Saturday, February 23, 2013

A fishy fish story

Salmon is good for you and for your heart and circulation. Doctors recommend you eat salmon twice a week.
But wait one minute. Where does that salmon come from?
It turns out that most of the Salmon we buy is not caught in the ocean but farmed. Most salmon is farmed in tanks in the ocean.
From a purely ecological point of view that is problematic. For every pound the salmon puts on, it eats three pounds of fish meal. A very inefficient way of producing food in a world with food shortages, especially overfished oceans.
This salmon is also not as healthy as advertised. Most salmon are farmed in open pens and cages in coastal waters. Waste from these farms is released directly into the ocean. Parasites and diseases from farmed salmon can spread to wild fish swimming near the farms and escaping farmed salmon can harm wild populations. As a result, all salmon farmed in ocean net pens get an "Avoid" ranking. In addition farmed salmon are significantly higher in PCBs.
But now salmon is not only factory-farmed; it is about to be genetically modified. Salmon growers inserted a gene from an eel into salmon. That insertion makes the salmon grow much faster and thereby saves money to the grower. This tampering with the genes of our food does not benefit the consumers and may harm them in many ways that have not been discovered yet. But it does benefit the producer by lowering production costs. The government is about to permit production and sale of this genetically modified salmon. The salmon need not be labeled as genetically modified.
Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies have figured out how to implant genes from one plant into another, or now also from one animal to another. Is that safe? The companies producing GMO foods say it is , but they do not, in fact, know any more about that than anyone else.
In what is bound to stoke the debate over the labeling of genetically modified foods, scientists in France have published a controversial study reporting that rats fed corn that was engineered to withstand spraying with the herbicide Roundup developed health problems, including tumors and trouble with their livers and kidneys.” (
"Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food," including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. They conclude, "There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation," as defined by recognized scientific criteria. "The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies." (
These fish are also less healthy than wild Alaskan salmon or even farmed Atlantic salmon. The few studies that have been done on these genetically engineered fish have shown that they contain lower levels of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than either form of regular salmon. These fish are also notably deficient in certain vitamins, O'Neil adds. There's also a great deal of concern that genetically modifying salmon could increase the incidence of seafood allergies among the public.” (,0)
Clearly we do not have anything like proof that GMO foods, vegetable and animal, are bad for consumers. But there is some reason to worry. The consumer has no way of making an informed choice because GMO foods are not labeled as such. If consumers had that information, they could choose to avoid certain foods depending on their anxiety level about its potential harmful effects. If they do not know that the food they buy is genetically modified, they are more likely to buy it and make the cash register ring for the sellers and producers of GMO foods.
Industry does not alert us when we consume genetically modified food. The FDA, having no doubt been lobbied heavily, does not demand that industry tell us when we are eating such foodstuffs. Everyone is consuming genetically modified food, at least in the form of GMO soy beans and corn.
Genetically modified salmon may endanger consumers but promises to enrich producers. It will be more certain to enrich producers if we, the consumers, do not know which is the genetically modified salmon so that we will blithely consume salmon that may make us sick.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Drone War – Victory or Defeat

When the American government kills its citizens with missiles fired from drones, all of us are confronted by serious constitutional and moral issues: Whatever happened to the right to trial by jury? Is government not established to safeguard the life of citizens instead of killing them? If the police began to shoot and kill persons suspected of murder instead of arresting them to stand trial, would we not have to rise up in protest?

These questions have been discussed a good deal lately and we can only hope that this discussion will have some influence on government policy. The last I heard we still live in some sort of democracy.

But the drone war raises some other issues which have been neglected so far.

The first issue invites a parallel to atomic weapons. When the United States was first to produce atomic weapons, it had an amazing military advantage over all other countries. But that advantage was short-lived. In the past week North Korea – a country unable to feed its population – conducted another atomic bomb test. There are few countries in the world today who are not capable of acquiring their own atomic bombs. The accelerated victory over Japan came at a very high price-- a world that is considerably less safe than it once was.

There is no reason to doubt that many advanced and some not so advanced countries will have their own fleet of drones in a very short time. What will the world be like 10 years from now when everybody has their own drones flying everywhere? We may well be in a situation of constant air war. If the drones make us, Americans, safer today they may well make us a good deal less safe in a few years.

But has the drone war made us safer? Here we encounter the second incalculable damage the drone war has inflicted on us. The whole undertaking is supposedly top-secret even though public discussion of it is lively. But the government does not give out any information. The public at large has no information about its effects. We hear about civilians, about innocent bystanders, being killed by drones every week. We hear about the anger aroused by these attacks on plain people.

We are also told that these are "mistakes" suggesting that drones sometimes kill people whose death is to our advantage because they are a threat to our security. Now the government can say that but since the whole program is supposedly secret they don't have to back that claim up with any real information.

We do not know who the victims of this drone war are. We do not know to what extent their death protects us against terrorist plots. When we utter our serious doubts about the wisdom of the drone war, the government can blandly reply that we don't know what we are talking about and that we should let the military and intelligence experts deal with these questions which are too difficult for us to decide.

With respect to the drone war, ordinary citizens have no judgment because they are not given the information necessary to assess whether the drone war is justified.

In a democracy citizens have a real voice in government policy. They can have that voice only if the government inform citizens about what it is doing. Once the government becomes secretive and sneaky, the citizen is sidelined. He can watch and wonder whether the government is telling the truth when it tells us that the drone war makes us safer.

Our democracy is a direct victim of the drone war and its secrecy.

It reduces our freedoms as democratic citizens and our ability to participate in making government policy.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Times of Transition

We live in a very strange time. It is clear to many—but by no means to all—that momentous changes are taking place but it is by not what those changes are.
Here are some straws in the wind.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton insisted this week that the US must remain the leader of the family of nations. We will, we must, they said, retain the leadership role that we have played since WWII. Fifty years ago no one would have disputed this. Today, unwavering commitment to our world leadership appears to be no more than whistling in the dark. Everyone knows that the days of US hegemony are coming to an end.
But we do not know what the world will look like in 30 years.
We live in a time of rapid and unexpected change. A few years ago it took some courage to come out as a gay man or woman. Today, state after state is considering making gay marriage legal; that transformation now has the blessings of the President. There is tremendous ferment in our society from conflict over guns to conflict over sexuality; many changes seem just around the corner, but the future is shrouded in darkness.
We do not know where we are going.
Not so long ago a young person who wanted to help change the world for the better could join a range of organizations on the political left. They could choose among a variety of them and choose the one whose political program seemed most promising. Today a person who wants to make it a better world—and there are many of them—has to find or invent a specific project. There are no ready made channels for political and reformative energy. There are no organizations with wide reaching political programs. There are only specific projects ranging from peace in the Mideast to recycling soda bottles to improving a specific school to banning beggars from the streets, empowering young women, or growing organic vegetables.
There is a good deal of energy for all these projects. What will be the global effect of all of them? We do not know. We do not know what the future holds or how our world is changing.
The relation between employer and employee is a difficult one because, with the exception of very small businesses with only very few employees, employers have much more power than individual employees. We have dealt with this, and so have many other countries, by allowing or even supporting workers organizing themselves in unions in order to enhance their negotiating power with their employers.
Today union membership is lower than it has been since the 1930s. Unions have little popular support, even the members are unenthusiastic. Barely more than 10% of all employees in the US belong to unions today. Are unions on the way out? Will employees once again be powerless in the face of the huge corporations most of them work for? Or are we moving in the direction of new ways of structuring labor relations?
Since 1975 or so, the US economy has been pretty stagnant. The incomes of ordinary people have remained more or less unchanged; annual growth has been a meager .3%. That's 40 years of stagnation, punctuated by occasional wild booms and the busts that inevitably follow. Is this what the American economy will look like for the foreseeable future? It is possible that "the richest country in the world" will turn to be shabby and short of funds like most countries in the Third World.
We do not know what that would be like, and what a future American economy will look like.
At one time, we had a popular democracy, a democracy where ordinary people played an important part. What people wanted counted for a good deal. The recent presidential race was financed mainly by 35 extremely rich individuals. The wishes of the people are receding into the background; we appear, more and more, to live in a plutocracy – the rule of the rich.
Will there be democracy in name only 50 years from now or can we save our political system?
Momentous changes into a future we do not know and, at the moment, do not understand seem to be taking place.
Only one thing seems clear: the future will be quite different from our past.