Friday, May 09, 2003

And Speaking of Bill Gates
It's a real pain in the ying-yang when one's prejudices are challenged (ok that's not quite funny, but....)

Please read the interview I linked to below. He's actually concerned, involved, and giving away 90% of his money to good causes around the world. He might be the MOST IMPORTANT MAN EVER when it comes to combating world disease.

Who'd have thunk it that I would admire Bill Gates?

The Downside of Biotechnology
I am a technophile. I dream of someday visiting a moon colony, and of watching crews get ready to set off for Mars. I love all the stuff that makes life easier, safer, and more enjoyable, from televisions to fetal heart monitors. I love being able to communicate with people all over the world in minutes rather than days or weeks; one of my joys in blogging has been receiving e-mails from places like Hong Kong and Australia. Most of all, the old chesnut about "things man was not meant to know" simply annoys me; if it is there, and knowable, then we are meant to know it.

When I started reading about genetically engineered food I dismissed the complaints as mostly luddite silliness. If crops can made to feed the starving world, letting people starve in the name of genetic purity seemed to be the height of irresponsibility. What was so bad about a potato that could resist bugs? Even if it had a few bacterial genes grafted onto its DNA?

Well, the answer arrived in a most unlikely vehicle. As I looked around for airplane reading last month, a friend recommended Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. Mr. Pollan is a gardener and author whose columns I had read and enjoyed in The New York Times Magazine. The reviews of the book were excellent. Best of all, it was already out in trade paperback, which meant my carry-on would be manageable.

Pollan's thesis is that plants and humans struck a coevolutionary bargain ten thousand years ago, and we have been cultivating each other ever since:

I call this book The Botany of Desire because it is as much about the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the plants themselves. My premise is that these human desires form a part of natural history in the same way the hummingbird's love of red does, or the ant's taste for the aphid's honeydew. I think of them as the human equivalent of nectar...

The four desires I explore here are sweetness, broadly defined, in the story of the apple; beauty in the tulip's; intoxication in the story of cannabis; and control in the story of the potato...


In the chapter about potatoes, Pollan explores the development by Monsanto of a genetically engineered strain called New Leaf, which is nearly inmune to that great killer, the Colorado potato beetle. Monsanto spliced a single gene from bacillus thuringiensis, a common beneficial soil bacterium, into the potato DNA to make the plant into a pesticide producer.

This is the kicker: by adding that single gene, from something naturally present in your soil, to the potato DNA, that particular strain of potato has become the intellectual property of the Monsanto company. Fair enough. They created it (stretching the word creation of bit, true, but they did the work), they should benefit. I buy seeds every year for new strains of tomato, zucchini, and a whole host of vegetables and flowers. But these companies with genetically engineered crops go further:

I untied the purple mesh bag of seed potatoes Monsanto had sent and opened the grower's guide tied around its neck. Potatoes, you will recall from kindergarten experiments, are grown not from actual seeds from the eyes of other potatoes, and the dusty, stone-colored chunks of tuber I carefully laid at the bottom of the trench looked like any other. Yet the grower's guide that comes with them put me in mind not so much of planting vegetables as booting up a new software release.

By "opening and using this product," the card informed me, I was now "licensed" to grow these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes I would dig come September would be mine to eat or sell, but their genes would remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under several U.S. patents...Were I to save even one of these spuds to plant next year--someone I've routinely done with my potatoes in the past--I would be breaking federal law.


Monsanto enforces it patents by paying informants and hiring detectives to uncover "brown bagging" (saving some potatoes to replant the following year) among farmers, and has already sued hundreds of people for patent infringement. But even that might not be necessary any longer. Another company, Delta & Pine Land, has developed a gene that causes the seeds in a plant to become sterile, stopping the seed-plant-seed cycle--forcing the farmer under corporate control. Although Monsanto, under international pressure, does not use the Terminator, it has not abandoned a group of related technologies, known as Genetic Use Restriction Technologies, in which genetically modified plants produce inactive but viable seed that can be activated only through the use of a proprietary Monsanto chemical.

The ancient logic of the seed--to freely make more of itself ad infinitum, to serve as both food and the means of making more food in the future--has yielded to the modern logic of capitalism. Now viable seeds will come not from plants but from corporations...

I am not certain that something as crucial to the human species as food production should be trusted to corporations. Capitalism is wonderful for many many things, but dealing with situations in which there is no profit is not one of them. As Bill Gates memorably said to Bill Moyers during his NOW interview, about his involvement in global health campaigns, it really is a failure of capitalism. You know capitalism is this wonderful thing that motivates people, it causes wonderful inventions to be done. But in this area of diseases of the world at large, it's really let us down.

Food and health are too important to be left to someone whose first concern is meeting his projected quarterly profits.



Thursday, May 08, 2003

Boppin' Around the Blogosphere...
Devra makes a quick fly-by to tell us she's making her semi-hiatus official. I hope she's having much fun in her life, because we miss her!

Calpundit has spiffy new digs, and a series of really good posts. Start at the top and read your way down. Way to go, Kevin!

Randy, whose links are bloggered, tells us about the end of Menem. Thank God fasting! Although I share his discomfort with the Peronistas...

Jeanne shows once more why she's the best at what she does.

A word of advice: don't tick off Kieran Healy!

Ted is back, and he brings us a thought experiment...

Let's go snipe hunting with RonK

And after you have reached the nadir and think that the world sucks and nothing but nothing can make it better, go over to The Preacher, and be reminded of what it means to really believe in God...

Mary over at The Watch tells us that Yellowstone is now under Bush's protection. Mother Nature weeps...

And Khalil is still blogging!

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

A Tale of Four Airports
So I'm back, after six days of breakfast-to-dinner meetings and three days of lovely relaxation in the outskirts of La-La Land. (Yes, I know it was more than nine days. I have no intention in the Universe to tell you about the rest!)

Traveling by air these days is...well, interesting. I was flying American, which, btw, provided excellent service and on-time arrivals throughout, but no food except pretzels in all but one flight, where I was served beef bourguignon and roast potatoes at 10:30 a.m. When I arrived at Miami International check-in counter, I was greeted by a single American employee and a row of computerized workstations. I was informed (big-smile-aren't-we-wonderful-to-our-beloved-customers) that I would issue my own ticket and check-in my own luggage. After I finished doing my bit for American's bottom line, I was directed to take my suitcase to another area, where I passed it to someone on the other side of the counter who took it to a back room where the big scan machines are housed. I was instructed to wait until the person returned and gave me the go-ahead.

At the security checkpoint, I was asked to put everything through the machine, including my shoes. No one was pulled aside and no carry-on was searched. After a quiet uneventful flight I landed at Dallas-Fort Worth, where I simply walked to the next gate and boarded.

In between my work and vacation days I had to fly again, this time from San Jose to Los Angeles. San Jose Airport is small and uncrowded at this time of year. I still had to issue my own ticket, but the nice guy behind the desk took my suitcase and pointed me to the security checkpoint. Again, shoes off, except for sneakers, until one poor guy learned the hard way that his sneakers had metal inserts; at that point they started asking everyone to take their shoes off.

On my way back I flew out of LAX, where the security measures were designed by a committee of inebriated frat brothers. Again, I issued my own ticket, then was directed at a bullpen sort of area where you stood in line to hand over your suitcase to someone behind a partition from behind which issued a number of odd whining and whooshing sounds. Then you waited, along with three thousand other human beings. On the other side of the tape there were five or six people; two manned search tables while others pulled suitcases from behind the partition and called out names. You responded with the number of suitcases you had handed over ("SMITH? SMIIIIITH? HOW MANY?" "THREE!" "WHAAAT"? "THREEEE(arm flung overhead, three fingers pointing at the ceiling)" "CLEAR!"). Once in a while a suitcase or other packing material was brought over to the search table, keys and combinations were handed over and the thing searched right in front of all these strange witnesses.

Maybe because I mispent a great deal of my youth reading thrillers and playing strategy games, or maybe because the whole concept of homeland security is very much to the forefront these days, I started to notice ways in which I could beat the system. After a while it became a game: if I were a terrorist, how would I...? I came up with SIX, and then stopped, basically because I was scaring myself to death. Now, I am sure that at least one third of my scenarios had glitches, and another third were too complicated for anything but a Hollywood movie. But the last third?

Never mind. I'm basically a fatalist anyway.