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Archive for May, 2011

I used to be a supporter of genetically engineered crops, especially so after researching Golden Rice (rice engineered to contain vitamin A) for a class project in college.  If we have the technology, why wouldn’t we want to make food more nutritious for populations that are suffering from malnutrition?  In the ‘Political Ecology of Food’ class i’m taking this quarter at UW, i was prepared to argue against all the GMO-bashers that genetic engineering is a pretty sweet technology and we can do some amazing and useful things with it, like prevent people from going blind due to vitamin A deficiency.  And, we’ve been breeding plants and effectively modifying their genes since the advent of agriculture- isolating genes in a laboratory and sticking them into new plants is just a faster (and way more expensive) method of breeding plants.   I finally watched ‘Food, Inc’ the other day, which talks a bit about Monsanto’s business practices, and tonight i watched ‘The Future of Food,’ an interview-style documentary about the dangers of GM crops.  The movie is fairly one-sided and hokey, but very interesting and informative.

GM crops “for good” like Golden Rice and cassava with extra protein may have problems themselves, but the main problems with GM technology comes in the form of crops engineered to produce pesticides or be resistant to herbicides by corporations in developed nations, and more importantly, how these crops are used and regulated.  The genes inserted into these crops may have harmful health effects (as of yet unknown) on people and animals that consume them, but that’s hardly the biggest reason to be wary of GM crops and the companies that produce them.

First, there are several ways to introduce a gene from one organism into another, but a commonly used method to determine whether the new gene has taken up residence in the host cell is to couple the gene of interest to a gene for antibiotic resistance.  The cells are then grown in the presence of the antibiotic, and only cells that have the gene of interest and the associated antibiotic resistance marker will survive.  The GM crops that result carry a gene for resistance against that particular antibiotic- not necessarily a problem, unless harmful bacteria get a hold of the gene.  This can happen quite easily; no special methods are needed to introduce foreign DNA to bacteria- they just scoop it up from the environment around them and begin using it to their advantage.  Potentially pathogenic bacteria may come across these genes in the digestive tracts of livestock or people that eat these GM crops.  Should these bacteria later cause a harmful infection, it will be impossible to treat the patient with those antibiotics.

Now, I should mention that there are other ways to recognize an inserted gene than antibiotic resistance- other reporter genes can be used as well, like green fluorescent protein or a gene for an enzyme that reacts with an added substrate to turn the cells containing the gene a different color.  I’ll have to take a closer look at how most GM crops are engineered- i’m hoping most of them are made without antibiotic resistance markers.  Also, many antibiotics used in laboratories are not front line antibiotics that infections would be treated with, due to expense, ease of use, or because non-laboratory strain bacteria are already resistant to them.  However, the fewer antibiotic-resistance genes that get spread around the world, the better- multi-drug resistant bacteria are already a serious problem in tuberculosis and hospital-acquired infections- we don’t need to make additional antibiotics ineffective.

Besides potential public health problems, companies that make genetically modified crops practice horrible, horrible business.  Monsanto makes both Roundup (an herbicide that kills pretty much anything green) and ‘Roundup Ready’ corn, soybean, and canola seeds that are resistant to Roundup.  This is a fairly ingenious business strategy in itself, but the company goes farther.  Farmers that buy Roundup Ready seed may not save seed from the resulting crops to plant their fields the next year- they must buy new seed.  Seed cleaning is a dying profession in which a person got paid to bring a “seed cleaner,” a big mechanical machine on a trailer, around to farms to prepare seeds from crops so that they could be planted the next season.  Because seed cleaning gives farmers a reason to save seed instead of buying GM seed, Monsanto has sued several seed cleaners for “anti-commerce.”  Ridiculous.  But there’s more.

Monsanto has patented the gene for Roundup resistance…OK, fine… but the courts have ruled that because they own the gene, they also own anything that contains the gene.  If a farmer’s crops are cross-pollinated by a neighbor’s GM crops, the progeny of those plants will contain the genetic modification, and if the seeds are saved and planted the next season, that farmer will be infringing on Monsanto’s patent.  The things is, there’s no possible way to prevent cross pollination from field to field.  When a farmer’s seed becomes contaminated, he’s fined or sued, and forcefully pressured into buying GM seed.  As the gene spreads across the US, will anyone able to buy/save/plant non-GM seed?  And the company has begun to push GM crops on farmers in developing countries- they’re having enough trouble as it is- they can’t afford to be screwed over by a giant corporation!

I could go on, and likely will in future posts, but for now i’ll end with a comment from my Political Ecology of Food class.  The professor mentioned a study in which cows were given a choice of GM corn or normal corn to eat.  The cows refused to touch the GM corn.  “It’s like they know that it’s different somehow…”  I think they refused to eat it because it’s drenched in Roundup!

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I’ve gotten so many responses to my first post telling me i’m not alone in my scrabbling search for what the heck to do with my life. Some “I feel exactly the same way every summer,” some “it’s the curse of the liberal arts education,” and my favorite, from a recent grad school dropout, “I am guaranteeing greener grass on the other side.”

I don’t know if y’all feel similarly, but for me part of it is a fear of failure- like i have to keep educating myself so that i know what i’m doing. I have to understand my subject so deeply, and understand all related subjects, so that i don’t get out there and screw up whatever project i’m attempting to implement. But, while i’m doing all this studying, i’m not helping anyone or anything!

It’s the age old question of giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish, except that most of the world’s problems will take much longer to fix (months, years) than teaching someone how to fish. Kids are out there dying and suffering from brain damage, missing school, dropping out of school to work while i’m here working (slowly) on a malaria vaccine to save them all. The planet is falling apart while we’re studying the best way to scrub carbon out of the air or the most sustainable source of energy. Perhaps a rough balance of immediate aid and long-term research exists throughout organizations and institutes working to ameliorate these problems, but it’s frustrating not to have that balance in my own life.

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Stole this from Darrow, who probably won’t even know i’m referencing her in my blog because we’ve only met 1.5 times, but it’s too good to pass up.  Those piglets… sheesh.  Makes me want to get one (or a leaping goat!) for Inka to play with.  We could see whether the pig could be trained to do as many tricks as the dog!

The photos are part of a campaign against laws in several states that would prohibit taking photos or videos of farms. If you don’t know much about agriculture these laws might strike you as odd, but harmless. Due to my recent obsession with our food production system, these laws make my guts churn. We already have no idea what goes on in those dark chicken houses or giant racks of battery cages or livestock processing plants. It’s only thanks to a few stealthy workers or spies that we have an inkling of the awful conditions these poor critters deal with.  Here’s an example that will make you sick in an NYT article that talks a bit more about the proposed laws.

Don’t mean to go on a tirade- but it’s a tirade against meat production, not eating meat.  Happy animals just taste better, they’re more healthful to eat, and they cause less environmental damage.  My friends Alison and Kevin call this kind of meat “Oscar meat”, after pork they bought from a farm that came from an actual pig with a name.  I call it “friendly meat”.   Though… i will admit that i have never eaten any animal that i’ve raised and named.  Tried that with the chickens- the plan when we got chicks was to eat any that turned out to be roosters, since roosters aren’t allowed in the city.  But, when we found out Matilda was very likely a rooster, i promptly exited the room and burst into tears. I did not want to eat Matilda, and didn’t want anyone else to eat her either.  And i certainly didn’t want Imogene to be eaten when we found out she was a dude too- she was my favorite one!  (Sorry, i still remember them as girls.)  So, I learned that i could not eat my pet chickens, and they went to a farm in southern Washington to make babies with a nice woman’s flock of hens.  And i really miss Imogene.  Matilda was a bit scary.

Some people only like to eat meat from animals that they’ve killed themselves.  I’ve eaten fish that way, and did eat meat from two goats I saw being killed while i was in Mali.  Well, “saw” meaning that i fed the goats carrots for a couple days and protected them from harassing children while they waited in the courtyard for the holiday feast.  Then, i hid around the corner while their throats were slit and reemerged to help skin and take them apart.  Both were delicious.

Some people like to eat meat, but don’t like to think about the animals it comes from.  Melanie said she would dig up an article about that philosophy and send it to me, so more on that later.

In any case, those animals are durn cute, and deserve happy lives before they get et.

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I’m having a mid-PhD crisis.  All of a sudden, i want to be a farmer.  Instead of immunology, i want to study sustainable agriculture.  I’d rather be playing with dirt than with test tubes.  Should be discovering the mechanisms of T cell priming in the liver, instead i’m working out the mechanisms of composting chicken manure.  Instead of immunizing mice against malaria, i’d like to be inoculating my clover cover crop with mycorrhizal bacteria.  Rather be harvesting runner beans than lymphocytes.  Forget flow cytometry- what about nitrogen cycles?  Publish an article in Nature?  Nah, i’ll just share swiss chard and fresh eggs with my neighbors.

Why?

A yearning for the simple life?  I want to fill my days with tending the garden, walking the dog, cooking meals for family and friends, and watching the chickens from a lawn chair.  I want a cozy house on a sizable chunk of land with good southern exposure.  I want miniature dairy goats and a donkey named Guillome who will let the dog ride around on him. Essentially, i want to be the type of farmer who gets to sit in the sun munching on peas and admiring her garden more often than she worries about making a profit.  But i doubt that type of farmer exists- being a farmer is surely harder than graduate school or a career in biomedical research.   So perhaps i’m just lazy and am suffering from grass is greener on the other side syndrome.

A reaction against scientific experiments on animals?  I am an animal lover through and through- always have been- so why did i think i could complete a PhD project entirely built upon mouse experiments?  Did my passion for saving children in Africa from malaria infection blind me to the fact that i would have to kill a shit-ton of mice during 5 years of grad school?  I’m not ethically opposed to scientific research using animals- many important medical discoveries have come from animal studies.  For many diseases, they are the only way forward in the search for vaccines and therapies.  And though i believe in the importance of my research (finding the mechanisms of protective immunity against liver stage malaria infection in order to inform the design of an effective anti-malaria vaccine), and think it merits using animals more than, say, testing cosmetics or diet pills, it’s getting harder and harder to kill those mice.   My project is the envy of many of my colleagues, and is very academically interesting to me… but i’m losing motivation.  And perhaps this pushes my mind to wander toward greener pastures speckled with free-range chickens, frolicking goats, and rescued doggies.

Or just a change in interests?  It’s hard not to become fascinated by something when you really take a look at it.  And it’s hard not to become engaged and passionate about any issue facing the planet when you really start reading about it.  I know i’m putting myself at risk of sounding like an academic activist d-bag, but it seems like i can’t not become interested and passionate about any subject that crosses my field of vision.  I’ve got nerdy, bleeding-heart liberal ADD.  In elementary school i wanted to become a veterinarian (that shoulda told me i wasn’t cut out for mouse experiments) and since then, my interests have ranged from math and physics to American ethnic studies and civil rights, from infectious disease research to global health to international development, from women’s rights and education to economics to the environmental effects of agriculture.   I wouldn’t mind just being an “armchair expert” in these varied disciplines, except that i get so damned carried away and emotionally invested in every one of them, and each topic is more important and urgent than the last.  At first it was breaking the disease-poverty trap in sub-Saharan Africa, then it was investing in women’s education to spur international development, now it’s learning everything about organic and biodynamic agriculture and getting involved in outreach to help small organic farmers get a foothold and help industrial farmers make the transition to sustainable growing methods.  Each new focus is the key to saving the world… if i could only study it, become an expert in it, teach others, influence policy…

But then, that sounds like a lot of work…  when would i have time to garden?

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