Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Jon Entine Takedown

The best-laid schemes of mice and men, as Robbie Burns said, gang aft agley.  I had meant to devote this post to the meeting of the Cambridge University Alumni Association (Hawaii Chapter) for UH law professor David Callies’ talk on “GMOs: where and how to regulate:  home rule and state preemption”.  Unfortunately a pitiful half-dozen alums, some with spouses (including y.t. and ditto) was all we could muster, and the talk itself, though it was okay, didn’t say much that anyone who’d been following recent events in Hawaii didn’t already know.  There was at least one interesting thing I learned, but that can wait till I take up the whole legal issue in some later post.

What happened was, I felt that before I wrote on it I should have a look at the primary literature.  So I slogged my way through some of this, especially Federal Judge Barry Kurren’s decision on the Kauai initiative, and found that it was by no means the bought-and-paid-for Monsantoite slam-dunk of anti-GMOer’s imaginations (including, to be honest, my own).  It’s by no means impossible that a conscientious judge, doing what judges are supposed to do, could not have decided the case otherwise.  Indeed, Kurren found for Kauai on all of the legal issues but one.  But that one was fatal, and shows why we have to get state legislation up and running a.s.a.p.

Then serendipity struck again.  In the course of my searching I stumbled on a hot-from-the-press vitriolic attack on the Vandana Shiva Home-Rule Tour by Jon Entine, which if you really want to you can read here:  Why Huffington Post, which is supposedly liberal, allows stuff like this is a mystery to me, and if you’re a HuffPo reader I suggest you write Arianna and give her an earful (remember those days when Letters to the Editor were a big deal?). 

Accompanying Entine’s article was a comment by one Nichols TW, responding to an earlier comment: “I was wondering if you have any peer-reviewed scientific literature that supports your view of GMOs harming the ecosystem, or glyphosate (RoundUp) threatening to ‘kill everything on land and in our ocean’?”

This is too good a chance to miss, I thought, and responded as follows:

      “To Nichols TW. Looking for peer-reviewed scientific literature? Why don't        you check out “Genetically engineered crops, glyphosate and the deterioration of health in the United States of America” by Nancy L. Swanson, Andre Leu, Jon Abrahamson and Bradley Wallet, that appeared in the Journal of Organic Systems, 9(2), 2014 (you can read it at Let's see what you and all the other Montsantophiles have to say about THIS!”

And then I thought: isn’t it maybe time to start the first Takedown?

What is a Takedown?  It’s an answer to the Monsantoites’ favorite tactic, the Pile-On.  Remember, I discussed Pile-Ons in “Mission Statement”.  A Takedown is when someone (so far only me, but let’s hope it catches on) picks on a Monsantophile flack and points out all the half-truths and flat-out lies that his writings contain..  I was already familiar with Entine, because he blogs on something called the Genetic Literacy Project—not to worship GMOs is genetic illiteracy, according to Jon.  So I thought, why not start this particular ball rolling?  Since he’d headlined his piece ‘"Eco-Warrior" Vandana Shiva, at $40,000 a Speech, Rejoins Hawaii Anti-GMO Crusade, But Truth Is the Victim’, I wrote:

       “To Jon Entine. Where do you get the $40,000-per-gig claim for Shiva? I      happened to attend one of the functions you were talking about, so I know that approximately 400 people attended the talk at @15 a head. Also there was a cocktail reception attended by certainly, max, 100 people (probably less) at $30 a head. Do the math. I get a gross of around $9,000, from which you have to subtract the cost of the food and drink, the rent of the theater, and any incidental expenses CFS incurred in sponsoring the thing. If she got more than 5K I'd be surprised. Where do you think the remaining 35K came from?  Btw, if "polls show a majority of Maui farmers and residents oppose the effort to shut down the seed nurseries and research labs" [YES, HE ACTUALLY HAD THE BALDFACED AUDACITY TO CLAIM THIS, DB],  then pray tell us how come GMO firms spent millions of dollars to stop them voting the other way, AND FAILED?”

And seconds after I’d posted, I remembered something else, and posted again:

     “Sorry, folks, one more point. Jon Entine talks about 'demands for what the prime organizer--Washington, DC-based Center for Food Safety (CFS)--calls "home rule."' I'm sorry, the issue the tour was not about what CFS calls "home rule" but what EVERYONE calls "home rule". Just Google it, and you will see inter much alia the Wikipedia definition, "Home rule is the power of a constituent part (administrative division) of a state to exercise such of the state's powers of governance within its own administrative area that have been decentralized to it by the central government"--in this case the right of counties in Hawaii to legislate against certain aspects of GMOs, which of course (though you wouldn't know it from Entine) was the whole theme of the tour. This is the kind of sloppy writing that helps discredit the pro-GMO side.”
I did all this yesterday.  Today when I got up I went straight to the HuffPo piece and to my disappointment found that Entine hadn’t risen to my bait.  Well, I’ll keep up the pressure.  Something’s gotta give.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Cuba, the Caribbean, Capitalism, and Coral Reefs

How many of you caught the program on Cuban coral reefs?  It was on NPR in Science Friday (which airs Friday mornings 9-11 in Hawaii, but presumably on Fridays sometime wherever you are).  You can get it on the NPR website, just check 01/23/15.  I said a few days ago I’d look into it further.  And what I found (within ten minutes of searching) was a lovely story of how even respected scientific institutions can distort the truth when global politics and corporate interests are involved.

The program first.  It’s an interview with David Guggenheim (yes, one of those Guggenheims) who is president of Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit whose purpose is to support marine research.  Recently that research has been extended to Cuba.   What David and his colleagues found was a startling contrast between the situation in Cuba and that in the rest of the Caribbean.  All over the Caribbean coral is dying—95% of staghorn coral for starters.  Everywhere, that is, except Cuba.  There, coral is not just holding its own.  In some areas (far from Havana or any other urban area) it’s flourishing and ever spreading.

Why so?  David told us that in 1993, when Russia stopped subsidizing Cuba, Cuban farmers had to go organic.  They didn’t choose to—they simply could no longer afford to buy pesticides and expensive chemical fertilizers.  So outside urban areas the rates of toxic run-off from agricultural lands steeply decreased.  And for the twenty years since then, the seas around Cuba have been purging themselves.  Also, there was hardly any of the frenetic tourist development that has been radically changing the rest of the Caribbean over several decades.

Sounds logical, you might think.  But wait, that’s not the official story.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has issued a report, described on the website of the National Geographic: which attributes the death of Caribbean coral to the following causes:
     1) a massive die-off of sea-urchins in the 1970s
     2) overfishing of grazer species e.g. parrotfish or surgeonfish
     3)  global warming
Nowhere in the report (or at least, nowhere in National Geographic’s reporting of the report) is there any mention of a different situation in Cuba.  Or of pollution due to pesticide and fertilizer run-off. We are merely told that “In the most comprehensive study yet of Caribbean coral reefs, scientists have discovered that the 50 to 60 percent coral cover present in the 1970s has plummeted to less than 10 percent”—end of story.

I’m not disputing that the three causes listed may have been partly responsible for the loss of coral.  But if Cuba has healthy reefs and nowhere else in the Caribbean has healthy reefs, as David Guggenheim claims, they can’t be the only or even the major causes.  Sea-urchins and parrotfish help to preserve coral indirectly; they eat the algae that, if left undisturbed, choke the growth of coral.  But don’t tell me that in import-starved Cuba they haven’t fished every species they could catch.  And unless sea-urchins hate capitalism and love communism, I see no reason why they should thrive in Cuba and die everywhere else.  As for global warming,whether you believe in it or not, you don't suppose it occurs in patches.

But is it just coincidence that the real major cause of coral death, the one that the report fails to discuss, is the only one that can’t be laid off on natural causes (sea-urchins dying) or poor fishermen struggling to make a livelihood (overfishing) or all of us (global warming), but must be laid squarely at the door of burgeoning “development”—corporate capitalism on steroids?  After all, that’s what’s responsible for both mass tourism and monocultures that rely on vast quantities of pesticides and fertilizers.   

Well, let’s take a closer look at the IUCN.

IUCN started creditably enough as the first GONGO, i.e. Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisation.  As this suggests, it was formed with representatives from both kinds of organization under the sponsorship of UNESCO and with famed British biologist Julian Huxley as its first Director General.  But in 1982 the GO began to outweigh the NGO, and the economic policies of the countries involved began to influence IUCN’s actions.  First it set up a Conservation for Development Centre within its secretariat.  The watchword was no longer “Conservation”; it was “Sustainable Development”.  Then a new century dawned, and in the words of  IUCN’s Wikipedia article, “The increased attention on sustainable development as a means to protect nature [my italics] brought IUCN closer to the corporate sector.”  Soon IUCN partnered with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and adopted a Global Business and Biodiversity Program.   In 2007 IUCN began a partnership with its first multi-national: the energy company Shell International.  In 2008 NGO members of IUCN, worried about the direction it was heading, tried to terminate the partnership.  They failed.  By 2013 IUCN was collaborating with at least nine more multi-nationals, including Nokia, the Rio Tinto Group, Shell Nigeria and Marriott International.

What are the chances that a commission appointed by IUCN would turn in a report that blamed development for the death of coral reefs?  I’d say close to zero.  What would you say?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Conversation With Andre/Lunch With Vandana

Last Friday I talked by phone to Andre Leu, co-author of the No. 1 Smoking Gun (see Mission Statement for the reference), who’s in Australia.  Despite his French-sounding name, he’s a fair dinkum Ozzie with their typical relaxed, easy-going manner over a very down-to-earth, hard-to-fool mind, the exact opposite of the stereotypic anti-GMOer I mentioned in my last post.  I kicked off by asking him if there had been much reaction to his article.  There had been some, but he admitted it hadn’t yet been that much (it’s certainly not a fraction of what it merits).  But that, he said somewhat to my surprise, had been intentional.  They deliberately wanted to avoid a Pile-On (see The Credentials Game for what a Pile-On is).  They wanted to keep a low profile and let the word spread gradually through academia, convincing those who needed to be convinced.

I told him that I was planning a full-court press on the article (details forthcoming) and asked him if he wanted me to lay off.  If he had said yes, this blog would no longer exist (at least not in the form I had planned) because I immediately liked and respected him and the last thing I wanted was to upset his plans.  No, he said, as long as it was someone else bearing the brunt, that was fine, if I was ready for it.  Ready, I said, indeed eager.

Another thing I asked him was, why hadn’t they published in a higher-impact journal?  Answer, because you can’t get anti-GMO papers into higher-impact journals.  I believe him and I believe that in his case at least this is neither paranoia nor loser’s whine.  Science as a whole may not be for sale.  But wherever Science impacts on Big Money, it’s for sale.  At least there are buyers and takers.  Look, use your common sense.  Corporations exist to make profits for their shareholders.  It’s all they exist for.  What’s wrong with that?  So if millions of dollars are at stake, and if you run the risk of losing them if you get too much adverse criticism, are you just going to sit on your hands?  And there are more ways of buying people than just handing over wads of cash. 

But that's another post.

Next day came the Vandana Shiva lunch.  This was a fully interactive event sponsored by the North Shore branch of the Outdoor Circle (of which my wife Yvonne is a board member) in collaboration with the Center for Food Safety.  Our State senator Gil Riviere was there and just before the formal proceedings started I asked him where he stood on GMOs.  He said he was in favor of labeling but had an open mind on other issues.  I was disappointed, because he had been a leading opponent of the Dirty Dozen, a series of anti-environmental bills that came before the State legislature a couple of years ago, but he left with the usual polspeak about paying attention to the feelings of his constituents.

Thirty of these plus Vandana gave him a forceful account of those feelings in the next couple of hours.  Practically everyone said their piece but yours truly; as the new kid on the anti-GMO block I kept mouth shut and ears pinned back, except I did announce this blog and got a good laugh.  Among other highlights, Andy Kimbrell outlined CFS’s strategy for the coming year.  It was to start by preparing and pushing for a bill that would mandate full disclosure of when, where and how much pesticide was sprayed in the islands.  Despite a long history of pesticide problems, Hawaii is one of a minority of states with no regulation.  Big advantage of this approach is that it would be very hard to combat.  The usual argument here against any GMO or pesticide regulation, that it would “hurt farmers”, just would not fly.  Moreover, once parents got to know what quantities of toxic materials were regularly released in the vicinity of their kids’ schools, we would tap into another very powerful constituency, and bills involving the creation of “buffer zones” to limit spraying, already in the pipeline, would stand a better chance of passing.  Only after that would we get on to heavier issues like labeling or (shudder) the actual prohibition of particular crops and pesticides.

I dug this approach because it was just like a technique Yvonne would use, when she was still in practice, on clients with phobias.  It’s called “successive approximation”.  You start from making them imagine circumstances where the fear might arise, then introduce them to real physical circumstances that might trigger a relatively mild form of the fear, and after that gradually escalate things until you could take, say, an acrophobic to the roof of a high-rise and have them look over without panicking.  Yes, it does work.

All in all, the event was a success.  People who had seldom or never met before bonded with one another.  People who already knew each other well reinforced their commitment and went away full of hope and enthusiasm for what might be a decisive year.  I’m an optimist about my own life but a full-on pessimist on almost everything else, so when I say I shared these feelings it should surely count for something.