/weeds/etc it doesn't seem to matter whether you call them "contamination" or "infestation" or "blight" -- somehow none of those is exactly the first thing that jumps to my mind when I think "hygienic".
"We've been eating GM foods for a long time."
Not all genetic changes are equal, unless you think getting pregnant and getting cancer are exactly the same thing. Direct genetic modification allows us to make specific changes of a nature and in a time frame that would rarely (if ever) happen with traditional breeding. This can be both good and bad.
While it's true that you can create poisonous foods via regular breeding, it's very rare that this results in an unexpected poison. E.g., a new variety of potato may contain dangerous or even deadly amounts of glycoalkaloids. But we have been growing/breeding potatoes for a long time and we are well aware of this risk and we know we need to check new varieties for this specific danger. When you start directly messing with DNA in novel ways, though, you can quickly get yourself into a situation where it's no longer possible to even predict what kind of dangers might arise and therefore what kinds of things to check for -- so to achieve the same level of safety as the potato breeder you would have to pretty much test for everything.
Corporations will of course not spend those kinds of resources and will instead deem such testing unnecessary and send out their armies of shills and lobbyists to mock or buy off anyone who disagrees. For those people who do not trust that there will be (or has been) sufficient testing for each GM crop, and who recognize that they themselves do not have access to the necessary information or skills to know that the foods are safe, or even the time to follow all of the changes being made, it's hard to rationally blame them for preferring to not use themselves and their children as guinea pigs.
"How did we get so many varieties of apples"
FYI, the real question is not how we get so many varieties, it's how we get so few.
You get N varieties by planting N apple seeds. Every new tree (if left to its own devices) produces a completely different variety. Most such apple varieties are not something you would want to eat (though you can still make cider with them -- and that's exactly what we used to do with most apples back when every tree was a different variety). When it comes to apples what is commonly called a "variety" is effectively (even if not technically) cloning on a massive scale. I.e., when a breeder manages to find a tree that produces apples to their liking, that breeder takes bits of that tree and splices it onto young trees, and repeats until the result is entire orchards where all of the tree trunks/roots have different DNA than each other but the parts of the trees that actually produce the apples have exactly the same DNA as each other.
Teri, in general the issues with GM will never go away -- not until our ability to do computer modeling of life is so good that we can accurately simulate multi-decade studies and determine the long term effects with a reasonable amount of computer time. If you introduce a specific GM crop today, then yes, you can study that one crop and eventually determine (to some probability) that that crop is safe to grow and eat. However, that does not necessarily tell you anything about the next crop that the lab concocts -- each modification is a new experiment.
Even without such a simulation, though, over time we may determine that specific types of modification have always turned out to be safe, and we may believe we understand the underlying mechanisms involved and that they also support the idea that such modifications should be safe, and therefore future applications of that specific type of modification are also likely to be safe. (This is much like our experience with common crop "breeding". While that is indeed one specific type of genetic modification, we've got thousands of years of experience that says you can take the seeds from your current crop and plant them next year, and the results will be very likely be just as safe to eat.) But the general unconstrained case of "change DNA however you like" will never be safe until we have the ability to accurately model the results *before* chowing down.
"GMO's are, and have been, thoroughly studied."
I suspect you and Teri have different ideas of what constitutes "thorough".
Programming biological systems is way more complicated than programming computers. I would be more inclined to believe we can crank out new safe varieties via direct DNA manipulation if we didn't have so many buggy computer programs. Even in areas of software where human life is on the line (e.g., avionics) and therefore much more caution is exercised, computer bugs still happen, programs still crash and misbehave. But whereas a computer bug in such a critical system is likely to only cause one incident and do limited damage before getting recalled/fixed, a widely used GM food that does irreversible damage over time to a large fraction of the general public may hurt a *lot* of people before the problem is even discovered.
That said, alleviating the risk of mass blight and starvation certainly has to be given some respectable weight. It would be nice if this were presented as an actual rational balance of risks though, rather than pretending that the risks on the other side of the scale simply don't exist. And it should also be recognized that there are many people who will not face any starvation even if there is a potato famine, and their personal preference may be to accept the risk that they may have to skip the mashed potatoes for a while if such a famine hits, and they don't consider avoiding that minor inconvenience to be worth taking on the risk of eating GM foods all the time.
I agree that each particular modification must be examined individually, but I would also comment that crop transfers from one continent to another (such as potatoes to Europe from the Americas) probably contain a greater rate of change and thus potential risk than anything we have yet done with GM.
Swapping genes from one variety of corn to another, as an example, is far more like a breeding program genetic modification, but inserting a truly artificial gene is something else, and transplanting a gene from one plant species to another is something that can happen in nature but we can greatly speed up the natural rate of change.
The central risk is famine and from that war, and I would argue that human beings do have a generalized selfish interest in avoiding famine.
Cropping as humans practice it is itself unnatural. It's true that you see some insect cropping, but it is naturally limited. To the extent that people may compare GM crops to some theoretical "natural" state, some of the concerns are based on a misunderstanding.
One of the greatest risks I think GM crops really pose is loss of seed varieties.
As a follow up to foo's comment, I read a preliminary WHO study about fermented foods the other day. They are seeing clusters of stomach and bowel cancer in China and Korea where bok choy, pickles, and other fermented foods are heavily eaten. (Personal note: I love sauerkraut, pickles, bok choy, and even yogurt.) It seems, however, that such mass produced foods here in the USA are not really fermented and do not have the same bacteria in them that they suspect of being the problem. That's a bummer for those in Asia who love their fermented foods, which keep well and help carry some through the winter.
I suppose any food, organic or GM mightbe harmful over long periods to certain people, such as the fermented foods in China and Korea apparently do. I suspect that many foods may be like many medicines -work fine for some, but can be poison for others. Peanuts would be an example.
The lowly potato from South America. When I was in Peru three years ago I saw and ate potato varieties that I never dreamed existed. On the other hand I saw olive trees that were the descendants of a single olive tree brought from Spain shortly after the Incan empire fell. Talk about cross cultivation of foods.
M_O_M, seed banks and "heirloom" hobbyists are a pretty good source of genetic diversity cadres. It's also probable that GM crops will vary pretty drastically across geographic regions--the optimal characteristics of wheat in Kansas are probably pretty different from wheat in Ukraine. Right now is probably the point of maximum danger--when GM is new, before the strains are locality-optimized enough to provide significant diversity.
Thanks to Instapundit I found a report that syas using it is safe and could create a "Grand Canyon of safety for produce. Wow! Read it all here:
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