mm264: FDA: Cloned animals okay to join the food chain

January 24, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

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Robert Brooks/Creative Commons licensed.

This nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© considers itself a friend to science, and a natural enemy of those who deny it.

In that vein we have discussed the topic of genetically modified foodstuffs a number of times in this space.

Battle Over Genetically Modified Foods

mm236: G.M. wine
mm233: Corn in the news
mm223: Pigs, bees, fish
mm198: GM foods – wrongheaded opposition
mm109: Too much of a good thing

But an editorial writer in NYTimes this week tackles the issue of cloned animals in the food chain, science that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blessed last week, and makes some scientific sense.

nytimes

Closing the Barn Door After the Cows Have Gotten Out

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG | Published: January 23, 2008

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for the eventual sale of meat and dairy products from cloned animals, saying, in effect, that consumers face no health risks from them. The next day, the Department of Agriculture asked farmers to keep their cloned animals off the market until consumers have time to get over their anticloning prejudice. That is one prejudice I plan to hold on to. I will not be eating cloned meat.

The reason has nothing to do with my personal health or safety. I think the clearest way to understand the problem with cloning is to consider a broader question: Who benefits from it? Proponents will say that the consumer does, because we will get higher quality, more consistent foods from cloned animals. But the real beneficiaries are the nation’s large meatpacking companies — the kind that would like it best if chickens grew in the shape of nuggets. Anyone who really cares about food — its different tastes, textures and delights — is more interested in diversity than uniformity.

A felicitous turn of phrase: … “meatpacking companies – the kind that would like it best if chickens grew in the shape of nuggets.” Wow! Wish I could write like that!

Species diversity is a good thing, and cloning is its enemy.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Closing the Barn Door After the Cows Have Gotten Out – New York Times

The writer’s point is that seeds can be banked (and hurrah! for those heirloom tomatoes that seem to be landing in farmers markets and upscale food stores), but we apparently haven’t decided that “animal seeds,” i.e, their genetic material, are possible to harvest and save.

Heirloom prime rib, anyone?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm251: Stem cells – Lab harvests from embryos non-destructively

January 12, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

Stem cell research is simultaneously a neocon hot button, and one of medical science’s most promising magic bullets.

As a prototypical aging Baby Boomer, yr (justifiably) humble svt has made stem cell research a frequent topic in this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©:

Stem Cell Research: Support it now!

mm251: Stem cells – Lab harvests from embryos…
mm230: Stem cells…
mm:221: The dread disease … Old age
mm201: Stemming the tide of ignorance
mm200: Stem cells: Unlike oil… alternative source
mm172: Diabetes: Not so Simple, Simon!
mm171: Maintain your brain!

George III, our presidential protector of evangelical Christian values (and please don’t confuse him with the facts), has stifled medical research based on stem cells, on the grounds that the source of the research material was purported to be aborted fetuses.

Recently, researchers have concentrated on finding less controversial sources for stem cells. The latest breakthrough was reported in Friday’s Washington Post.

washingtonpost

Lab Cites Stem Cell Advance

By Rick Weiss

Washington Post Staff Writer | Friday, January 11, 2008; Page A04

Scientists in Massachusetts said yesterday that they had created several colonies of human embryonic stem cells without harming the embryos from which they were derived, the latest in a series of advances that could speed development of stem-cell-based treatments for a variety of diseases.

In June, scientists in Japan and Wisconsin said they had made cells very similar to embryonic stem cells from adult skin cells, without involving embryos. But that technique so far requires the use of gene-altered viruses that contaminate the cells and limit their biomedical potential.

By contrast, the new work shows for the first time that healthy, normal embryonic stem cells can be cultivated directly from embryos without destroying them.

Of course, the Bush administration is not taking this advance at face value.

But that is not likely, said Story Landis, who heads the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Task Force, which oversees grants for studies on the medically promising cells.

The embryos Lanza used, which were donated for research, appear not to have been damaged, Landis acknowledged. However, she said, “it is impossible to know definitively” that the embryos were not in some subtle way harmed by the experiment. And “no harm” is the basis of the Bush policy, she said.

The science in question was a technical tour de force:

“It is a technically impressive piece of work,” said Douglas A. Melton of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “They’ve demonstrated their ability to isolate human embryonic stem cell lines without destruction of the embryos” — something few scientists thought possible just a few years ago.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Lab Cites Stem Cell Advance – washingtonpost.com

Lest we lose site of what all of the shouting is about, Wikipedia has a useful research timeline.

The possibilities for using stem cells to provide breakthrough solutions to what have been incurable, mysterious and tragic diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and diabetes are compelling. And the tragedy has been compounded by the typically ignorant, anti-science stance of the Bush administration.

When will evangelicals wake up and learn that science isn’t the opposite of religion, that the two are not mutually incompatible?

Meanwhile, January 20, 2009 (as this is written, 373 days, 6 hours, 46 minutes, 40 seconds from now) cannot get here soon enough!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

Note!: the link to Bushtimer.com used above is for clever illustration purposes only and represents no commercial relationship whatsoever. Left-Handed Complement should be so fortunate as to ever collect remuneration of any kind for this endeavor. I can link, so I link. It’s technology. It’s cool. It’s an artifact of Sequitur Service©. Deal with it.

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mm233: Corn in the news — and not just in Iowa!

December 26, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We’ve frequently commented (most recently here) on how often connections can be drawn from disparate news sources. It happened to us again today.

Read over breakfast this depressing story in the best magazine on the planet, The Economist:

economist

The beer crisis | Trouble brewing

Dec 19th 2007 | ST LOUIS | From The Economist print edition

A shortage of hops threatens Christmas

JUST as the festive season gets going, drinkers in America are finding their favourite beer suddenly more expensive or even—horrors!—not available at all. Hit by price increases and shortages, many breweries, particularly the small “craft brewers” and the even smaller microbreweries, are being forced to raise prices, make do with modified recipes or shut off the spigots altogether.

The humble hop, the plant that gives beer its distinctive flavour, is the main problem. Many farmers in the Pacific north-west, where America’s hop production is concentrated, have turned to more profitable lines—especially corn, which can be made into ethanol. The decrease in hop production, put at some 50% over the past decade, has sent prices through the roof. Brian Owens, the brewmaster of the O’Fallon Brewery near St Louis, Missouri, says that the variety he once bought for $3 a pound (0.45kg) now costs five times that. Many smaller breweries cannot find what they need at any price. Industry giants like Anheuser-Busch and Miller are better off, thanks to long-term contracts. But even Anheuser-Busch has been forced to raise prices for its six-packs.

A crisis of tragically epic proportions: beer unavailable, especially the increasingly popular craft or microbrews, or priced higher due to the newly high price of hops and barley.

Yr (justifiably) humble svt is somewhat cavalier about beer, as he doesn’t drink it very often (the carbs, don’t you know), but in tough times (and they seem to be inching toward tough in these parts) one takes solace where one can, and beer is the solace of choice for many. A shortage, or a significantly higher price, could wreak havoc with the social order.

And, what’s the cause of this potential unrest? Corn.

Corn is supplanting hops and barley for many farmers, since the government has made it increasingly attractive to grow corn for ethanol, totally wrongheaded though that is wrongheaded government! Go figure!

See some previous posts on the use of ethanol as fuel: starting here in the earliest days of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©, and here, here, here, here.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The beer crisis | Trouble brewing | Economist.com

Ethanol, inefficient as it is as fuel, causing shortages and price increases of one of the major food groups (for many): beer. Talk about the law of unintended consequences…

Thus corn was on my mind when we encountered this article in the NYTimes today. The European Union is once again (still?) grappling with the high intensity issue of the advisability of growing genetically modified corn.

GM foods is a topic we’ve handled quite eloquently (MUDGE’s humility gene must have gotten in the way of an X-ray machine, sorry) in a previous post. But, news is news.

And the Times is quite thorough covering both points of view. Interestingly, there’s actual science supporting both, as opposed to the recent cases where science is called into question on this side of the water and those callers into question can hardly spell the word science (guess the word doesn’t appear in the King James edition) much less accept its findings.

nytimes

Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL | Published: December 26, 2007

BRUSSELS — A proposal that Europe’s top environment official made last month, to ban the planting of a genetically modified corn strain, sets up a bitter war within the European Union, where politicians have done their best to dance around the issue.

The environmental commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said he had based his decision squarely on scientific studies suggesting that long-term uncertainties and risks remain in planting the so-called Bt corn. But when the full European Commission takes up the matter in the next couple of months, commissioners will have to decide what mix of science, politics and trade to apply. And they will face the ambiguous limits of science when it is applied to public policy.

Europe has embargoed seed and food products grown from genetically engineered plants for a decade; very convenient excuse for protectionist trade barriers. Now the World Trade Organization is pushing the EU for a change in policy. But the EU is pushing back, citing scientific studies counter to those presented in favor of GM food:

Ms. Hilbeck says that company-financed studies do not devote adequate attention to broad ripple effects that modified plants might cause, like changes to bird species or the effect of all farmers planting a single biotechnology crop. She said producers of modified organisms, like Syngenta and Monsanto, have rejected repeated requests to release seeds to researchers like herself to conduct independent studies on their effect on the environment.

The give and take on this is interesting.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn – New York Times

So it’s your scientists vs. my scientists, and because it’s science, there’s room for opposing theories. But the EU’s science has that slightly moldy odor of politics.

As mentioned in the post cited at the top, because of our employment at the time we were close to this debate 10 years ago in the U.S. That battle was hard fought, biotechnology vs. the Monarch butterfly (talk about a public relations nightmare for the suits!), and ultimately won in the U.S. by Big Ag, although as the Times makes clear, the Monarch’s well-being is still closely studied.

In the United States, where almost all crops are now genetically modified, the debate is largely closed.

“I’m not saying there are no more questions to pursue, but whether it’s good or bad to plant Bt corn — I think we’re beyond that,” said Richard L. Hellmich, a plant scientist with the Agriculture Department who is based at Iowa State University. He noted that hundreds of studies had been done and that Bt corn could help “feed the world.”

But the scientific equation may look different in Europe, with its increasing green consciousness and strong agricultural traditions.

And, if you let your farmers start to grow GM foods, it will be more difficult to rationalize the artificial protectionist barriers against other modified crops.

The hungry of the world (and there are so many!) can’t eat paper; unfortunately paper seems to be the chief crop of most of the world’s governments.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm201: Stemming the tide of ignorance despite the neocons

November 22, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Last post, we picked up on the report that stem cell researchers have an alternative source for the miracle tools. The writer of that NYTimes story follows up with a sidebar on the lead scientist, James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, who has played a leading, even defining, role in stem cell research for more than a decade.

nytimes3_thumb1

By GINA KOLATA

If the stem cell wars are indeed nearly over, no one will savor the peace more than James A. Thomson.

Dr. Thomson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 plucked stem cells from human embryos for the first time, destroying the embryos in the process and touching off a divisive national debate.

And on Tuesday, his laboratory was one of two that reported a new way to turn ordinary human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without ever using a human embryo.

Turns out that Dr. Thomson was, as he and his UW colleagues report it, concerned about the ethical implications of stem cell research from the beginning.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Man Who Helped Start Stem Cell War May End It – New York Times

Some of the commentary others in the blogosphere have shared since the original story hit the other day have expressed a good deal of knee-jerk cynicism regarding the nature of this latest twist. It’s just so perfect that this latest news fits so well with Bush administration dogma. See, you can do your research without abortion!

People, this isn’t politics, or religion; it’s science. Forced by ethical, political and/or religious imperatives to curtail stem cell research, many wrung their hands, took off to more scientifically adventurous locales, or found a new field to pursue.

Thomson, and, separately, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, decided that the potential for breakthrough discoveries was too important, and figuratively lit a candle rather than curse the darkness, and began the work that resulted in this weeks breakthrough announcements.

MUDGE chooses to suspend cynicism (after all, it’s a holiday in the U.S. today!), and believe the best. Okay, so this fits with distorted agenda of the neo-con know-nothings who have distorted too much and spread a huge swath of medieval ignorance over too much of our culture.

But, sometimes, even good news for the dolts is good news for humankind, and this discovery, whose potential to accelerate further discoveries into the cause, prevention and cure of many neurological diseases that have caused such misery in the world, is worthy of our Thanksgiving celebration.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm200: Stem cells: Unlike oil, we now have an alternative source

November 21, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Stem cell research, emblematic of all that’s promising regarding the ability of scientists to remedy hitherto incurable diseases. Stem cell research, emblematic of the George III administration’s wrong-headedness in nearly every important issue of our times.

Until yesterday, stem cell researchers found their most promising source material in human embryos, whose availability is, one presumes, mainly dependent upon the supply resulting from aborting pregnancies.

Since 1973, such supplies have been legally available to science in the U.S. Since the Bush administration outlawed the practice (or severely curtailed the use of new embryonic material by restricting federal funds required to finance it), researchers into cures for the crippling and fatal diseases that include multiple sclerosis, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s have been thwarted from fully pursuing this most promising field of research.

Now it appears that scientists have discovered an alternative to embryos as the feedstock for stem cells.

nytimes3

By GINA KOLATA

Published: November 21, 2007

Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

Science in the pursuit of prevention or remediating disease is critical, and the fact that it has been hamstrung over this moral quandary, mainly promoted by those same folks who brought you Creationism, is yet another embarrassing lowlight of the past seven years.

So much of what research has been occurring moved offshore (as so many other occupations have). But, science is always attempting to navigate new ways around knowledge gaps, and this promising achievement is an eye-opening demonstration.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells – New York Times

So there’s much work left to do before this new process is proven successful — the fact that a cancer gene is part of the process sounds distressing — but we can’t help but be hopeful that, after years of roadblocks, necessary research into the causes, prevention and cures of some of the most dreadful diseases can resume at full throttle.

In the long run, the new process might prove to be more useful, with wider application than the controversial one. So in a way, maybe the know-nothings did science a favor.

Irony. Today’s sixth sense.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm198: GM foods — Wrongheaded opposition is starving the developing world

November 18, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Prospect magazine of the UK has a compelling piece, from the European viewpoint on genetically modified food and its wrongheaded opposition.

prospectuk

The real GM food scandal

by Dick Taverne

GM foods are safe, healthy and essential if we ever want to achieve decent living standards for the world’s growing population. Misplaced moralising about them in the west is costing millions of lives in poor countries

Dick Taverne is the author of The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism (OUP)

Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice—or “golden rice”—he was hailed as potentially one of mankind’s great benefactors. Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. It was the flagship of plant biotechnology. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent times held out greater promise.

Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The realisation of Potrykus’s dream keeps receding. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow: drought-resistant crops in arid soil and salt-resistant crops in soil of high salinity. Plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths from diarrhoea and hepatitis B; they can be ingested in orange juice, bananas or tomatoes, avoiding the need for injection and for trained staff to administer them and refrigeration to store them.

Your correspondent has long been more aware of this complex issue than the average blogger on the street. Some years ago, MUDGE logged a five-year stint at a science-based organization whose parent was one of the foremost corporate proponents of this world-changing technology. Indeed, I probably would be there still, had not the forces of creative destruction, i.e., capitalism, broken up that good old gang of mine through “merger” and acquisition.

Proximity to the technology, and a modicum of intellectual curiosity resulted in slightly more than superficial awareness of the issue and its controversies. And the controversy has been noisy enough to make one believe that distribution of such technology has been suppressed. But,

Seldom has public perception been more out of line with the facts. The public in Britain and Europe seems unaware of the astonishing success of GM crops in the rest of the world. No new agricultural technology in recent times has spread faster and more widely. Only a decade after their commercial introduction, GM crops are now cultivated in 22 countries on over 100m hectares (an area more than four times the size of Britain) by over 10m farmers, of whom 9m are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. Most of these small-scale farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton. In India alone, production tripled last year to over 3.6m hectares. This cotton benefits farmers because it reduces the need for insecticides, thereby increasing their income and also improving their health. It is true that the promised development of staple GM food crops for the developing world has been delayed, but this is not because of technical flaws. It is principally because GM crops, unlike conventional crops, must overcome costly, time-consuming and unnecessary regulatory obstacles before they can be licensed.

And the demonizing of GM technology has no foundation in science.

The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world’s leading experts—the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue—has confirmed this. Independent inquiries have found that the risk from GM crops is no greater than that from conventionally grown crops that do not have to undergo such testing. In 2001, the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself—not by private industry—conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or to the environment.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

‘The real GM food scandal’, Prospect Magazine issue 140 November 2007 – Printer Friendly Article

In the analysis considered here, the thesis is proposed that the large agribusinesses planted the seeds, as it were, of their own difficulties promoting this technology due to their own public-relations (rather than science) based caution.

And MUDGE remembers distinctly the emotional and distracting case of the supposed endangerment of monarch butterflies due to GM corn.

And what has always grabbed this non-scientist observer is that, throughout the history of agriculture (which encompasses the development of modern humankind) farmers have cross-bred and otherwise genetically modified their crops. What modern technology offers the process is predictability and repeatability.

So, as we hope you’ve taken the trouble to read to the end, the author expresses some hope that people are finally coming to their senses regarding the issue of GM crops.

There can be little doubt that GM crops will be accepted worldwide in time, even in Europe. But in delaying cultivation, the anti-GM lobbies have exacted a heavy price. Their opposition has undermined agrobusiness in Europe and has driven abroad much research into plant biotechnology—an area in which Britain formerly excelled. Over-regulation may well cause the costs of the technology to remain higher than they need be. Above all, delay has caused the needless loss of millions of lives in the developing world. These lobbies and their friends in the organic movement have much to answer for.

So, once again, seemingly well-informed people are proven to be misinformed. Hardly shocking anymore, but very, very disturbing.

Africans and others in the developing world are starving, people! GM crops can be engineered to use less pesticide, less fertilizer, less water (the last great resource battleground), to get more, and better, food into the empty stomachs of the world.

Wake up and pay attention, you enemies of science!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE