Category Archives: Technology

GM Foods – No Simple Answers

I recently read an article written by reporter at Grist who had started a series of such on the subject, which, in conjunction with a job interview I attended for a position in a GM plant-creating facility, spurred me to finally look into the facts and furor surrounding GM foods.

My Expertise on the Subject

I’m a molecular and network biologist by training and by trade. Good on Johnson for starting a work-up for a series on the biology of GM foods, which are important facts to understand about the subject. The political and larger environmental issues are pretty serious, too; the dangers of having either corporatist hegemony of our food crops, or of huge investment in single cultivars (GM or not), are both extreme. I’m sure he has come across the story of the Irish potato famine and the current fungal plague on the Cavendish banana – the predecessor of which, the Gros Michel, was made commercially unviable by plague of the same fungus, decades ago – which highlight the dangers of monoculture.

However, what I have to add is that a simple *quantitative* comparison of the genetic – sequence – differences is really not at all indicative of the potential danger of this or that molecule, be it a novel protein or ‘small molecule’ metabolite. The summary of the first article in the series was precisely that: small genetic differences don’t add up to much. In reality, we exist in a network of metabolites, the majority of which would kill us if we’d not evolved to deal with their effects. However, add a few entirely new metabolites (drugs, artificial sweeteners, thalidomide, whatever; they are all basically metabolites and their effects will be highly ideosyncratic) and you have the potential for disaster. This is all about the networks of metabolism, proteins and genes. Even changing the balance of already existing metabolites in food, increasing the amount to which a person is exposed, could be problematic; as Paracelsus, the father of toxicology put it:

“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

Thus, when adding a new or increasing an old metabolite to the diet of an organism, or to an ecosystem, there is good reason to determine ahead of time whether that novelty will prove harmful. The efficacy of studies done to affect such a determination depends a lot on good design, access to GM crops and the nature of the assays used to evaluate the effects of said crops.

‘Conventional’ Foods Aren’t So Thoroughly Tested

I read a recent, pro-GM post in which the authors argued that more conventionally bred cultivars of wheat, created during the green revolution in the 50-60’s, were never tested for human consumption prior to being released. Hybrid forms were simply created and deployed, willy-nilly. They pointed out that there were no mass epidemics as a result, so why should GM foods be subject to more tests than they are already, when it’s basically impossible to do the proper studies in any case; one can prove the presence of something, like toxicity, but not its absence, so nothing can be proven ‘safe.’

Apart from the fact that the same argument could be used to justify the complete deregulation of the drug testing system for medical applications of novel therapeutics, which are essentially ‘just’ another metabolite, let’s consider some data points. First, when humans initially started living in agrarian communities, anthropological assessment of skeletal remains indicates that there was “a marked decline in [skeletal] health indicators” which were largely attributable to dietary changes. So, even though those humans had been eating grains seasonally as hunter-gatherers, eating more grains meant that some proportion of the population became physically dysfunctional. Such a high level of compromise requires a substantial degree of impact on the developmental program of our species.

“Cultures that adopted intensive agriculture typically showed a marked decline in health indicators. This is particularly true of dental health, which usually became quite poor.”

An Uncontrolled Nutritional Experiment

Next, there is the current state of our population at large. To say that we – as a culture – have been involved in an immense nutritional experiment that lacks anything looking remotely like proper controls is not an understatement. For several decades, food has been changing enormously: from homogenisation of milk to the advent of fast food, to the hybridisation of wheat and corn with wild varieties, or their mutagenesis to produce novel variants, to the use of various biocides and chemical fertilizers, the changes are myriad and substantial, to both the base products and their processing. For any scientist to claim that any particular aspect of this might be problematic is very difficult, statistically speaking, yet studies are demonstrating that specific aspects of our current diet that are problematic – consumption of high fructose corn syrup is one example, which has been linked to the diabetes epidemic, first through studies in rats, which were then confirmed in humans. There are also claims that fructose causes intestinal inflammation, through weakening the integrity of the membrane. I will return to the subject of intestinal inflammation later in this post; at this point, it is worthwhile considering how much GM food there is in our food-chain.

How widespread are GM Foods?

One of the many arguments cited in favour of GM foods is that many different crops have been in the food chain of North Americans for decades, without any notable effects on the public. However, as this extensive article from India – where GM crops are big news – summarises, “GM crops still occupy only 3.4 percent of the total farmland globally and are adopted by a minuscule minority of farmers.” In addition, apart from a few crops – the “FlavrSavr” tomato, corn and canola oil – there are very few foods that humans eat which have been modified by biotechnical means and the growth of GM crop planting is slowing, as is summarised in this blog post. This article also claims that the promises of GM plant proponents have also mostly fallen short, principally due to the privatisation of the research, which has meant profit-driven rather than humanitarian goals. Thus, it appears that GM foods are mostly grown by rich farmers – particularly Big Agribusiness – and used to increase the profit margins of already profitable industries. So, GM Foods are not so widespread as proponents would have us believe, certainly not as direct consumables. The question remains, however: are GM Foods safe to eat?

Other Indicators of Detriment

Consider for a moment some other indicators of human health, of less extreme clinical symptoms than cancer, but that would certainly not show up in bone deformations: dysfunctions of the digestive system. There are many and varied types of these, including Chron’s disease, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis… In fact, if one wanted to classify a cluster of bowel-related inflammatory diseases into a single group and examine whether the changes to our diet due to the introduction of hybrid varieties of plants, one may find that the uncontrolled experiment has, in fact, already yielded results indicative of a negative impact of the Green Revolution on our population: an increase in digestive tract dysfunction.

Almost perfectly on time, a recent article was published that examined the effect of GM feed on the health of domesticated pigs. As described in this Grist article, the Australian study reported that the pigs were normal in every way tested – weight gain, mortality, blood biochemistry – but with one exception: the pigs fed the GM feed exhibited over two and a half times more gut inflammation than did pigs fed unmodified feed. Note that one of the feed crops that may have been included in the study would be corn, the concentrated syrup product of which has been claimed to influence gut inflammation in humans, as I cited earlier.

I personally suffer from a small degree of gluten intolerance, which I determined empirically from comparing the effects of eating gluten-free pasta to normal pasta. While that is hardly a double-blind study, I went one further: also available in my local supermarket pasta section was spiral pasta made from spelt, which according to Wikipedia is “an ancient species of wheat from the fifth millennium BCE.” This ancient wheat had the same lack of effect on my digestive tract as did gluten-free wheat, suggesting that my ‘gluten intolerance’ was in some way due to the modifications to modern day wheat during the Green Revolution, which begs the question of what changes were made to crops – in addition to the cultivation changes and use of various biocides – during that time.

Dwarf Plants and the Green Revolution

In short, Wikipedia identifies one principal genetic modification of plants that is pertinent to a discussion of GM food: the introduction of a genetic variation that results in growth of plants with shorter stems, which are consequently able to bear the weight of the larger seeds that develop due to increased nitrogen accumulation, which is another effect of the genetic variation. These ‘dwarf’ variations occur naturally in wheat and rice, and have also been cloned in a plant model organism, Arabidopsis (water cress); in wheat and cress, the variant is in equivalent genes and in all three plant types, the affected process relates to the plant hormone gibberellin, which, among many other things, promotes plant stem growth. The variant forms of the genes cause a reduction in activity of that specific hormonal system and, consequently, smaller plants.

Of course, now that the variant alleles of the genes have been cloned, any existing cultivars of plants could be modified by biotechnological methods to include them, to reduce plant height and give larger seeds. With the advances in gene targeting technologies, the normal genes could be specifically replaced by these allelic variants using transgenic technology. This would be a far smaller amount of genetic change than the crossing of wheat with goat grass, for example, but the impact could still be quite detrimental to our health. As with the Green Revolution, which gave rise to numerous high-yield dwarf wheat cultivars, no-one will know what they are eating, unless companies using GM foods are required by law to label them as such.

Food Labeling – GM and Otherwise

Which brings us to the other major argument about GM crops: labeling. Much has been written on this subject, but the most reasonable line of argument I have read is as follows:

“There is a mountain of evidence that grows daily that suggests that what we eat has a very direct impact on our health. 

…the crux of the matter:

Of all the non-negotiable demands consumers might make, “it’s not ok for companies to hide information about the food I eat” should always be right up there at the top.

…this isn’t really a debate about the science of GMOs, it’s a debate about transparency – and it’s one that’s older than GMOs. . . .

We should never, ever begin to go down the road where we tell food manufacturers that they have our blessing to purposefully hide information about what we consume from us.”

While we are about it, how about labeling primary produce to indicate what chemical and biological elements of green revolution technology have been used? We have ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ certifications for those products made without such technologies, but no labeling to indicate whether cultivars were dwarf stock, nor the specific pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertiliser, hormones and antibiotics that might have been used.

Given the presence of traces of such in our food and the residue of same in the environment, the latter of which have been linked to many problems, from water eutrophication to development of antibiotic resistance to the widespread death of bees, this seems like important information to provide, so that an informed public can make financially impacting decisions about what it consumes.

If the public is not well-informed, that is a separate issue that concerned government agencies and agribusinesses have the responsibility to address: maintaining ignorance is not an acceptable method. With barcodes and applications for reading them, consumers can make on-the-spot decisions based on the entire production chain of a product, be it GM or conventional food, or anything else for that matter.

My Hope for the Future: Ending Representationalism

My principal issue with GM crops is not with the crops themselves; as is very well discussed elsewhere, in the historical context of the domestication of plants, most of the public concern about GM crops is more about the fear of the unknown than it is about the estimable dangers of the organisms themselves. Like the author of this op-ed piece, however, I am gravely concerned about the concentration of control of our food supply in the self-interested hands big business; to me, this represents yet another example of the fundamental dangers of any representational system: that giving up personal control to another person or institution creates the opportunity for corruption; power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Of course, because our species has become increasingly urbanised and specialised, we simply can’t grow all or most of our own food – though there are many projects going on around the world to bring food production back into the cities, even to the extent of designing high-rise buildings to house extensive market gardens, or creating closed-system aquaponics, etc – so we are generally forced by circumstance to delegate the responsibility of food production to other people. Traditionally, for millennia, this has been farmers; more recently, industrial farming is becoming increasingly the norm in the developed world, which in parallel with the rise of corporatism is a very worrying trend. International corporations have repeatedly shown themselves to be beyond cavalier in their treatment of local stakeholders; the public fear of GM food could be seen as yet another example of corporate failure to acquire community license for their products, through their behaving in a typical, high-handed manner.

Similarly, farmers were once the principal source of novel cultivars, which they created through their own breeding programs. Now, this distributed control has given way to centralised control, substantially due to the expense of the green and biotech revolutions. However, approaches to gene engineering mean that the entry price – in terms of both knowledge and material investment – is decreasing, consistent with all known laws of technology; the technological benefits of the human genome project apply equally well to plant biotechnology. Among these are new tools for genetic modification, articles about which I have collected here, that are rapidly approaching a degree of simplicity of design and application that will allow citizen scientists to use the tools to modify plants at their discretion.

Someday, it may be that all the privately and publicly held cultivars of the world could be modified to suit their local environments, by the people who are using them. Imagine that: the re-democratisation of our food chain.

Community Solar PV

The primary reason I am writing this blog is because of my interest in the intersection between Global Warming and Politics. One of the things in which I have become interested, relating to this, is community solar power. Since returning to Australia, with the reduction of solar electricity cost to what is referred to as ‘socket parity’ – the same cost at the retail site of the plug as conventional (ie fossil fuel) electricity – it seems obvious to me that Australia should be moving to full-scale solar panel deployment. Meanwhile, Australia has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita, due to our extremely high reliance on coal for electricity.

Currently, according to the government, we have over 1 million homes with solar panels, though private homeowner installations. This number will double, then double again, for sure, but how long each doubling takes will depend a lot on the stability of the industry, something which is substantially influenced by the carbon price and other government initiatives, taxes and charges; understandably, private and public investors don’t like the ground rules changing when they have money on the table. Moreover, there are limits on how many homes can support solar panels, either due to ownership or degree of insolation – the amount of sunlight falling on a surface each day.

Community Solar PV

One of the ways in which a substantial shift towards solar panel installation can be achieved is through community solar projects, of which there are two basic types: Big Solar farms and distributed solar. Funding mechanisms and ‘financial instruments’ for project to investor relations for both approaches are still being developed, in the face of disinterest by Big Banks who dislike all things unfamiliar and therefore of unknown institutional investment requirements and risk.

I’ve pursued the subject of community PV via numerous avenues, finding some leads myself, getting others from the filter of my Facebook contacts, and still other leads from the initial contacts. What has emerged is a very messy picture, the byzantine complexity of which ensures that realising a community PV project is a major undertaking. There are many steps in the process of establishing a community solar project, which are discussed at some length on the EMBARK website; EMBARK is a private, non-government organisation dedicated to breaking down any and all barriers to developing a powerful community energy sector in Australia.

Why Community Solar?

This is really a broader question: why distributed solar at all? There are much-touted Big Solar alternatives, such as concentrating solar thermal, which would retain the traditional hub-and-spoke distribution models. In spite of this, local unfamiliarity with the internationally well-established technology means that Australian power companies are loathe to develop projects without substantial risk abatement – even when there is substantial community support, such as the Repower Port Augusta project, recently shelved probably due to the company involved asking for a lot of money for feasibility studies – and, similarly for reasons of unfamiliarity, banks are also loathe to lend money. Moreover, community PV projects provide people who are not able to house their own panels a means by which to participate in the on-going energy revolution. Currently, though the ABS reports that 30% of properties are rental, according to a report released in June 2012 by the NHSC, approximately 50% of people aged 25-34 do not own their own homes, so a substantial population is represented in this demographic.

Breaking the Electricity Hegemony

The argument for local – distributed – power production from small and medium installations (ie, residential and commercial, not wholesale production), to me, is actually about changing the stance of political parties on the national energy market (NEM). For decades, the NEM has been a game for only the rich and powerful: companies and governments who own the various systems have written the rules to suit themselves, to the detriment of consumers. The degree of difficulty in unraveling how the convoluted system works means that, even to the dedicated, the processes that determine the price paid at the plug by citizens – the ‘levelised cost of electricity,’ LCOE – are virtually impossible to understand. Transparency doesn’t help much when you’re looking at a ball of twine and the regulators – government – previously set distribution standards that have resulted in huge expenses passed on to the retail consumer in order to ‘gold-plate’ the current system, the utility of which depends on the continued use of a hub-and-spoke distribution model. Meanwhile, though coal-generated electricity use is dropping and renewables increasing, placing downward pressure on wholesale costs, whether these savings are passed on is another matter entirely.

So, the obvious way to stop small groups of powerful corporations from gaming the system is to end their various monopolies. By developing both individual and community PV projects, the current model of electricity generation and distribution can be out-moded by a more decentralised system. In such a system, the stake-holders and the share-holders are the same people – are, in fact, actually individual people, rather than faceless corporations or ‘the government.’ The electricity producers will have to adapt, as they are doing elsewhere, by changing their pricing strategies and, most likely, moving from a simple rate to one rate determined by market demand, as the graphs in this article show for the German electricity market.

This means, ultimately, a movement from supply-side price fixing to demand-side price determination, with all the follow-on advantages of personal choice inherent in the latter: people will adjust their energy usage profile to save themselves money. There will be costs for distributed energy production systems – the solar panels – as well as the provision of smart metering and distributed network components, but, ultimately, Australia can do this and go 100% renewable, for as little as 7-10 billion per annum. Ten billion dollars is, coincidentally, the amount of subsidies annually provided to the fossil fuel industry, to keep burning carbon and running out the clock on the time we have to avert climate catastrophe.

Big Solar projects, while an important part of our future NEM, are regrettably unlikely to change the hub-and-spoke model of power distribution and therefore support more of the centralised control that is necessary for corporatism or other forms of institutionalism to flourish. So, in this blog post, I’ll focus on community-based models of PV; I consider these more likely to be able to change the energy supply landscape, through disenfranchising an entrenched energy industry that otherwise has little incentive to change. Here in Australia, where most electricity comes from old, coal-burning power stations, that industry simply has to change if we are to avert climate change disaster in the very near future.

A Simple Challenge; A Decent FiT

The principal challenge that must be met by a community PV project is simple: as an investment, it must give an adequate return or else people will not invest in it. Even the staunchest environmental activist must recognise this requirement: such a project must do better than merely repay its investors. At present, the biggest block to easily realising adequate returns is the lack of a substantive feed-in tariff, or FiT.

In Victoria, the FiT has varied substantially; the most recent Labor government established a 60c/KWh rate in 2009; successive Liberal governments reduced this, first to 25c/KWh in 2010, which was about equivalent to the wholesale price of peak electricity, then to 8c/KWh the next year, though some retailers allow a 6c bonus on top of the latter two basic rates. To put this in perspective, coal-fired power stations, the building costs of which are now fully amortised, currently charge about 6c/KWh, which rises substantially by the time the electricity reaches the domestic user, to about 20% of their total bill, the majority of which is actually distribution costs – poles and wires – which, ironically, are not so necessary in a distributed power production system.

The current cost of new-build, highly efficient fossil fuel plants, at around 11-15c/KWh, is far in excess of what old coal plants can charge and, absent any government regulation on emissions – such as President Obama is using in the US to increase the expense of new and, more recently, old coal-fired power stations – the 8c/KWh state-mandated FiT is simply both unfair and unrepresentative of the savings conferred by electricity production that is local to the point of consumption.

Unstable Rules Mean Less Investment

The kind of instability created by changing rules, renewable energy targets, carbon prices and feed-in tariffs is exactly the sort of thing that makes investors – both private and corporate – very wary of putting money down on projects. Moreover, with a 2 or more year incubation period before their investment starts paying off, short-term pay-off investors, which include large retailers like supermarkets, are simply not interested. In a long and substantive discussion paper, Woolworths identified lack of a government commitment to a feed-in tariff as the single main reason that it had not committed more of its substantial retail roof space to medium-scale solar PV projects. Persuading large, corporate distribution companies to offer a better rate than this, however, requires leverage that few small, community-based organisations have. Acquiring this leverage would require, at the least, a negotiating position that has buying power.

In the jargon of the energy business, arrangements for buying and selling power come in the form of “power purchase agreements,” or PPAs. These agreements are one of the things that community PV projects need, to guarantee a buyer for the electricity they produce at a set rate. It’s all about ensuring the future unfolds as planned, really, which, as individuals know, is a bit of a crap shoot at the best of times. In the meanwhile, as the dice tumble and fall, we invest ourselves in plans that predicate a certain outcome. Developing PPAs with local consumers is one of the major goals of any community solar PV project.

Completing the First Community PV Project

So far, from what I’ve read or heard, the Community Solar project closest to completion is the South Melbourne Market project, which is being organised by the group Locals into Victoria’s Environment, LIVE. This has been on-going for some time and has more time to go, with an expected date to come on-grid later this year. The main organiser – project manager – for the effort, Mr David Robinson, recently released the feasibility report for the project, which was an important milestone, but the project is yet to start installing panels.

This is certainly not the only green electricity project on the map – literally; the federal government has a map that is searchable for renewable energy and related green projects, though it is probably not comprehensive as it only shows those efforts in which the government is already financially involved. Among these would be the recently announced large-scale solar plants in NSW, the largest of their kind in Australia, which have been mostly financed by state and federal governments at the behest of AGL. The potential for contribution of energy to mining operations should not be overlooked; miners are also looking to solar power, both here and elsewhere, due to the expense of grid access.

The Most Significant Barrier

Just as the most important criteria for justifying a Solar PV Project is economic, the biggest barrier to getting a project started is funding for personnel to work on the project development. Access to funding is either difficult to find – where to start looking – or simply absent. As Adam Blakester, Director, Starfish Enterpises, Coordinator of Farming the Sun, puts it: “The most significant barrier to more successful community energy projects is greater access to funding for the initial project development costs. This covers the critical stages of work before the community is able to invest their own funds.” One place from which such funds could come, of course, is the government.

From Renew Economy recently came the better news that some Community Owned Renewable Energy (CORE) Projects are being funded at the state level, at least in NSW; Robyn Parker, MP (Lib), has announced $411,000 in funding for CORE Wind and Solar projects in that state. I have been unable to find similar stories of similar funding in other Australian states, but keep an eye on the FB group CORENA for updates. CORENA uses a different model, not dependent on investment return, to create projects through donations that then get recycled into buying more solar panels as the initial projects start generating income. Also further to that end, Fund Community Energy has a petition for Federal seed funding, in which they claim that $50 million would unlock $500 million of community funds for 170 projects in the coming 6 years.

Meanwhile, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), has $3 billion to invest in renewable energy projects in the 2012-22 decade, some part of which should be available to local communities, but their website is not clear on this matter; none of the solar projects listed as supported by ARENA are community-based, but industry, industry-association and government research bodies. Mr Robinson of LIVE has told me that even a mere $20K would go a long way to assisting the South Melbourne Market project to move forward. Much of ARENA’s funding, however, seems to be targeted at R&D, rather than roll-out, though there are some provisions in their mandate that could cover community PV projects (see addendum 2, below).

Local Government Options

Meanwhile, also on the local government side, while speaking recently with Ms Romney Bishop of the Nillumbik Shire Council, that council’s Sustainability Officer, I learned that there are multiple groups of councils involved in alliances to combat climate change: Nillumbik is one of nine councils in the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action, NAGA; there are equivalent groups around the greater Melbourne area: WAGA, SECCA, EAGA.

The Nillumbik council has recently completed a solar hot-water roll out for council-owned buildings and are now looking at a similar project for solar PV. From Ms Bishop I learned something of the complexity of the energy sector, from a council viewpoint; to obtain a PPA, the councils of the alliance would have to negotiate with numerous distributors and retailers, as the geographical areas serviced by council and energy companies overlap, but are not fully concordant.

Costs of Solar PV Plummeting

The other side of the equation, of course, is the cost of installing solar PV. Solar panels have come down in cost by 80% since 2008 – due to demand driven substantially by Germany’s nation-wide commitment to solar PV, (yeah, even sun-drenched Germany is doing community and residential PV in a big way, with many lessons to be learned), as well as investment by other nations – and, with China, Japan, Chile, Peru, UAE and Saudi Arabia recently committing to substantial solar PV investments, more reductions in module price can be reasonably expected. While this alone will improve the rate of return on investments, a substantial proportion of the cost of establishing a private PV project is installation costs – around 50%, in fact, with module cost the other half – albeit with large local variations. Governments are also working towards reducing the so-called ‘green-tape’ that slows down private installation approvals, such as in the US, but as with any first-time achievement, the first community solar PV projects will face a slew of issues, both technical and administrative.

Electricity Generation and Global Warming

How all this relates to Global Warming is simple: in Australia, the overwhelming majority of electricity is produced from fossil fuels – approximately 97% in Victoria – and, so long as aging, highly polluting coal-fired generators are able to be profitable, due to a lack of a carbon price that properly reflects their social cost, this will continue. By promoting and adopting a distributed energy production system, these dinosaurs of the last millennium will be driven to their necessary extinction and the way to renewable energy will be ensured.

However, with a change of government in the offing, substantial damage could be done to the carbon price by either an LNP or an unfettered middle-right Labor party, much of which price was due to the conditions the Greens imposed on that government. Already, Rudd is heralding a move to an ETS, which would further reduce the price of carbon from $12 AUD of the 2013 budget, itself a reduction on the original $23 AUD, down to ~$6: far below what a US government agency set for the ‘social cost’ of carbon at over $40 USD. Meanwhile, Abbott has an even worse agenda for the carbon price and renewable energy in general, preferring – predictably – to subsidise businesses rather than to put control of consumption in the hands of consumers.

In Summary

I am certain that Australian home-owners will continue to move towards individual energy independence, as solar modules and installation costs continue to fall, thus sparing themselves the certainty of future price rises for energy. Therefore, for the greatest benefit of the greatest number of people, regarding the national electricity market, Australia needs a standard feed-in tariff that reflects the savings of local electricity generation. This will accelerate the development of community power projects, which will ensure that a more substantial population of people can participate in the on-going energy revolution. We also need transparent methods for applying for government funding for community projects, to ameliorate the expenses of initial feasibility studies.

In addendum:
1) I have a collection of curated relating to this subject articles here on ScoopIt!
2) A recent reply to an enquiry I sent to ARENA indecates that there are Federal funds available for community PV projects, for which the PDF describing the provisions under the Measures stream can be found here, within which Appendix A is pertinent.