Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Amateurs are Key to Gathering and Interpreting Scientific Data

The greatest contributions to science are made by every day people who gather data. Without the data and observations made by amateurs, professional scientists are often left with insufficient data. Amateur contributions to scientific data are found in fields as varied as astronomy and the taxonomy of plants.

Keeping an eye on the sky requires millions of eyes. Amateur astronomers are thus vital, and their observations of phenomena such as exploding supernovas and meteorites are prime examples of their contributions. Volunteer astronomers even discovered a group of galaxies.

Taxonomy has a long tradition of laymen making crucial discoveries. In fact, a recent study shows that over 60 percent of new European species were found by amateurs. This number makes it difficult to underestimate the importance of public enthusiasts to the plant and animal sciences.

The list of important scientific knowledge gleaned from the work of non-scientists is long. After all, it does not take a PhD to observe, record, and relay data to fellow enthusiasts and professionals. Amateur storm spotters often save lives by giving timely information to emergency management officials. Moving forward, we must maintain cooperation between laymen and professionals for the betterment of science and the human race.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Some Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Foods

Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Crops

With a nickname like "Frankencrops", genetically modified (GM) foods may bring about images of B movies such as Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. After all, there couldn't be any good come from messing with the DNA of crops. The reality is not as clear as those on either side of the debate would have us believe.

About 75 percent of processed food produced in the U.S. has GM ingredients according to the University of Santa Clara's Dr. Margaret McLean, a former adviser to the California Senate Select Committee on Genetics.
What Are Genetically Modified Foods
Adding genes from another organism or rearranging them within a single organism results in GM plants. Hybridized crops are the result of cross-pollination, which happens in nature, or in controlled environments to yield an organism that has the best features of both parents. Hybridization is a form of genetic modification. However, when speaking of GM foods, agriculturalists generally mean genetically engineered (GE) or transgenic modified organisms.
GE organisms are those with genes rearranged within a single species, while transgenic are modified by taking a gene from one species and adding it to another.
Pros of GM Foods
Purposes of GM crops are things such as making them less attractive to damaging insects, increasing tolerance to herbicides---or "Round-Up ready"--, increasing nutrients, disease tolerance and producing crops better suited to converting to bio-fuels. There is evidence that conventionally produced GM crops are more resistant to certain harmful fungus than organically farmed produce.
A commonly used GE corn seed-known as Bt corn- was made to produce its' own pesticide that's affective against the European corn borer and other insects. Corn borer larvae can destroy entire fields.
The bananas, strawberries, green peppers, and other produce are grown from seeds that take longer to ripen, effectively increasing their shelf life. This reduces food waste.
Golden Rice increases the amount of vitamin A in the human body. This is particularly good for those who lack these vitamins in their diet.
Perhaps the most controversial forms of GM crops are "pharma-crops"-or crops grown to produce pharmaceuticals. Grown on smaller test plots for over a decade, agri-businesses want to produce these crops on a commercial scale. A USDA document states that from 1988 to 2005 their Biotechnology regulatory Service (BRS) approved 1,855 field tests for pharma-crops in Hawaii.
The Con's of GM Foods
The first attempt to make GM crops with an increased shelf life was a failure. These were tomatoes, put on the market in 1994. They had genes that increased resistance to antibiotics. Transference of this resistance to people, who consume the tomatoes, was a real concern, forcing the tomatoes off the market.
Dr. Margaret McLean in "The Future of Food..." points out the potential for introducing allergy-producing genes into unrelated foods is real and Syngenta has already lost a settlement for accidentally selling unapproved corn seeds to farmers. There's no telling what is in an unapproved seed.
Environmental cons of GM crops are not certain. Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a Yaleenvironment360 piece, states he is against them in part because "there is plenty of evidence to show that genetically modified fragments are turning up in places they're not wanted." Introducing these fragments into the environment may indeed produce malformations worthy of the "Frankencrop" label.
Negative Socioeconomic effects of patented, modified seeds are another con. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) nicely lays out a particular concern:
Farmers fear that they might even have to pay for crop varieties bred from genetic material that originally came from their own fields when they buy seeds from companies holding patents on specific genetic modification "events".
Patented seeds are more expensive and GM seeds often are effective for only one season, making it so farmers must buy seed every year. This could further contribute to consolidation and the worldwide economic disparity.
My take
The problem with genetically modified food is not necessarily inherent in the technology but the political forces that allow for it to be used in culturally, economically, and environmentally damaging ways. The same structure that allows monopolistic corporations to own the world and skirt regulations until a disaster such as the BP gulf spill happens will facilitate environmental destruction from GM crops, even if it is preventable.

There may be no stopping agri-business from pursuing these technologies. The Union of Concerned Scientists has publicly denounced the coming "pharma-crop" revolution, with little effect on test plot approval. Organizations that care about the environment and social justice must not allow innate biases to get in the way of potentially sustainable technologies. At the same time, we must not be victims to a stacked deck and should pressure those who control these technologies to use them responsibly. This is a difficult task in any political environment.