California’s AB 88-something fishy this way comes

Humans have been messing with life-changing technology for millennia. For instance, fire allows humans to cook their food. Though our ancient ancestors didn’t know it, heating food changes the food’s molecular structure; cooking gelatinizes starch and denatures protein, making calories more accessible to the human body than raw food does. While no one would say that fire (or my cooking) is 100 per cent safe, yet it has proven to be immensely useful to us humans (fire, not my cooking).

About 10,000 years ago, after fire and cooking, came the new technology of agriculture. Instead of people going to the food supply, they started to domesticate animals and plants, and brought the food supply to where they were. Eventually, they bred animals and plants for their needs. In other words, they had started tinkering with the genetic makeup of their food supply.

In the 1970s, a new technology arrived that will once again transform our food: Genetic Engineering (GE), also called Genetic Modification (GM). Genes, recipes for reproduction from one living thing, could be introduced into another living thing without using traditional breeding methods. GE gives food producers new ways to meet the nutritional needs of the world.

A decade ago, the AquaBounty company inserted an ‘antifreeze’ gene from a large eel-like species and a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon into an Atlantic salmon. According to AquaBounty this genetically modified fish can grow to market size in half the time of a natural salmon.

GE has spooked some people and they have called on the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of GE food.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, it requires labeling “If an issue exists for the food or a constituent of the food regarding how the food is used or consequences of its use, a statement must be made on the label to describe the issue. If a bioengineered food has a significantly different nutritional property, its label must reflect the difference. If a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label.”

A panel of scientists convened by the Food and Drug Administration to weigh in on the fish’s safety has said the fish is safe to eat.

Never mind that it is safe; as David Ropeik, the author of “How Risky Is It, Really?” writes in Psychology Today, “The perception of genetically modified food is like the perception of any risk: a combination of the facts and how those facts feel, a mix of reason and gut reaction…We’re more afraid of what we can’t detect ourselves, what we don’t understand, and what we’re exposed to involuntarily.” And Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), with a mix of gut reaction and facts has come to the rescue of all Californians by introducing Assembly Bill 88 (AB 88)-“The Consumer’s Right to Know Act.” Huffman disagrees with the FDA. He proposes labeling GE salmon to warn consumers because, “Without labeling, consumers may unknowingly purchase genetically engineered salmon in spite of lingering concerns.”

Assemblymember Huffman’s “lingering concerns” notwithstanding, scientists, the U.S. government, the European Union, and others have said that GE food is as safe as any other food product.

Biochemist Simon Easterbrook-Smith bluntly dismisses fears over GE food, “There is no difference between eating a tomato containing a GM protein from fish, for example and eating an unmodified tomato with a piece of fish – in both cases there will be a mixture of tomato and fish proteins in your gut. A protein may or may not be toxic but whether it is in a GM food is irrelevant to that question.”

Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog, says this about fearing GE, “I dare say the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. 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.”

Farmed GE fish hold the promise of lessening the pressure on wild populations. Scaring people due to nebulous “lingering concerns” is a sideshow. How about fixing the broken California budget?

Now there is a real lingering concern.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest in any agricultural or bioengineering company. Though, I do enjoy genetically modified foods, sold at reasonable prices, and purchased at local markets.



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Weekend Postcard: Lake County, Clear Lake

What a gorgeous weekend in northern California. The temperature was around 67F (19C for our metric folks). The lilac are in bloom and Mount Konocti looked very photogenic. And, every road invited you to amble along and see what lay around the next bend.

How was the climate in your neck of the woods?

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Forest Owners to EPA: Massachusetts made wrong choice

The National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) recommended to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they defer the regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biomass for three years. the EPA is considering regulating biomass energy the same as fossil fuels. David P. Tenny, President and CEO of NAFO, underscored NAFO’s desire for the EPA to conduct comprehensive reviews of the science and policy, “This week, Massachusetts issued proposed regulations that effectively shut the door on renewable biomass energy in that state. This appears to be what officials wanted when they initiated a study on biomass energy that limited the area and timeframe considered in a way that significantly skewed the outcome. The flawed study resulted in a flawed policy. EPA can learn from the unfortunate outcome in Massachusetts to put in place an even-handed review.”

Tenny noted that EPA’s review is more a question of policy than science, “The science is really a settled question – the cycle of biogenic carbon is biology 101. Carbon released from biomass energy is replaced in real time through continued forest growth without increasing overall carbon in the atmosphere. The question EPA must answer is how policy can best apply this science to meet our renewable energy needs and reduce unrecyclable fossil fuel carbon emissions. Unlike Massachusetts, we are hopeful that EPA will conduct a review of policy options free of arbitrary assumptions or parameters that skew well settled science.”

NAFO’s comments to the EPA provide answers with supporting science to the policy questions EPA must answer:

* Forest carbon is most accurately measured on a national scale over a continuous timeframe rather than applying arbitrary time and space limitations on carbon measurement

* Because forests remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release through natural and human activities, biomass energy emissions don’t increase carbon in the atmosphere and should be excluded from GHG regulations for stationary sources

* EPA should not impose a regulatory “baseline” or “business-as-usual” requirement on forest carbon that would compel forest owners to continually increase the carbon stored in individual forest tracts.

Tenny reminded the EPA that NAFO, “stands ready to work with the Agency to establish a policy recognizing the full carbon and landscape benefits of forest biomass as an energy source.”

NAFO’s comments were submitted as part of the public comments for the proposed rule entitled, “Deferral for CO2 emissions from Bioenergy and Other Biogenic Sources under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration and Title V Programs.” NAFO full comments on this rule and the Call for Information are available on their website.

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