Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Castigation, Cancer-Corn, and Cavemen

Rose-coloured lenses are a dangerous accessory, one that should not be worn too readily, nor to the wrong parties. As an incurable optimist and romantic, I accede to a certain hypocrisy in this admonition. If it helps, know that I am not to be held blameless in my own sight; I have been proven wrong in certain judgements, to be explained hereafter:

Probably, I can also be held responsible for the punctuation in that last couple of sentences. Yikes.

It would seem - I am fact-checking as I write this - that certain varieties of Monsanto GM corn have been linked in clinical studies to organ damage. Among those organs affected are the heart and kidneys, so a big heads-up to all my corn-crunching homies: if you're going to be stuffing your gob, you may want to lay off the cob! It is not so much troubling that we've invented food which is bad for you, because let's face it: we're really good at that without the aid of recombinant DNA. What's shaping up to be the distressing part of this story is that while it's some newer data analysis shedding light on this correlation, the studies themselves were performed in 2002, and the results made public in 2005. Of course, proper data analysis takes time. It's one of those common misconceptions of science that you do a study and the answer to your question is sitting there on a page in front of you just like that. But here's the thing: if whatever we had in 2002-2005 was good enough to approve these crops for human consumption, then our standards clearly do not demand sufficient rigor. OR the unfortunate side effects were known and disregarded somehow, so our standards aren't very good at safeguarding your health it would seem (and from what I have read this corn was both FDA and EU approved). Kinda spooky stuff if your idea of government regulation being for the purposes of curbing the worst excesses of the free market like, say, a biotech company that doesn't want people to know about the health risks associated with its frankencorn monster.

Frankencorn monster. Now I'm talking like the sort of person I might have scoffed at before I learned about this whole affair.

You see, I do have a lot of sympathy for the various environmental movements around the globe. Anthropogenic climate change or not, it's pretty hard to argue that we're doing good by our home planet. I've argued with Etarran in the past about the extent (or, indeed, the existence) of our obligation to the Earth. In general, I have argued for the approach called 'permaculture', that is to say a philosophy of design and resource consumption that strives to minimize the depletion of resources vital to future generations. I have also argued that we ought to take a certain responsibility for the stewardship of the Earth, because we have made a grand old mess here and we ought to clean it up. Etarran has argued that the generation of wealth is more important to human well-being than is the preservation of one puny planet's ecology; there is a galaxy of available raw materials out there for the taking if only we slip the surly bonds of Earth's gravity well to seize them. I believe that we find common ground in the theme of preserving human civilization through the colonization of space. Putting all of one's eggs in the same basket - forgive the tired adage - is clearly not a very good survival strategy in anyone's book. A particularly effective metaphor in our debates was the notion of an infinite series of kitchens. Why would you ever bother cleaning one when you could move on to the next whenever the gunk in one became too much to bear?

This is, of course, all rather tangental. Where I often differ from the views of the more vocal activists in this sort of debate is on the merits of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Anti-GMO protesters seem to me the kind of people who watch too much bad science fiction. Bad science fiction where the smart guy is the bad guy, and the various fields of SCIENCE! are populated by a nearsighted bunch whose collective hubris would be enough to sentence one man to a century of homeric trial-by-ordeal. "Oh, please," thought I, "world-ending shit doesn't happen in a world of peer-review and repeatable results!".  Well, maybe Demeter is angry with us or something, because here we are with more or less the closest real-world equivalent of dystopian SF, in which the evil megacorporation is trying to poison us with food. How does that even happen, anyway? I understand that genes are in many ways like what programmers call "spaghetti code": there are a lot of technically unneccesary linkages, and when you run into one accidentally it is liable to cause bugs*. I understand that GMO are probably not as strenuously regulated as they ought to be. I understand that it's in the economic interests of Monstanto to lie to us when the marketability of their product is at stake. Maybe that's it, but it seems to me that in the long run the credibility of the biotech industry would be more important than a few bucks in the near-term. GM Corn is kind of, uh, unexciting when you think about it. I mean, some of the very first human forays into genetics (rather, cross- and selective-breeding) were awesome things like making a whole new grain (Wheat) and making dogs into all of the funny and adorable shapes and sizes in which they are now available. Those are pretty awesome things to do for a species for which sharp rocks were probably still a HUGE DEAL. Now we have some ten thousand years of breeding experience behind us, we're armed with a much more complete knowledge of the mechanics of inheritance, and we have very, VERY fine tools with which to manipulate the very code base of life itself...and the best we can do is CANCER CORN?

WHAT THE HELL? Why aren't we busy making up wacky, alien fruit? Who wants to eat a genetically modified organism that is even the remotest bit like anything they could just buy in mundane form, anyway?

So when I was talking about the rose-coloured lenses of romanticism, I was thinking about people who were romanticising the "natural lifestyle", conveniently ignoring the vast and undeniable benefits of technological living (like, oh say, hygiene and medicine? You like being able to live for more than 30 years, yeah? Or how about the printing press and the computer). To draw some kind of technological line in the sand somewhere, like Star Trek seems to do (ie. Warp Drive is ok but Artificial Intelligence is either irreproducable or evil and sometimes both) seemed to me a really silly sort of position on the matter. In the light of this "cancer corn" revelation, I feel like I should take myself to task for believing perhaps a little blindly that technology would always make things better, and dismissing claims to the contrary as naive superstition fueled by a nasty anti-intellectual streak.

And speaking of neo-primitivism, it's refreshing to see an unromanticized strain which has taken root in New York. It's all about eating and exercizing caveman-style (lots of meat, extended periods of fasting, running around as though pursued by some paleolithic predator). As a vegetarian who really likes to cook I realize that there's not a lot of common ground, but I sort of appreciate their adoption of the diet without glamorizing the actual, historical cave-person existence. To wit:

"Mr. Averbukh, who drives around town in a red Smart Car, said the thought of “throwing yourself in the forest with a stick and seeing how long you survive” held no appeal."

On the other hand, where's his sense of adventure?


PS: Debt of gratitude to Boing Boing for directing me to both of the stories which inspired this post. 

*Ironic, then, that we talk of making crops "bug resistant".


Etarran said...

It would be worth excersizing caution in revising your long-held opinions as a result of reading Boing Boing, since their mandate is news in as sensational a format as possible, with a minimum of source- or fact-checking. It's like quitting your job and dedicating your life to the search for the lost Elvis space baby clones after standing in line at the supermarket.

Loud said...

Well, hence the fact checking in mid-posting. The results are more or less unsurprising; the story seems to have hit the generally left-leaning anti-corporate sphere, but supposedly the data analysis was performed on Monsanto's own research.

And it's not so much a revising of long held opinions as a realization that I had in some ways been just as idealistic as people I would have called 'naive'

Incidentally, looking for Elvis space baby clones would be pretty good if that meant you got to be in space to do it. And since you'd never find them, you'd basically spend forever in space. I could deal

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