61 thoughts on “Sandpit

  1. @Ernestine Gross

    I am very wary of GM food for a number of reasons.

    Insertion of gene A to make say protein B might seem straightforward. However, to my mind there is no guarantee that an insertion accompanied by offsets or displacements in a complex gene sequence will not have other unforeseen consequences (in how other genes are expressed or not expressed.)

    The situation (insertion of code) is not dissimilar in some ways to inserting new code in a complex computer program. Anyone who has worked in computer systems development knows that regression testing is a significant component of development. After new code is inserted, not only must the new code be tested, but the whole system must be tested (as far as possible) to ensure that the new code has not buggered up something else that used to work. Are GM experimenters and implementers doing enough testing to ensure they have not buggered up something else? I wonder, because the permutations and combinations of risks are huge.

    Also, the self-reinforcing corporate money-making linkages between GM and more pesticides, more fertilisers are very clear. After, engineering crops to take more pesticides, more fertilisers what happens to the intricate web of life downstream? Think of bees and CCD (colony collapse disorder) as one possible example.

  2. Prof Quiggin, I have a great deal of respect for you and this blog and accordingly I apologise for breaking your injunction not to interact with Megan or make personal attacks. I also apologise to Megan. I accept that her opposition to certain branches of mainstream science is genuine and thus not trolling and it was wrong of me to suggest otherwise.

  3. Ikonoclast, if you have a choice between a GM-food society and non-GM-food society, which one would you choose?

    (Society refers to a group of people, possibly very large, endowed with a land mass such that ecological separation of areas is possible, and independent scientific research is affordable.)

  4. I dont know much about GM, but doubt we need GM tech unless we want to grow the worlds population/economy/farm output at the maximum possible rate . Even then we may not need it . Mega companies sure want it -which raises suspicions in me. From my uninformed mass media point of view ,I tend to trust the scientists who seem to say the risks are small. I think simply maximising growth and hoping for the best has not worked too well and is getting boring.

  5. There is not much left of American civic democratic virtue – more a warning than cause for celebration.

    However, the War of Independence, did leave a legacy of local political action. Take the case of Boulder, Colorado, in which in attempt to create a city powered by renewable energy, in particular solar energy.The status quo is a reaction, and if they do not have all the cards in the pack, they claim the aces.

    Local Government in Australia does not have the initiative to take similar action. Could it be that State Governments are determined to keep it that way, since they are invested in the fossil fuel economy, symbolic of top-down control? Nor are political parties locally based. Denial is one response. The loss of political power arising from local empowerment concentrates political minds, almost like nothing else. And yet smart grids, although integrated in broad networks, are going to be significantly local in operation.

    Idee fixes need expression to be considered – the sun is after all a star.

  6. @Ernestine Gross

    That’s a tough question. I find myself wanting to weasel out of it a bit by saying this. Maybe a society where GM foods are very clearly labelled so I personally can avoid purchasing and consuming any. However, given that fields of GM crops can contaminate the gene pools of fields of non-GM crops, arguably over great distances, then you may not be offering me a false dichotomy of choice but a genuine and justified dichotomy. In that case, I would choose the non-GM large land mass.

    Some people with a very deterministic and simplified view of applied genetic science argue that GM is no different from selective breeding. In both cases we “manipulate the gene pool”. However, the manipulations and possible flow-on effects are quite different. Natural breeding crosses only organisms that are already closely related. GM breeding splices together genes from up to a dozen or more different sources including bacterial DNA. Bacteria can also be used as vectors to splice in the DNA. This genetic mixing rate is, I think likely, many orders of magnitude greater than would occur naturally in macro-organisms and/or many orders of magnitude greater than successful mutations.

    If the bacteria used as vectors escape into the natural environment, they will then potentially share all new genetic material with all bacteria in the environment. Bacteria share genetic materials across species by horizontal gene transfer.

    All the above is a qualitatively and quantitatively different process from cross-breeding. It is clearly unscientific to claim they are analogous as some GM proponents do.

    I have a simple rubric too. If corporations want something then it must be bad.

  7. @Iconoclast

    Natural breeding also gave us HIV and SARS among a huge number of other organisms, many of which started out as harmless to humans. The idea of using this as an argument in favour of GM seems absurd.

    To be clear, I love the technology – and have no problem with the use of GM on any organism, including humans (animal welfare concerns aside). What I do object to is the large scale release of modified organisms into the environment. Your comments about regression testing are spot on. IMO we don’t yet have the knowledge, let alone the tool chain, to support uncontrolled release of this stuff. There is potential for great harm across multiple dimensions.

  8. The Human Rights Commission ought to be scrapped. However reform is always an second choice option. So it’s great to see prominent libertarian Tim Wilson has been appointed as a human rights commissioner. That should put a cat amongst the pigeons. Hopefully he can go some way to shifting the focus towards a classical liberal perspective. Hopefully he is fearless in taking on not just the threat from the left of politics but also his mates on the conservative right.


  9. Apart from a large amount of seafood, almost nothing we eat has not been intentionally genetically modified over the past 10,000 years or so. In ye olden times this was done by selective breeding and taking advantage of chance mutations. Some simple examples, carrots aren’t supposed to be orange, maize isn’t supposed to be yellow, strawberries are suposed to be tiny, and short legged sheep are supposed to have longer legs.

    Some people think this sort of genetic modification is safe compared to more direct genetic modification, but this isn’t necessarily so. I could take commerical varieties of plants that contain harmless levels of toxins and selectively breed them until they were hazardous to human health. Just how much success I would have would depend on what sort of raw material I had to work with, but it wouldn’t be too difficult a task. However, it wouldn’t be a terrible profitable task as poisonous plants usually don’t taste very good. It’s almost as if human beings have somehow been selected over time to find plant toxins unplatable. As a result, genetically modifying plants through selective breeding to make them more toxic isn’t likely to be a money winner. Only if I selected certain toxins such as nicotine, tetrahydrocanabinol, or opiodes would I have a chance to make some money.

    In a similar way, increasing the amount of toxins in plants through direct genetic modification is also unlikely to be much of a money winner. Of course, since people don’t always think things through, it might well be a good idea for it to be illegal to make plants for human consumption toxic. In fact, I’m inclined to think it already is illegal to poison people, but I’m not a lawyer so I am really out of my depth on this matter.

    Of course even if something is already illegal doesn’t mean precautions shouldn’t be taken against it occurring. Sometimes risks exist but people pretend they either aren’t there or are insignificant. Just look at the Fukushima reactors for an example. But some crazy person splicing genes from deadly nightshade into commercial lettuce so it produces enough scolopimine to make your heart pop isn’t very likely at the moment. You are much more likely to be killed by someone directly applying poison to your food.

    Currently there is no way to be certain what effect a genetic modification will have on the population of genes into which it is introduced. But in the same way we can’t be certain what effects varying environments will have on a population of genes. So if one is wary of direct genetic modification of the “let’s make money by selling a variety of plant that farmers and/or consumers are willing to pay for” type and not a “Ha! I am an instrument of god’s vengence” sort, then one should also be wary of plants that have been genetically modified by indirect methods such as selective breeding, which is basically everything in the supermarket. And you should also be wary of eating any food that was exposed to unusual conditions during its growth such as climate change, water stress, new variaties of fungi, insect pests and so on as this can also affect the expression of genes in unusual ways. And this includes anything in the supermarket and also any food you take from the wild.

    So personally I am quite happy to eat genetically modified food, whether that modification was done through selective breeding or more direct methods. I see an astoundingly small chance of it doing me any harm while it will definitely help people in poor countries by helping to keep food prices down and by producing new varieties that can cope with climate change. There are going to be over nine billion of us before too long and we’re doing an awful good job of trashing the climate, so the least I can do is help them by eating directly genetically modified food to help ensure that directly genetically modified crops will be available for them. I am sure that, all else being equal, developed countries banning or discouraging directly genetically modified food will cause a considerable number of people in poorer countries to die. I can understand some people being wary of directly genetically modified food, but if you don’t like it you should have made sure that all the world’s nations went through the demographic transition in the 1970s. And don’t tell me that you didn’t possess that power. According to a self help book that I recently burned you just didn’t want it badly enough.

  10. TerjeP.

    You won’t agree, but seems to me that Classical Liberalism is nonsense. Classical Liberalism does not do social, historical or empirical analysis.

    It is an ideology that ignores the empirical reality of Capitalism. For example, in Marx’s analysis of the various forms of social organization and class, with examples including primitive communism, feudalism and so forth, identifies the various ways in which the surplus value of production is distributed.

    Today, Classical Liberalism mostly ignores the role of Military-Industrial Complex in creating a violent and unequal world order in the footsteps of Classical Imperialism. Borders created nation states on the European model, especially in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa are examples of structural violence and inequality. Juan Cole reports since 1976, the US has spent $8T to provide security for the Persian Gulf States, including Bahrain with its human rights record. These examples have been, I suspect, ignored by Classical Liberalism from their inception

    Why don’t Classical Liberals take their inspiration from The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen summarized as “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood”, perhaps amended to include the other 51% of humanity?

    You seem to accept it expedient for Mr Wilson to give up his free association with the Liberal Party and the IPA. How can that be consistent for an advocate of human and political rights, other than to cover a supposed conflict of interests.

    The interesting aspect is the appointment was made by the learned Senator Brandis, who seemed to me to be blind-sided with respect to human rights. That conclusion is consistent with Marx’s notion of ideology. If George Brandis were to express a profound concern for human beings and human rights would he, or indeed Libertarians, not be outspoken in relation to the treatment of refugees in the off shore prisons of Nauru and Manus Islands?

  11. I don’t know the views of Tim Wilson on the military industrial complex but criticism of the warfare / welfare state is a staple conversation piece in libertarian circles. You should get out more.

  12. TerjeP

    Fair enough: name names in relation to supporting the human rights of refugees.

    What I have observed at Catallaxy, for example, is the frequent resort to verbal violence. The purpose of s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is to sanction vilification, a form of public bullying sanctioned by the presumed privilege of an dominant ethnic identity. Public places are public goods and all people should have access without discrimination on the superficial grounds of appearance. This does not impede democratic discussion and dialogue, rather the contrary since it helps to establish the principle of mutual respect, despite differences, and thus engender the socially transcendent principle of unity in diversity.

  13. Didn’t Tim want smaller public service? 🙂 Okay, that’s cheeky.

    Seriously, it will be fascinating to observe how Tim Wilson enjoys his new role, and the choices he makes. Looking forward to his thoughts on “freedom” and indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

  14. @wmmbb

    And of course the “bolt” case went against him because he couldn’t make out the defence provided by s.18(c), ie: that the offensive statements were made “reasonably and in good faith”.

    He didn’t lose the case because of an infringement of his right to free speech, he lost it because he was sloppy with the truth and exercised bad faith.

  15. @TerjeP

    Wilson is using influence from his associations with the political elite to obtain the position, which sounds like a form of rent-seeking to me.

    If he believes the HRC should be abolished, he is a manipulative hypocrite, accepting the power of HRC Commissioner so he can betray its statutory objectives.

    How does his history in this field add up to sufficient merit for this appointment?

  16. Terje I see you got one like for your comment on the facebook page.

    I liked the comment that his real position description is ‘human rights decommissioner’.

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