Mark Bittman asks, “What Do You Think About Genetically Engineered Food?”

Mark Bittman is asking, “What Do You Think About Genetically Engineered Food?

Specifically, he wants you to answer four questions for a non-scientific poll:

1. Does it bother you that there are genetically engineered ingredients in most of the foods sold in American supermarkets?

2. Do you want the products that contain genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled “Contains Genetically Engineered Ingredients”?

3. Do you think that government agencies should enact stricter regulations for testing, growing, and marketing of GE crops and other products?

4. If genetically engineered salmon were to come on the market, it would not be labeled according to current policy and would therefore be indistinguishable (visually, at least) from other farm-raised salmon. Would this curb your overall purchasing of salmon?

It probably won’t surprise you that most of people said “yes” to all four questions.

I said “No” to all four.

Gene splicing characteristics is just the latest step in the way we humans have been altering the genetic structures of our food for 10,000 years. It is in many ways safer than natural breeding. After all, natural breeding involves the random mixing of tens of thousands of genes (genes are recipes for proteins) from two parent plants, resulting in entirely new proteins and other plant chemicals never before part of the food supply, but most people find this practice natural and quite acceptable.

Historically, worries about new technology have been wide of the mark. In 1825, Britain’s Quarterly Review howled about “[L]ocomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches!” Some physicians predicted that the incredibly high speeds [nearly 20 miles per hour!] would cause psychological harm. Veterinarians worried that passing trains would cause pregnant mares to spontaneously abort. “We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour,” the Review admonished.” Can’t be too careful, now can we?

A European Union report put it this way, “[A] genome (e.g., all the genes that make up an organism’s DNA) is not a static entity but a dynamic structure continuously refining its gene pool. So, for a scientist in genetics, the act of splicing to generate a transgenic organism is a modest step when compared to the genomic changes induced by all the ‘crosses’ and breeding events used in agriculture and husbandry.” Now, instead of breeding and repeatedly crossbreeding out unwanted traits, agronomists can place a single trait into a plant.

“[T]he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” says Stewart Brand, leading environmentalist who authored The Whole Earth Catalog. “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defense of a bizarre idea of what is ‘natural’…we make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.”

Should you wish to vote, you’ll need to register with the New York Time’s site. Bittman’s poll is here:

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A warmer and wetter world

I found a link the other day to a government website with global mean precipitation data from 1900 to 2000. Of course, I can’t find the link now (please comment if you have the link, but first see the note at the end of the post).

Anyway, I put the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and graphed the data and added a trendline. (If you would like a copy of the xls file, please ask for it in the comment section below.) As the world warms it is getting wetter. As Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist:

If you take the IPCC’s [International Panel on Climate Change] assumptions and count the people living in zones that will have more water versus zones that will have less water, it is clear that the net population at risk of water shortage falls by 2100 under all their scenarios. (emphasis added)

Global mean precipitation (1900-2000)

10 yr average-global mean precipitation (1900-2000)

Even the EPA cites the IPCC (2007) to say much the same thing:

As global mean temperatures have risen, global mean precipitation also has increased. This is expected because evaporation increases with increasing temperature, and there must be an increase in precipitation to balance the enhanced evaporation (IPCC, 2007). Globally, precipitation over land increased at a rate of 1.9 percent per century since 1901, but the trends vary spatially and temporally. Over the contiguous U.S., total annual precipitation increased at an average rate of 6.1 percent per century since 1901, although there was considerable regional variability. The greatest increases came in the South (10.5 percent per century), the Northeast (9.8 percent), and the East North Central climate region (9.6 percent). A few areas such as Hawaii and parts of the Southwest have seen a decrease.

Crops may flourish with warmer climes and more CO2. There is some indication that in California some trees are increasing their ranges in response to this change. While increasing temperatures do have their downside, they also have positive benefits as well.

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Plants moving to lower and warmer elevations in a warming world

A news release out of the University of California at Davis says, “study shows plants moved downhill, not up, in warming world.”

In a paper published last month in the journal Science, a UC Davis researcher and his co-authors challenge a widely held assumption that plants will move uphill in response to warmer temperatures. It turns out that plants respond more to moisture. The results are based on historical data collected by the U.S. Forest Service since the 1930s

Between 1930 and 2000, many California plant species moved downhill an average of 260 feet.  Jonathan Greenberg, an assistant project scientist at the UC Davis Center for Spatial Technologies and Remote Sensing said, “While the climate warmed significantly in this period, there was also more precipitation. These wetter conditions are allowing plants to exist in warmer locations than they were previously capable of.”

While the news release does not mention it, let me conjecture that increased CO2 availability may have played a role in the plants ability to move downhill despite warmer temperatures encountered at lower elevations. Plants do not need to open their stomata as much or as often for CO2 intake and therefore do not lose water through transpiration.

Many forecasts say climate change will cause a number of plants and animals to migrate to new ranges or become extinct. That research has largely been based on the assumption that temperature is the dominant driver of species distributions. However, the new study reveals that other factors, such as precipitation, may be more important than temperature in defining the habitable range of these species.

The findings could have global relevance, because many locations north of 45 degrees latitude (which includes the northernmost United States, virtually all of Canada and Russia, and most of Europe) have had increased precipitation in the past century, and global climate models generally predict that trend will continue, the authors said.

The study is titled “Changes in climatic water balance drive downhill shifts in plant species’ optimum elevations.” Greenberg’s co-authors are: graduate student Shawn Crimmins (the lead author), assistant professor Solomon Dobrowski (a UC Davis alumnus) and research analyst Alison Mynsberge, all of the University of Montana; and assistant professor John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho.

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