Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Do we have a population problem or a just a lack of discipline?

 A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Tuesdays

Last week, I concluded a series of blog entries on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with the thought that their perceived success or failure will come down to the extent to which they help with the ultimate conservation issue: human population and consumption. You would have to have your head in the sand to be unaware that the human population has grown dramatically; this subject has been a matter of concern and debate for decades. However, public discourse today focuses more on our limited resources or the strained capacity of our natural systems to handle pollution and other anthropogenic effects. Recent studies even suggest the population will level out in the relatively near future (UN World Population Prospects, the 2012 revision). Nevertheless, the underlying concern prevails. It is common that a general-interest seminar on environmental issues will end with a knowing acknowledgement that population growth is the real and under-acknowledged problem. I know people who have chosen to forego pregnancy because of their concern over population growth. I struggled with this issue myself when planning my family. However, today I aim to convince you that the real problem lies not in our numbers or consumption directly, but in our inability to consciously plan and enact regulations to achieve our desired future.

I had a formative experience regarding human population control back in 1996. I was almost 30 and had serendipitously positioned myself as a world expert on the design of marine protected areas, a subject that had gone from virtually unknown to the hottest of all marine conservation topics over the preceding couple of years. Amidst requests to discuss protected areas, it was noteworthy and intriguing when I was contacted by a regional Colombian government agency (La Corporación Regional para el Desarrollo Sostenible del Archipiélago de San Andrés, Providencia, y Santa Catalina, or CORALINA) asking if I could help them determine the human carrying capacity of the islands within their jurisdiction. Carrying capacity is an ecological concept that describes the size a population will achieve if left to grow and thrive in the absence of disturbances. The concept follows from the idea that competition for resources, the spread of diseases, and even visibility to predators all increase as a population grows. If the population is left undisturbed, these forces will eventually balance out new growth, leaving the population at a stable size, its carrying capacity.

In their question, though, I realized that CORALINA was not asking me just how many people could be sustained on the islands. In a sense, the population was already at its carrying capacity. Food consumed on the islands was shipped in from elsewhere and water could be procured through desalinization or shipped in as well. The natural limit on human population in the islands was a matter of taste. If the population grew, people would face greater crowding and its associated effects, such as pollution and the economic costs from increasing demands for resources. The real concern of CORALINA was how many people could live on the islands while maintaining healthy natural ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. I steered them away from worrying about the number of people living on the island, largely because of the insurmountable political challenge of securing and executing the authority to do anything about it. Instead, I encouraged them to enact a marine zoning plan that would manage their resources conscientiously. Specifically, we explored the limits of their coral reefs. These limits translated into trade-offs among competing human objectives, whether between scuba ecotourism and fishing or between small-scale artisanal and industrial-scale commercial fishing.

Though the Colombians received this advice well, a lack of control over human population size was frustrating. At first glance, it does seem like population size would be a good focus for efforts to address environmental issues. China certainly thought so in enacting its one-child policy. However, their success at slowing and halting population growth has hardly resulted in healthy environments. China suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution in the world and their resource consumption continues to grow rapidly. Less-authoritarian economic means to control population have been developed over time, and now primarily focus on empowering women. Doing so typically leads to higher levels of consumption as parents invest more in fewer kids and produce global citizens who consume resources at higher levels. Whether via Chinese-style authoritarian rule or a gentler western approach, we can produce political-economic systems that discourage further human population growth. However, these efforts are associated with higher per capita resource use, which limits their environmental benefits.

If population control isn’t the solution, is technology the answer? Here we run into a phenomenon called the efficiency paradox, where efficiency gains from technology are balanced out by additional uses. As an example, consider a Stanford Engineering Department water recycling project I participated in a few years ago. The engineers on the project were brilliant and energetic, and had the tools necessary to design cost effective water processing plants that could work on a building- or small-neighborhood-scale. In its cheapest form, such a system would replace the use of municipal water for landscaping, a major source of water use. I had to temper their excitement, though, by pointing out how the efficiency paradox would play out. Home owners would essentially be provided with a cheap additional source of water, and using that source would make them feel they were contributing to environmental health. For some, the new technology might reduce overall water use substantially. For others, it would encourage them to switch from native xeriscaping (drought-tolerant landscaping) to backyard rainforests. There would most likely be some overall water savings at the local level, but not nearly as much as the increase in efficiency would suggest. Worse still, the savings at the local level would affect regional water markets. In California, water is a limited resource over which residential, industrial, agricultural, and environmental interests compete fiercely. Free up some water on the residential side and most of those savings would be absorbed by other sectors. In short, local water recycling would only have a mild effect on the overall consumption of water but would affect its distribution and economics.

If population control and technology won’t save us, could smart use work? Like we did in Colombia, it is possible to look at the natural limits of systems and plan our use such that we choose how we want to trade-off competing objectives. If we used this approach widely, we would have an environment that would be far from pristine. However, it would provide us with levels of service that represented a trade-off between a cleaner, more natural world and economic use. Rather than capping population to control resource use, we would cap resource use to control population. With smart systems, the price of a resource plays a key role. When a resource is in short supply, regulations would limit its use and drive its price up. The high price would discourage use, leading to a carrying-capacity-like balance. Left without a planning exercise to monitor and limit resource consumption, shortages and high prices will still ultimately limit resource use at a carrying capacity. It will just do so in a way that may not match the attributes we would like from this system.

Moreover, planning decisions of this sort are far less painful if made when resources are still plentiful. Look at any fishery that has been overfished. The real goal of a rebuilding plan is to take charge of the system and deliver a more appealing combination of societal benefits in the future. Getting there once the resource is depleted requires a lot more pain and suffering than enacting similar regulations when the stock is still healthy.

So what’s keeping us from this higher functioning system? Denial and a lack of discipline. We have a tendency to procrastinate tackling long-term planning exercises, focusing on short-term crises instead. Also, for a whole host of reasons related to our psychology and history, we often view long-term planning exercises in terms of addressing a problem. The existence of a problem is something that can be debated, and such debates tend to stall any action. But a long-term planning exercise isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity to work out what we want from the resources nature provides before we hit their limits. In addition to reframing this whole approach in a more accurate and appealing light, we require discipline…to get scientists to engage in useful advice, to get the interested public to honestly discuss and negotiate over sometimes-conflicting objectives, to study options for monitoring and control, and ultimately to make hard decisions for what blend of performance we want from systems that cannot give everyone everything. These decisions are far easier, though, if we exert discipline and make them before we have stressed resources to the point that short-term sacrifice is necessary to rehabilitate them.

The value of this approach is not just a theoretical concept. It was the basis of certain indigenous fishery systems that were proven to be sustainable over centuries. We do not know whether those systems were enacted before or after a collapse. We do know that they contributed to sustainable, stable, and wealthy human societies. And we do know that they required discipline to design, enact, and maintain.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

GM Oh No! Part 3 of 3: Economic and political considerations

GM Oh No! Part 3 of 3: Economic and political considerations

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Tuesdays

This is the final entry in a three-part series about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Over the preceding three weeks, I have discussed human, pig, and environmental health concerns surrounding genetically modified (GM) foods, also known as GMOs. I argued that, by focusing on short-term human health considerations, GMO opponents have distracted us from more realistic and challenging long-term human and environmental health concerns.

All of these concerns are exacerbated and potentially eclipsed, though, by economic and political dynamics. Often, people who bring up economic and political concerns sound like conspiracy theorists. I promise to keep this discussion rational and grounded in well-studied human behaviors. To make sense of this situation, we need to examine monopoly power, intellectual property rights, and the political influence of money.

In general, western economies rely on competition to maximize collective benefit. According to theory and much practice, competition among companies lowers prices so that more consumers can enjoy them and spurs innovation towards better products and more efficient production. Even though companies lose profits from competition, collectively society does better because of the benefits to consumers. In contrast, companies that secure monopolies can drive prices up and slack off on in innovation to the detriment of consumers and society in general. For these reasons, many economic rules and regulations exist to deter monopolies and encourage competition.

There is one major exception to this rule: intellectual property, or ownership over ideas. The idea could be a musical composition, a new drug, or a GM technology. When it comes to intellectual property, we explicitly allow monopolies for periods of time, typically 20 years. Even though monopoly conditions allow the owner of the idea or technology to charge much higher prices than a free market would sustain, we allow them this reward for investment in innovation. If drug companies couldn’t recoup costs of research into new drugs (both successful and failed attempts) by charging a premium for their products, they would invest less in new cures. Agricultural companies like Monsanto make large investments in crop improvements using GM and other technology in part because intellectual property laws allow them to monopolize the market for their new seeds. The US Supreme Court recently ruled that companies cannot patent naturally-occurring genes but did affirm the legality of patenting altered genomes of the GM variety.

Thus, our effort to spur innovation comes with the cost of monopoly power. Companies that develop GMOs can use this monopoly power in several ways. They typically only allow farmers to purchase GM seeds if the farmers sign agreements that prohibit them from replanting next year’s crops using seeds they produced this year. Instead, they have to buy new seeds from the company every year. Companies also charge more than they would under competition. Without competition, companies can charge a price equal to the net benefit that their product provides to farmers. Thus, under monopolies all of the benefit of a new technology goes to the company. With competition, the prices would be driven down to the cost of manufacturing the seeds without regard to what it cost to develop them. Thus, under competition farmers and consumers would gain all of the benefit. Our system of intellectual property rights favors the companies.

A system with companies as the primary beneficiaries of financial gains has potential political implications. Though the US political system is driven by votes, it is incontrovertible that money plays an outsized role. It buys advertisements that allow a candidate to introduce themself to the public in the most flattering of lights and to raise concerns, real or imagined, about their opponent. It also buys complex get-out-the-vote operations, which identify geographically favorable neighborhoods for the candidate and seek to register residents and get them to the polls. As a result, the candidate with the most money typically wins the election, making politicians potentially susceptible to pressure from contributors. As a result of recent US Supreme Court action overturning campaign spending legislation, companies can donate unlimited funds to politicians. In doing so, they may be able to shape laws and regulations. For example, campaign contributions most likely played a key role in the recent defeat of US legislation to label GM foods and an unrelated defeat of widely supported regulations to tighten registration requirements for gun sales. Monopoly power and money could also affect the science to understand potential human and environmental health effects. In order to avoid this undue influence, we need regulatory agencies that are independent of political influence and sufficiently funded to do their work. My own observations on political influence on the detailed regulatory process would suggest that it is relatively mild. However, ongoing government budget cuts do threaten the work capacity of government agencies.

In the previous three blog entries, I argued that environmental effects of GMOs raise important concerns worthy of immediate additional study, and that long-term human health effects may also be of concern. These conclusions are based on the idea that the regulatory system is fair and thorough, traits that monopoly power and political influence may challenge. In order to restore and maintain the public’s trust in government regulators it is crucial that they are shielded from political influence and funded sufficiently.

To conclude, GMOs are an inevitable part of modern food supply and a logical step forward in the production of better food organisms. Because this technology has the potential for rapid and drastic change, we need to study carefully the acute human health, long-term human health, and ecological risks. At present, evidence suggests that acute human health risks are minimal but the jury is out on the other two forms of risk. Unless we can maintain independent and effective regulatory agencies, we run the risk of missing important concerns until they become major problems.

Even with effective regulators, the ultimate judgment regarding GMOs will come down to their contribution to sustaining a human population that has grown dramatically and continues to increase resource consumption per person. Next week, I will discuss the “population problem.”


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

GM Oh No! Part 2 of 3: Environmental considerations

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Tuesdays

This entry is the second in a three-part series about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Not quite the zombie apocalypse, but should we worry
about the ecological effects of a GMO invasion?
Two weeks ago, I discussed human health concerns surrounding genetically modified (GM) foods, also known as GMOs. Last week, I followed up with a scathing critique of a new study on pigs that claimed to show health problems from GMOs. In both entries, I argued that we do not have scientific evidence to suggest GMOs would pose widespread accute health problems, but that there is the possibility of long-term effects and rare allergic reactions. We need more testing to resolve those concerns. Today, I write about environmental effects, which are more complicated and potentially worrisome because GMOs are designed to have novel ecological characteristics and their effects will reach beyond the farms where they are raised. Morevoer, the nature of ecological science makes the consequences of these characteristics harder to monitor and distinguish from background noise.

GMOs can be made with nutrition or flavor in mind, but most are designed to change the ecological balance of a farm. Many GM crops have genes that provide chemical defenses against insects, shifting the balance towards healthy crops and away from infestations. Others have high tolerance of herbicides, which encourages farmers to use more harmful chemicals to keep weeds at bay. Still others are designed to grow faster and more efficiently, creating a super population. While these three ecological changes have been goals of farmers for millennia, GMOs raise more urgent concerns about potential ecological effects because they can be such a quantum leap from their predecessors. GMOs raise three major ecological concerns: direct toxicity of GMO chemical traits on non-pest animals, indirect toxicity of pollution emanating from GMO farms, and the spread of GMOs themselves beyond their farms or enclosures.

Let’s start with the concern about GMOs’ effects on non-pest animals. In theory, internal chemical defenses seem like a wonderful idea. Put the pesticide inside the plant in a form that doesn’t affect toxicity in humans, and keep pests down without having to spray as many chemicals. However, concerns have been raised about the effect these plants may have on non-pest organisms. Honeybees particularly stir this controversy. Since late 2006, honeybee hives have suffered increased rates of colony collapse disorder. Research has identified a number of common characteristics of collapsing hives, particularly a higher pathogen load in individual bees. Rather than representing a new epidemic, though, bees are apparently succumbing to diseases because of increased stress, much in the same way that people don’t die directly from HIV/AIDS but from diseases they can no longer fight off. The source of stress is still unclear, with some signs pointing to the increased use of a certain class of pesticide called neonicotinoids. However, the cause is still unresolved and many casual observers believe the culprit is pollen from pesticide-containing GM crops. Even if GM crops are not to blame in this case, it does seem plausible that crops engineered to be toxic to pest insects might affect non-pest ones as well.

While certain crops are designed to reduce the need for insecticides, others are made to tolerate higher concentrations of herbicides, allowing farmers to use chemistry to fight weeds more aggressively. Thus, while insecticide use has generally dropped with the advent of GM crops, herbicide use has increased and is leading to tougher weeds that are harder for non-GMO farmers to contend with (Benbrook 2009, but keep in mind this report was not peer reviewed). Though the overall change in chemical use is complicated, it is safe to say that the use of GM crops has changed the sort of chemical pollution coming off of farms.

Crops are not the only GMOs being developed for food consumption. AquaAdvantage salmon, also known as the Frankenfish, have been approved by the US’s Food and Drug Administration. Until now, these GMOs have been raised in contained systems. However, they will no doubt replace more natural versions of Atlantic salmon in penned farms around the world (primarily in Norway, Chile, the UK, Canada, and the US). These pens let seawater flow through, and that water carries uneaten food, salmon fecal matter, and diseases from the pens to surrounding oceans, bays, and river mouths. Current studies suggest that it requires less food to produce GM salmon than their non-GM counterparts. On the surface, this characteristic appears to be an environmental benefit. Salmon feed typically contains substantial amounts of wild-caught forage fish, and more efficient salmon production would mean lighter pressure on the forage fish stocks and less pollution because of GM technology. These gains would quickly turn to losses, though, if GM technology spurs more intensive salmon farming. This is a likely scenario if the technology makes these practices more profitable. Disease is a greater concern. Epidemics occur when diseases have a high chance of infecting new hosts before the original one’s immune system fights it off or it dies trying. Farms are prone to epidemics in the same way that classrooms are—the concentration of potential hosts mean that one infection can become dozens in short order. GM salmon are likely to have a harder time fighting off disease because there are usually fundamental trade-offs in what an organism can do. Because GM salmon grow so quickly, their immune systems are likely to be weaker. As a result, GM salmon farms are likely to have a higher rate of epidemics than non-GM farms. When disease outbreaks occur, farms can potentially expose nearby natural populations. Given the poor state of salmon stocks around the world, disease from farms poses a real threat.

Finally, let’s consider the effects that GMOs may themselves have. Farms are rarely sealed off from surrounding environments. Plants naturally disperse by broadcasting pollen and later, seeds by wind or animal carrier. In this way GM genes and whole individuals can be carried or blown into adjacent farms, forests, and fields, where they can crowd out natural competitors or contaminate non-GM crops. And though GM salmon are designed to be sterile females, the pens they are kept in are fairly flimsy and prone to damage from storms and from hungry sea lions. Large-scale salmon escapes are common, and their pressure on the food web and crowding of natural habitats can potentially further degrade the poor state of natural salmon stocks.

All of these concerns are prevalent in non-GM salmon production and the changes GM salmon would induce are speculation. Nevertheless, they represent real risks that haven’t been the focus of much debate because concerns over food safety have dominated. By focusing on our most prominent fear (lack of control of our food system and our immediate health), opponents of GMOs have distracted us from more realistic and challenging concerns.

These challenges are further exacerbated by the difficulty in identifying clear signs of environmental harm. Environmental systems are notoriously variable, affected by many non-GM-related influences (e.g., natural climate variability and human-induced climate change). This variability makes it exceedingly difficult to tease out the ecological effects of GMOs. Here, much more study is needed that combines micro-view studies of chemical flows in farm-influenced ecosystems with macro-views of ecological changes occurring on and around farms.

As much as ecological concerns require our attention, GMOs have important economic and political effects that may be of even greater concern. Stay tuned. They will be the subject of next week’s blog entry.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

GM Oh No! Part 1.5 of 3: Pig health considerations

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

This entry is a follow up to the first in a three-part series about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Which technological creations do pigs fear more,
GMO feed or mutant super birds?
Last week, I defined, put into historical context, and considered the human health effects of genetically modified (GM) food items, also known as GMOs. While promising to explore environmental and political/economic considerations in future blogs, I concluded that human health concerns were more modest than critics would have you believe, but that there is potential value in conducting long-term testing of food varieties, GM or otherwise, that differ in substantial ways from their predecessors. As I will describe in the political/economic post, there may also be reasons to worry about financial and political influences on the approval process.

About the same time as that blog posting, a scientific study was published on the health of pigs which ate a GM diet (Carman et al. 2013). The authors used what one might call a shotgun approach. Instead of a targeted study with a specific concern in mind, they examined many anatomical and biochemical characteristics of 84 slaughtered pigs fed a GMO diet and 84 fed an equivalent non-GMO diet. Out of the many characteristics they tested, they found differences they described as statistically significant for two characteristics: uterine size and the rate of severe stomach inflammation. Though there have been a few balanced blog posts and media reports about this study, the majority used headlines such as “GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush!,” perhaps not surprising for a source called Natural News. But MSN Now ran “GMO feed wreaked havoc on pigs’ stomachs.” If general media reports are to be believed, this study confirmed our fears: GMO foods do horrible things to our health.

Is it true? Was my advice last week off-base? Let me start by reassuring you that the study does not change my conclusions at all. Here is why.

First, let’s consider uteruses. According to the authors, they were 25% larger in pigs fed GMO corn and soy (median 0.105% of total body weight versus 0.086% body weight) and this difference was stastically different at the 2.5% level (known as a p-value, where p stands for probability). However, their claim is complicated and, in some cases misleading, due to several factors:
  • the math: as reported in their tables, uteruses of GMO-fed pigs were 22% larger than those of non-GMO-fed pigs, but this may be a typo since the results from the table do not match what is reported in the text;
  • attrition: several pigs died in the experiment (11 non-GM-fed pigs and 12 GM-fed pigs) and one non-GM-fed female pig failed to develop a uterus at all, so there may be a bias based on which pigs developed and survived until the end of the experiment; and
  • the health significance: we have no understanding of whether larger uteruses for pigs at this stage in development is a good or bad thing; in fact GMO-fed pigs were slightly larger at slaughter so the difference may simply indicate faster sexual maturity.
The authors’ claim of statistical significance raises even more concerns. Scientists typically only make strong claims about results if observed differences have a 5% or smaller chance of occurring due to random variation. Scientists picked the 5% p-value threshold because of a desire to maintain high standards prior to claiming that an observed difference is real. Even then, one in twenty times a scientist will report a meaningful finding that was simply due to random differences among similar individuals.

This grey area of scientific proof becomes far murkier when multiple comparisons are made. Because of the shotgun appraoch of this study, where one treatment was conducted and many comparisons were made, we would expect a far greater chance of an observed difference being due to chance than if only one observation had been made. My first real statistics professor referred to such shotgun approaches as p-ing all over the page, and this paper is guilty. For example, they measured eight separate organs from the same set of pigs. In each of those eight comparisons, there would be a 5% chance of mistakenly thinking there was an effect of GMO feed when in fact the difference was random chance. Collectively over the eight comparisons, there would be a 1 in 3 chance1 of thinking at least one organ size difference was attributable to diet when in fact the pigs were essentially the same. To correct for this multiple comparison bias, scientists are supposed to adjust the threshold for considering a result significant. In the case of eight comparisons, the new standard of significance would be 0.64% for each organ, and the authors’ p-value of 2.5% would not be adequate to claim a true difference between the uteruses of GMO- and non-GMO-fed pigs.

Inflamed stomachs were even more problematic than large uteruses. The authors claim that severe inflammation occurred over 2.5 times more often in GM-fed pigs and that the difference at a p-value of 0.4%. However, the authors made 16 separate comparisons of pathological conditions. To correct for the multiple comparisons, they should have adjusted their significance level per condition down to 0.32%. Once again, valid use of statistics would keep them from claiming a true difference. It is even more interesting when we examine the other observed differences between GM-fed and non-GM-fed pigs, many of which were related to the stomach. Whereas GM-fed pigs more often had severe stomach inflammation, they also more commonly had no inflammation, and less often had mild or moderate inflammation. There are statistical tests to compare multiple category data like these, but it is not surprising that the authors failed to use them considering their failure to address multiple comparisons. Had they performed it, such an analysis would have provided ambivalent results because of the fact that GM-fed pigs had higher incidence of stomach health but also of severe inflammation. GM-fed pigs also had lower incidence of stomach erosion, pin-point ulcers, and bleeding ulcers, but higher incidence of frank ulcers (not sure what they are…aren’t all ulcers honest?). GM-fed pigs also had lower incidence of heart, liver, and spleen abnormalitlies. Mind you, none of these differences were statistically significant, either, so all of this analysis should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

What really stands out for me in this study is not the effect of a GM diet, but the condition of all pigs raised commercially for meat production. Over the course of these pigs’ short lifetime (less than six months), more than one in eight died prior to slaughter, even with veterinary treatment. The article reassures us that these death rates are “within expected rates for US commercial piggeries.” Of the survivors, more than 1 in 10 had heart abnormalities, 1 in 5 had abnormal lymph nodes, over half had moderate to severe stomach inflammation, nearly 3 in 5 had pneumonia, and 4 in 5 had stomach erosions. The condition of these animals definitely makes me ponder eating more seafood.

Back to GMO health effects…applying scientific standards for statistical interpretation, this study becomes inconclusive. We could choose to be like the authors and interpret trends in the data that may simply be a result of random chance. This exercise yields a complex picture without any obvious indication that GM-fed pigs were healthier or less healthy than their non-GMO-fed counterparts. Should we dismiss the findings entirely? I don’t think so. Some of those trends may be a result of real effects. However, follow up study would be necessary and should be focused on particular concerns and analyzed correctly. At this point, though, there still is no credible evidence of health effects associated with common GMO food supplies. I maintain my conclusions from last week, and promise to flesh out larger concerns surrounding environmental impacts and political/economic influence over the coming weeks.

News outlets that presented this research otherwise have shown you their lack of respect for understanding science and, purposely or inadvertently, played on our human tendency to panic over uncertainties. You might want to consider better news sources in the future.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

1 If each comparison is treated as significant when the statistics report a 5% chance of mistaking random variation for a true result, then each has a 95% chance of correctly identifying random differences as being just that. To get it correct for eight different comparisons, we have to multiply 0.95 by itself eight times, 0.958 = 0.66. In other words, the likelihood that we correctly eight observed differences as due to random chance is only 66%, leaving a 34% chance…one in three, of seeing at least one false positive.