Friday, June 21, 2013

First, Jeffrey Smith. Then, Monsanto.

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: On Wednesday night, Farm and Fiddle (KOPN 89.5 fm, Columbia MO) had a great interview with Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Responsible Technology. He’s the guy that took the information on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food and put them into consumer language. The first piece I got from him, a CD called, “You’re eating What??”, blew me away with the way he took the complicated issue and broke it down. I had been overwhelmed with information—from my points of view as a farmer seeing the neighborhood change, a mom wondering what kind of food system my kids would inherit, and a consumer myself—what’s this doing to my own body? This CD put it all in simple terms that I could use. He let us copy “You’re Eating What?” and pass it out to our friends and family. And now Jeffrey has come up with more projects—books, videos, a speaking tour and a speaker’s bureau. Yay, him! So, as I said, we had this great interview where he answered questions from “Isn’t the government making tests and looking out for us?” (Answer: No.) to “What is a GMO?” (Answer: a living organism with the gene from another living organism inserted. For example, a gene from a bacteria that eats the cells of corn rootworms) to “What’s wrong with eating GMOs?” (Answer: the gene that eats rootworms also eats us! Why would we want to put that in our bodies?) I was feeling really good about the interview and when I got home, I got a phone call from a good friend. Figuring she wanted to congratulate me on the excellent radio program, I tried to sound humble. But that’s not why she called. Her news? Monsanto has won the World Food Prize. Three scientists will split $250,000 for figuring out how to insert foreign genes into crops, creating GMOs. What a crock. When you mention the name, “Monsanto,” in my world, people have a range of about 3 reactions, none of them, “Well, they deserve a prize!” Instead, people say, “They’re the number one cause for suicides in farmers in India” or “After ruining a crop, they sue farmers for gene pollution” or, just, “I hate those guys.” I’ve never met a person that says, “Monsanto? They should get a prize!”

Who’s next to tell truth after org. admits it can’t turn gays straight? Global warming deniers? Creationists?

By Marc Jampole

An organization that for almost 40 years has tried to turn gays into heterosexuals with prayer and psychotherapy announced earlier this week that it is disbanding because its executives and many board members no longer believe that sexual orientation can be changed.  I suppose Exodus International and its leadership started paying more attention to facts and less attention to what they wanted the facts to be.

It’s another step forward for the gay rights movement because there is one less organization around telling people that homosexuality is abnormal or an illness. That’s a good thing, to be sure.

When I read the story, though, the first thing I did was to look into the clear summer sky for flying pigs.

Then I began to speculate about the other myths and lies that drive our national dialogue on political issues.  Could we be seeing the beginning of the secular humanist equivalent of The Rapture, one characterized by people either realizing or admitting the truth? Could I hope beyond hope that Exodus International’s disbanding is the first in a long series of similar announcements?

What will be next?

Will the Discovery Institute admit that intelligent design is folderol and repurpose the organization to support research that fills in the blanks in the scientifically proven theory of evolution?

Will the Koch Brothers and other climate change deniers suddenly make a public mea culpa about the tens of millions of dollars they have spent trying to convince the public that global warming is not occurring? Will they start supporting the environmental regulations and development of alternative energy sources that we need to address the rapid rise in Earth’s temperature?

Will the Catholic Church finally catch up to the 98% of its adherents who have used birth control and declare that it’s not a sin against the religion?

Will Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich shamefacedly cop to using racist code words when he talks against food stamps and aid to dependent children?

Will the House Republicans stop telling the lie that we have to lower taxes on the wealthy so they can create jobs and admit that the best way to create jobs is through government programs?

Will these Republicans look at the damage wrought by private prisons, mercenaries (in the army) and charter schools and finally acknowledge that sometimes a government solution is better than having the private sector do it? Will they admit that taxes have been too low on the wealthy for more than 30 years and that this low tax regime is what has caused virtually all of our economic problems?

Will right-wing economists finally admit that environmental regulations don’t hurt the economy, merely the industries they are trying to protect, and that raising air and water standards will create just about as many jobs as it will threaten?

Will those bankrolling the charter school movement finally just tell us the truth that the only reason they are in favor of charter schools is that they want to destroy teachers’ unions and thereby bring down teacher salaries?

Will gun manufacturers and their lobby finally admit that all statistics show that more guns in the street lead to more gun deaths and that far more people are killed and injured each year from friendly fire than from people using guns to protect themselves?

In short, will we finally base our public discourse on truth and science, and not on myths perpetuated to benefit one industry or one group of people?

I close my eyes and I see hundreds of pigs flying in a V formation. Dancing around them are aurochs and unicorns. Blind men and women are throwing away their canes. Lambs and lions are in bed together watching the Chicago Cubs play the Seattle Mariners in the World Series.

But when I open my eyes again, the sky is clear and my computer screen is filled with another politician hooting about how high taxes are.  The Rapture for Truth has not yet arrived.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

It’s not just the federal government that wants to spy on us

By Marc Jampole
The Obama Administration is rightfully taking a lot of hits for government surveillance programs that track data related to every phone call of every U.S. citizen and for demanding data that the computers of Google, Apple and other information technology companies collect from everyone.

Now we’re learning that the government isn’t the only one that wants to spy on us.  

Big telecommunications companies have developed technology that embeds infrared cameras and microphones into cable boxes and digital video recorders (DVR). They want to put these devices in the homes of people, turn the cameras and microphones on, have computers watch and listen, and then broadcast TV commercials targeted to the activities and conversations that viewers have while they watch TV.  If a family is eating Mexican food in front of a baseball game, they suddenly might see the most interesting man in the world quaffing a Dos Equis.  If the viewers are talking about going to a movie, a TV ad for the latest James Bond flick might suddenly appear. Unless, of course, it’s pre-teen girls, in which case the ad could be for the latest Disney princess movie.

Last year Verizon filed a patent application for a monitoring system that would determine what commercials to broadcast viewers based on their behavior when watching the boob tube.  Verizon boasted in its patent documents that the system could even detect moods. The patent office rejected the patent application, but all that means is that if Verizon started installing it on its equipment, other telecommunication companies could copy the system without paying Verizon any royalties. Verizon could still implement the technology.

Verizon isn’t the only big data company that wants its eyes and ears to become part of your family.  Microsoft filed a patent application in 2011 for yet another consumer surveillance system.

The worst case scenario for this invasion of privacy is if a couple gets turned on by an on-screen kiss and begins to undress each other with the TV still on. Will an ad for condoms come up? Or maybe one from an anti-choice group? Will the video of your love-making be available to the National Security Administration?

To prevent this obnoxious corporate spying on our private lives, Representatives Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced the “We Are Watching You Act of 2013” in Congress last week. If passed, the law would allow consumers to opt out of monitoring altogether at any time. If a viewer allowed monitoring, the company would have to clearly display “We are watching you” on the TV screen.  Already an industry expert at the influential consulting firm Gartner is complaining that the “We are watching you” legend would take up too much space on the smaller screens of laptops, tablets and smart phones.

While I applaud Capuano and Jones for wanting to protect consumers, wouldn’t it be safer for our freedom if these systems were just outlawed?  We all know that companies virtually always make opt-in, opt-out protocols as confusing as possible. For example, my bank recently sent me a brochure telling me about opt-out options that would prevent it from using or selling my data. The brochure came with the regular bank statement, folded to look like one of those bill-stuffer ads that many of us throw out without looking (which is what my significant other did and then had to fish out of the trash when I told her what it was). The bank asked depositors to complete and mail a form to opt-out of some information sharing and to make a phone call to opt-out of a different set of information sharing. The way the information was presented on the page made it very easy for people to think that you could either phone or mail in a form and that you didn’t need to do both. Of course, there was no return postage for the opt-out form. 

Corporate America is selling us a lot of stuff right now, even with the old-fashioned method of analyzing the demographics of the audiences of TV shows.  I don’t think they need any more help in this area. Forget the opt. Just make it illegal.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Rep Doug LaMalfa Sticks It To Taxpayers

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Here’s an article that should piss anyone off: “A Rice Gets a Price Premium: Farm-Bill Subsidy Sets High Floor for a Type Grown by Lawmaker Who Pushed It.” As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a 4th-generation Japonica rice grower, has put a federal subsidy for himself into the farm bill. If you’re not familiar with Japonica, it’s not a rice we eat much in this country. Most of it is exported, at a low price, disrupting markets in Asia. Our cheap rice comes into their cities, undercuts their subsistence farmers. The rural kids, with no prospects for the future, leave home for the cities and the land goes bare. Next step: Big Ag moves in with big tractors, big combines, big gas hogs and hey presto we’ve exported the same bad system we have here. And, back at home, never mind that Japonica (also known as sticky rice) yields more per acre and sells for more on the market, LaMalfa wants a guarantee that if the price goes below a certain level he’ll get a taxpayer-financed bonus. The name has changed—not a direct payment—but the game has stayed the same. Taxpayer payments will keep these guys in business. This creep’s farm has received “almost $4.7 million in farm subsidies since 1995,” says the Journal, including nearly $1.2 million in direct payments.” Guess they can’t get by without the handouts. At the same time, they’re cutting food assistance to poor people and ensuring that schools feed inferior, fatty meats and canned veggies to school kids. That’s in the House version of the bill. The Senate version simply promises guarantees for rice, cotton and peanuts.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Kudos to Senators Begich, Merkley, Boxer and Sanders!

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Nice work, Senators! Four of you have introduced amendments to the Farm Bill that would rein in some of the outrageous benefits that big ag has been enjoying. The amendments are: - Senator Begich's (D-Alaska) amendment # 934 would ban the sale of genetically engineered salmon until Federal wildlife agencies give their OK. -Senator Merkley’s (D-Oregon) amendment #978 will repeal the "Monsanto Protection Act" provision in the 2013 government spending bill. That “Act” eliminated judicial oversight of genetically engineered crops. - Senator Boxer’s (D-California) Sense of the Senate amendment # 1025 supports mandatory GMO labeling.. Her amendment 1026 asks that FDA and USDA study the 64 countries around the world that already require GMO labeling. -Senator Sanders’ (I-Vermont) amendment supporting the existing rights of states to enact their own laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Already this year 26 states have introduced labeling laws with the possibility of passage in a number of states. THANK YOU for thinking of family farmers AND consumers!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Supreme Court Speaks Against Gene Patenting

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: I may be mistaken, but it looks like the U.S. Supreme Court has finally looked at some precedents and laws other than the ones Monsanto has so carefully placed in their venue. Monsanto, you might remember, has been paving the way to complete ownership of all plant genes on the planet. They’ve been stocking their vaults with unusual beans, grains, vegetables of all kinds, and working through the gene pools, patenting as fast as they can. At the same time, they’ve been working up case law that proves they have the right to claim patents on these genes and that farmers who grow the plants on their own are breaking the laws. But last Thursday the Supreme Court unanimously decided that human genes cannot be patented! This is huge! For starters, it means you, dear reader, have some rights to your own body and its miracles. If you are stricken with some disease and your body figures out how to fight it, you have the right to claim that cure even if some college researcher captures a little of your dna, isolates it and develops a vaccine that imitates what your body did. We have to hope that this precedent leads to some more decisions that reverse the outrages of the past. Gene descriptions have become easy to create, thanks to new gene-reading machines. But gene descriptions are not the same as gene inventions and it’s time the Supreme Court and our lawmakers accepted that fact. As Judge Clarence Thomas wrote, “separating a gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.” And the other justices, bless them, agreed!