GM, Blowing in the Wind

The Sciencemag website has an article that will lead me into today’s post, about an organic farmer in Australia who has taken his neighbour to court over GM contamination. The organic farm has traces of GM materials that have apparently blown in from the neighbouring farm, leaving authorities no choice than to take away the farm’s organic certification.

This has of course led to a loss of income, and so the owner is suing for $85,000 to recoup his losses.

Now although there are standards about leaving space between GM and non GM plantation, it has become increasingly clear that contamination is somewhat inevitable, and this is reflected in regulations.

In the US a farm can have organic status even in 5% of its produce is found to be GM (presumably from air borne contamination). In the EU 0.9% is allowed, reflecting a tougher stance but demonstrating the impracticalities of a total ban.

In Australia though they do have a zero tolerance standard, so any traces of GM lead to the loss of license.

100% Organic

100% Organic

We might wonder if the organic farmer will win his court case, because how can the GM farm stop their materials blowing in the wind? Can it possibly be the GM farmer’s fault? Well precedence suggests that it might well be, because in a reverse situation contamination has been dealt with.

Just a month ago the US supreme court upheld biotech giant Monsanto’s claims on genetically-engineered seed patents and the company’s ability to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto materials.

The high court left intact Monday a federal appeals court decision that threw out a 2011 lawsuit from the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and over 80 other plaintiffs against Monsanto that sought to challenge the agrochemical company’s claims on patents of genetically-modified seeds. The suit also aimed to curb Monsanto from suing anyone whose field is contaminated by such seeds.

The case is Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al., v. Monsanto Company, et al. Supreme Court Case No. 13-303 if you would like to look it up, and as I say above one of the aims was to take away the possibility of a farmer being sued for inadvertent contamination, but this aim was not reached. Monsanto state that they have never sued anyone in this position and would not sue any farmer whose farm was found to have less than 1% contamination, and some interpretations suggest that the ruling seems to have made this binding.

It does look as though the contamination issue is causing some headaches for all parties involved.

Now I would like to think about how these rulings intact with other. Let’s take the Australian court case. If the organic farmer wins, other GM farmers will start to worry about their own liability and worry about planting their crops. This might lead to a slow down of the spread of the crops, to the cheer of the organic communities. But it will not help bring about a peaceful co-existence, which is a reality today, so might lead to regulators deciding that their zero policy approach needs a rethink. So maybe they will decide to enact a more US or European stance, and allow a percentage within organic certification, thus relieving the stress from the situation, leading to a more manageable co-existance and possibly aiding the spread of GM products, (probably not the organic farmer’s intended result).

On the other hand, the GM farmer might win, relieving the burden from other GM producers, leading to a more manageable co-existence and possibly also aiding the spread of GM foods.

The rise of remote software

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In the modern era, businesses must adapt to market conditions in order to sustain their profitability. Optimization is achieved through conservation of time, budget and human resource. Enterprises can thrive by the input of information systems that consist of various components such as data mining, remote software usage and business utility tools.

Such an impetus not only allows existent businesses to prosper, but also allows emerging enterprises to profit from technological intervention. A good example in this regard is that of Geometry Information Systems, which is pushing space scientists to enter the business market. The system is focused on planetary mapping, remote sensing and data mining.

Business Process Optimization

System administration
Modern businesses have a prerequisite of strong IT driven systems. Remote systems aid the management process of ‘system administration’.

This is because system administration is concerned with relaying information, and can be a major time constraint. A remote system allows one system admin to manage even hundred computer systems in distant offices.

Global broadband connections mapBusinesses utilize interconnectivity for effective communication, but it can be a challenge as well. Effective interconnectivity is made possible through remote connectivity.

The expansion of communication means that the enterprise needs to be in contact with more people than before. Telecommuters, who work remote from anywhere, serve as a communication conduit.

Consumer engagement
Consumer engagement and remote support are directly proportional. The Accenture Global Consumer Survey indicates that retention of customers has become difficult owing to the multiple options they have. More than 65% of the consumers agreed that they tend to change services when they are not satisfied with the communication feedback. In such models, the communication has to be instantaneous and, more importantly, useful.

Remote support means that the client engagement is conducted in a rapid manner without spending extra on human resources. Since the communication can be engaged from any digital interface, travel costs are also reduced.

Outsource service management
The current business model relies a lot of outsource services. And software is necessary to create efficient systems that don’t require extra man power. A study model suggests that outsourcing within businesses and IT tools, such as remote software, allow optimal profit.

The idea is that non-core businesses can be outsourced, while core businesses can remain in contact with non-core using a remote control solution. Such a model also enhances the ‘technology ability’ of a company, which is an important indicator for many businesses.

Increasing value of human resource
Usage of remote systems allows enterprises to improve the quality of their human resource without extra cost. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has generated a good model with their ‘Business Ecosystems Training’ program.

Programs such as these allow businesses to up-to-date their employees on latest technological improvement on a remote basis. Furthermore, the sense of sustainable profitability is also inculcated in employees, increasing their value. Such initiatives have been taken by the likes of Monsanto, an agriculture technology giant.

Remote systems are increasingly impacting business activities. Their usage allows not only a competitive edge but also helps businesses enhance the quality of their services. By maintaining a smoothly functioning communication management infrastructure, over time the profitability of the business is also enhanced.

Experts, Regulation, and Food

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the Bassetti Foundation website called The Innovation Principle.

The post was a review of a letter sent by some of Europe’s largest corporations to the European Commission. The letter claims that regulation in the EU risks damaging development and the economy, they want a series of things to be taken into account within the regulation process.

It is easy to read and short and I recommend a look, it is free to download through the link above, but I would like to take one of their suggestions and apply it to food regulation, as part of my food series.

The letter calls for the “Full inclusion of relevant expertise”, and this sounds perfectly reasonable. But what does it actually mean in practical terms?

If we take the example of GM food development that I raised last week, it means finding experts in the field and putting them on committees to determine if proposals are safe. Now this means that you have to look to industry, because most of the experts work within the industry.

Now I believe that in all likelihood an expert working for a nuclear energy company will tell you that nuclear energy production is 100% safe, a nanotechnology researcher will paint a glowing picture of how the future is bright thanks to nano developments, and a GM food expert will do the same.

In the USA, the Federal Drug Administration is responsible for regulating the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. According to a policy established in 1992, FDA considers most GM crops as “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops. In such cases, GM crops are designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and do not require pre-market approval.

But here the waters start to murk and merge. As I said, experts in the field working or having worked for industries working with technology are likely to be positive about their products. And the FDA seems to contain several of these experts, and some of them may have helped to make the distinction above.

According to this IVN article, over the last decade at least 7 high ranking FDA officials have also held high positions in Monsanto, the largest producer of GM seeds in the world. This is generally accepted as true, and in fact Monsanto have several employees present or past that have held high ranking positions in other capacities in the US Government. This is known as the revolving door in the USA, and it is worthy of exploration.

Monsanto and US Government Employees

Monsanto and US Government Employees (click to enlarge)

The website states that “At the forefront of this controversy is Michael R. Taylor, currently the deputy commissioner of the Office of Foods. He was also the deputy commissioner for Policy within the FDA in the mid ’90s. However, between that position and his current FDA position, Mr. Taylor was employed by Monsanto as Vice President of Public Policy.

Other Monsanto alumni include Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the FDA from 1981 to 1983, and consultant to Searle’s public relations firm, which later merged with Monsanto. Michael A. Friedman, former acting commissioner of the FDA, later went on to become senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs at Searle, which is now a pharmaceutical division of Monsanto (Oh Donald Rumsfeld ex Secretary of Defense was also on the Board of Directors).  Virginia Weldon became a member of the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee, after retiring as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto”.

Another controversy surrounded the appointment of Margaret Miller. The following is taken from Red Ice Creations website:

“In order for the FDA to determine if Monsanto’s rBGH growth hormones were safe or not, Monsanto was required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller, one of Monsanto’s researchers put the report together. Shortly before the report submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA. Her first job for the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own report. Assisting Miller was another former Monsanto researcher, Susan Sechen”.

Obviously I am not in a position to determine whether these allegations are true, but a look at this article that appeared originally in the Observer newspaper might lead one to believe that there is a fine line being walked here.

The article states that “Monsanto received copies of the position papers of the EC Director General for Agriculture and Fisheries prior to a February 1998 meeting that approved milk from cows treated with BST.

Notes jotted down by a Canadian government researcher during a November 1997 phone call from Monsanto’s regulatory chief indicate that the company ‘received the [documents] package from Dr Nick Weber’, a researcher with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Sources noted that Weber’s supervisor at the US FDA is Dr Margaret Mitchell who, before joining the agency, directed a Monsanto laboratory working on the hormone.”

Oh and the hormone treatment made the cows sick, but you can read Robert Cohen’s reported testimony before the FDA on the subject of rBGH including the disclosure that, while at the FDA and in response to increasing sickness in cows treated with the hormones, Margaret Miller increased the amount of antibiotics that farmers can legally give cows by 100 times. Once again I cannot verify the transcription but it is widely reported on the web and was apparently shown on C-Span Congress TV live.

I am not suggesting that there is any collusion here, and as Monsanto argue people move jobs, taking jobs that suit their qualifications. A look at these people’s profiles show that they have many different positions, many of which we would say were undoubtedly working for public good. But some suggest that some of their positions might lead to conflicts of interests. But if you need experts where are you going to get them from? Here though I might simply suggest that you don’t need so many experts.

Within my life’s work of trying to promote responsible innovation I have come to the conclusion that a broader public involvement within decision-making process must be a good for society. Closed sessions full of experts deciding what is or is not safe for us may be efficient in terms of getting things done, but the public’s voice is not heard, and maybe that voice could lead to more responsible choices, or at very least some reflexivity in the decision-making process.

On a closing note, arguments are currently raging in the US about the labelling of GM foods, as currently there is no need to label it, something pushed for by many organizations. There is a counter movement that is arguing that as the FDA state that there is no fundamental difference, GM products that do not contain additives should be allowed to be labelled as “natural”, in the way organic vegetables are. This Common Dreams article presents a critical view of current practices that although strongly worded offers an insight into how a section of US society thinks about the issue.

The question remains however, who do we want to regulate our food and the technology used in its production?

The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem

This week as part of the food series I would like to discuss an interview with Michael Pollan, food journalist and author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Moises Velasquez-Manoff, author of An Epidemic of Absence that I heard on the radio. The podcast is available here so after I have wet your proverbial appetites you can go and listen to it.

The interviewees discuss how processed food is effecting our health, and why. As I noted in a previous post in this series, the money is in the processing, not the actual foodstuffs themselves. According to the price of a bushel of corn ($6) a large box of corn flakes holds about 7c (US) of corn, the rest is processing, packaging and transport.

This unfortunately means that the more processing involved, the more profit can be made. Today I bought a loaf of bread, and on the wrapper is written “No high fructose corn syrup”. Now if you look through the ingredients in your kitchen you will find this product in almost everything, but why? Bread is a simple thing to make, flour, water, yeast and salt. But my bread has 25 ingredient on the label, including a few that are difficult to define (dough conditioner for example) although not the dreaded high fructose corn stuff.

It is made with enriched flour, and enriched flour is exemplary of the food industry’s approach. White flour is so highly refined that it has lost much of its nutritional value, but instead of refining it less and eating it brown, we choose to add (in this case) 6 different substances to give it back some of the nutrition that has been removed during the refining process.

It’s great bread too, if you leave it in the original bag it will last for weeks, I only bought it yesterday although it was baked on 17th December but is still remarkably fresh. And this is the processing problem, it has to last, be easily stored, and not taste like it was cooked a month ago, so all of this stuff is added and others taken away.

Processed Food

Processed Food

One of the things that producers aim for is to get rid of all bacteria, as bacteria leads to age, so industrial products are sanitized as much as possible. They contain very little fiber because fiber is difficult to store and freeze, and they are made in layers of sugar and fat so that they leave a craving, so you eat more processed bread that home made bread because you continue to crave it (it’s a chemical thing, not greed).

Now the food industry produces all of this fine ready to eat fodder so that we don’t have to slave over a hot oven all day. In the US, food preparation time is down by 40% since the late 60’s so we have had more time to go to work, drive home, play space invaders and Tetris and watch our VHS tapes turn into DVD, and streaming.

This has also led to changes in how we eat. Today we have TV dinners, ready served in a heat proof disposable tray, and here in the USA 20% of all food is consumed in the car.

All of this has had an effect upon the human body in terms of bacteria. Humans have lots of bacteria living inside them (more bacteria than human cells), but these processed foods are killing of this good bacteria. The foods have very little fiber, and this is bacteria’s favourite feast. Even eating just one fast food meal has an immediate effect upon the bacteria in the stomach and intestines, they get inflamed and stop working properly. Studies have found that overweight people have inflamed bacteria, although it is unproven if this is as a result of being overweight or has worked towards making them overweight, but there seems to be a link.

It could be that this is more of a problem that sugar and fat content. Incredibly enough though these problems can be overcome quite easily, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with each meal dramatically improves the situation and helps the bacteria fight the onslaught.

Some think that endlessly feeding antibiotics to animals that go into the food chain for consumption may also have an effect as residue can also kill the bacteria, but that is another story.

One very interesting find is reported in the interview. People living in industrial sanitized countries are suffering ever more frequently with immune deficiency problems, and one reason might be this lack of bacteria. In a study that took place between Finland and Russia, ethnically similar peoples suffer different rates of immune deficiency depending on their upbringing. Those living in poorer conditions suffer less from these problems, as do people living on farms in less hygienic conditions in industrialized countries, and children who go to day care fare better in the long run too.

It also turns out that human breast milk contains a lot of this bacteria, and this is the major contributor to building up immunity that is missing in formula milk.

On a personal note as father of 2 small boys I would like to add that last year several articles appeared about a doctor who claims that easting nose mucus (snot, boogers) may actually help introduce pathogens into the child’s immune system that will strengthen their body’s natural germ defense, although this has not been proven.

Have a listen to the podcast and check out the books on Amazon. Oh and eat some yoghurt and pickles.