Vote Today for a Cleaner Future!!

Don’t forget to vote for a cleaner and greener America by casting your ballot today at your local voting precinct!  As the rate of cancer and other illnesses continues to increase in this country, not to mention the effects of climate change, it is more important than ever to pay attention to the platforms of our local and federal political candidates as it relates to improving public health and the environment.  Fortunately, the Sierra Club has made this easy for voters by providing the Sierra Club Voter Guide! To view this wonderful and complete state-by-state list of candidates who best support the goals described above, visit http://content.sierraclub.org/voterguide/ and simply click on your state. If you are voting in Massachusetts, I have already listed the endorsed federal candidates below. Now get out and vote!!

Note, to locate your polling place in your state, visit http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageNavigator/misc_nat_polling_place.html?autologin=true&s_src=214KPLUN03 and type in your address.   

Massachusetts - Endorsed Candidates for U.S. Congress

  • Sen. Ed Markey for Senate
  • Richard Neal in District 1
  • Jim McGovern in District 2
  • Niki Tsongas in District 3
  • Rep. Joseph Kennedy III in District 4
  • Rep. Katherine Clark in District 5
  • Seth Moulton in District 6
  • Rep. Michael Capuano in District 7
  • Rep. Bill Keating in District 9

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                                                                                                               -Shahir Masri, M.S.


Climate Change – At Last U.S. Proposes Federal Regulations!

       On June 2nd of this year, the U.S. for the first time took meaningful action at the federal level to address climate change. This was in the form of the Clean Power Plan rule proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If passed, this landmark rule will regulate carbon emissions from existing facilities of the electric utility industry across the entire nation. Considering power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., this rule would be tremendously impactful, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by a projected 30% below 2005 levels by the year 2030! What’s more, if U.S. policy begins to take climate change seriously, there is no doubt other nations will follow suit. As we are dangerously near the so-called “tipping point,” beyond which climate change will be out of our control, this policy could very well be the 11th hour saving grace we’ve been waiting for. That is, if it’s not already too late! While I could opine endlessly about climate change and my thoughts on the present state of affairs, I will reserve that for a later blog. Here, I will stick to the topic of the new EPA proposal and its likelihood of becoming a formal rule and surviving litigation by stakeholders. This blog was inspired by an insightful lecture I recently attended by esteemed law professors Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus of the Harvard Law School.

Above is a picture I recently took at the People’s Climate March in New York City. 
An estimated 400,000 people attended the march!!
       The Clean Power Plan was proposed through executive action under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, after congress repeatedly proved incapable of uniting to act on climate change. The basis for the proposed rule is the overwhelming scientific evidence that has accumulated regarding the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. Namely, the increase in global average temperatures which will lead to sea level rise and coastal damage, increased heat stress to the young and elderly, and more severe weather events, as well as related air pollution. The Climate Action Plan, according to experts Freeman and Lazarus, is a beautifully crafted piece of legislation. This is not only because standards were uniquely tailored to each state, but because the rule is a rate-based emissions design, which allows each state tremendous flexibility in determining how goals will be met (either through improvements in energy efficiency or reduced energy consumption). Whether the rule is legal under EPA authority, given that it would remold the energy economy, is another story. And this is what will certainly be challenged in the courtroom by industry. Freeman and Lazarus note that EPA has succeeded in the past in promulgating similar rules that have altered other industrial sectors, but never on such a scale. The policy undoubtedly has strong legal merit, but whether it will survive the brutal attack by industry remains to be seen. Freeman and Lazarus believe it could go either way, and think it will come down to good lawyering.

       At present, the rule is undergoing a period of open public comment which has just been extended to December 1st, 2014. This is mostly to get feedback from interested stakeholders prior to finalizing the rule, in order to spare as much subsequent litigation as possible. As part of the public comment period, four public hearings during the week of July 28th took place (Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington). I am not sure exactly what happens following the close of public comment, but presumably there will be another window of time allocated to the rewriting of the rule before the rule is officially attacked and taken to court. I will have to revisit my environmental law textbooks and get back to you on this. Until then, feel free to read more on the proposed rule and to provide your comments to the EPA Federal Register by visiting:

                                                                                                        -Shahir Masri, M.S.

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Ebola Confirmed in Texas!

Since my last blog, Ebola has not only worsened in West Africa, but the virus has finally hit the U.S. This is the first time Ebola has been diagnosed on U.S. soil, a scary reality to say the least! You may remember two Ebola patients being admitted to Atlanta’s Emory hospital in early August. These cases were different, however, in that they were diagnosed in Africa and consequently isolated prior to entering the United States. In the present case, the infected person arrived to Texas from Liberia on September 20th, but was not admitted to a hospital and isolated from the public for entire week! This is after the patient had already visited Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on September 26th complaining of Ebola-like symptoms. The medical staff was informed of the patient’s recent arrival from West Africa and still sent the patient home, albeit with pain killers and antibiotics. A major failure of the screening system perhaps? 

The most pressing question right now is, do we have cause to panic? I don’t personally believe so, and it appears many experts don’t either. Though I was admittedly alarmed to here this news yesterday, the reality is that this virus remains difficult to contract from person to person. The explosiveness of the West African epidemic is a result of variables other than the simple virulence and communicability of the disease, but rather to issues such as preparedness, infrastructural capacity, and availability of resources, as noted in my earlier blogs. These factors do not pose the same obstacles in the U.S.
About a month ago, I predicted future Ebola case and fatality rates through the weeks of September based on the virus’s rate of spread throughout the preceding five months. Now a month down the road it is time to reflect on those predictions and see where things stand. Frighteningly, the predictions were an underestimate and not an overestimate of the true chaos continuing to unfold. Under predicting by about 14%, the true death toll by Sept. 18th (the most recent data) stands at 2,833. Rising even more sharply, the number of cases by this date stands at 5,883. Since disease statistics are usually delayed, and because WHO has been releasing Ebola data less frequently in recent weeks, there is no way to compare my Oct. 1st predictions at the moment. Although they are certain to represent even greater underestimates if the rate of Ebola’s spread has continued uninterrupted. I will keep you up to date as new information is released by WHO and CDC. In the meantime, let’s cross our fingers that diligence and precaution prevent any further spread of Ebola to or throughout the United States and that the situation in West Africa gets under control! 

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                                                                                    -Shahir Masri, MS


Ebola - Getting Better or Worse??

As we head into September, the wrath of Ebola continues to devastate West Africa. Now over five months since this deadly virus infected its first victim, one wonders where we are in terms of combating the disease. Are infection rates beginning to plateau or are they continuing to rise? And if they are rising, how quickly? This week I decided to answer this question by plotting WHO Ebola data dating back to late March, when the virus first popped up in Guinea. What I found was startling. Not only are infection rates continuing to rise, but they are rising near exponentially. As are the death rates. These exponential curves are depicted in the graph below, with total cases depicted in blue and total deaths depicted in red. Using the equations of the respective lines, I also predicted the total cases and deaths each week through the end of September, depicted as light green points.

At present, the cumulative death toll from Ebola in West Africa stands at 1,552 people, with 3,069 cases. It has become pointless to compare these numbers to anything previously seen from Ebola as this outbreak is so far off the charts. What’s more, it is thought that these numbers are underreported as many patients are dying before ever reaching hospitals, or are refusing to visit doctors due to harsh quarantine measures and stigma. According to my graph above, if this current rate of infection continues, the death toll will reach 2,250 by mid-September, infecting nearly 4,200 people. By the first of October, the death toll will increase further to 3,200, with over 6,100 cases! One can only hope that this trend deviates from its exponential trajectory sooner rather than later.
As of August 26, the Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed an outbreak of Ebola. At the moment, however, this is not believed to share any connection with the outbreak taking place in West Africa. I will keep you posted. In the U.S., there have fortunately been no confirmed Ebola cases, besides the two American healthcare workers who were transported to the U.S. from Africa. Both of these patients, though, have made successful recoveries and no longer carry the virus.

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                                                                                                  -Shahir Masri, MS


Ebola - The Death Toll Rises

The death toll in West Africa has recently exceeded an astonishing 1,000 dead. Official numbers, updated as of this morning, amount to 2,127 cases and 1,145 deaths from Ebola. In terms of infected people, this exceeds the previous worst Ebola outbreak by a factor of 5! To follow up on my last blog, a science/ethics panel which convened last week on the issue of administering experimental medication to infected Ebola patients has concluded that such medication is ethical to use given the severity of the current outbreak, provided that certain criteria are met, such as transparency about care, informed consent, freedom of choice, etc. Further details about the meeting are scheduled for release tomorrow.

When I look at the staggering disease statistics for Ebola and compare them with historic numbers, two things jump out at me. One, the frequency of major outbreaks has increased since the virus was first recognized in 1976. Maybe this is due to better reporting, or maybe not. That this phenomenon is real, however, supports the sensible hypothesis that we will see more and more infectious disease outbreaks as human populations encroach more and more into the native habits of disease-carrying animals. The second thing that popped out at me was the sheer scale of the current outbreak. For a given year, 2014 has already seen over three times more Ebola cases than any previous year, and five times more than any single outbreak, as mentioned. To better put things in perspective, I decided to compile WHO data into a graph, which I’ve shared with you below. I think the graph really elucidates things!

Different ideas are floating around as to what is causing the explosiveness of the present Ebola outbreak, one of which I discussed in my last blog; namely, airborne transmission. Though we put that hypothesis to rest, we have yet to answer the pressing question. That is, to what can we attribute the severity of this ongoing outbreak? To answer this, one must realize that West Africa has previously never been afflicted by Ebola. In fact, previously many West Africans went as far as to deny the existence of the deadly disease. That said, when the 2014 outbreak hit this previously unaffected region, many health workers were largely underprepared to deal with Ebola patients and were not taking the necessary measures to prevent transmission to themselves and others. Local residents too were unaware of the precautions necessary to prevent infection. Furthermore, as the outbreak worsened, the capacity of the local medical system to deal with the enormous influx of severely ill and contagious patients was such that the entire system became quickly overwhelmed; in turn exacerbating the problem and leading to even higher infection rates. These factors, in conjunction with the ease of modern day transport, made for a dreadful combination. In brief, the explosiveness of this outbreak is not due to mutation and aerosolization of Ebola, but simply and tragically to lack of preparedness and infrastructural capacity in a world of better transportation. At present, the WHO and others are working tirelessly to combat the problem. But from what I can tell from recent online interviews, such efforts have not translated to enough in terms of getting real resources to the ground in Africa.  In my next blog, I will create a graph of this outbreak’s infection and fatality rates in order to give us an idea as to whether this catastrophe is near stabilizing or whether things are only getting worse. See you then!

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                                                                                       -Shahir Masri, MS


Ebola: Has the Virus Gone Airborne?

Since my last blog, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 68 new cases and 29 new deaths from Ebola in West Africa, bringing the new total to 1,779 infected and 961 dead. These numbers include suspected, probable, and confirmed cases alike. Given the magnitude of this crisis, the recently formed WHO Emergency Committee met for two days via teleconference this past week and unanimously decided that the present outbreak constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Importantly, no registered medicines or vaccines currently exist to combat Ebola. This Monday, however, a WHO-organized panel of medical ethics experts will meet to discuss the prospect of using experimental treatments to quell the outbreak.   

As for the title of this blog, while the ongoing Ebola outbreak continues to produce record-breaking numbers of infections, much talk has begun circulating as to the reasons for such a severe outbreak. Among the different hypotheses I’ve heard is the idea that this particular Ebola virus has mutated into an airborne form. Were this hypothesis true, it would of course spell catastrophe for the globe. For this reason, and as promised in my last blog, I’ve decided to dedicate the following paragraphs to addressing this concern.
In general, the assertion of airborne Ebola appears to be mostly conspiracy, although there is some merit to the argument which deserves mention. First, the Ebola virus responsible for the present outbreak is indeed of a strain we have not previously seen, though it may have existed in the region for quite some time. This new strain, however, shares 98% homology with Zaire ebolavirus, which we have seen numerous times over the last 38 years, and which would require no mutations for transmission to be viable through the air. Rather, experiments have already shown Zaire ebolavirus to be stable and infectious in small-particle aerosols. This was observed both intentionally and accidentally in laboratory monkeys at the United States Army Medical Research Institute in 1995, for instance.
When considering such evidence of airborne transmission in monkeys, it is important to keep in mind that a virus’s ability to infect through the air is largely dependent on the viral burden of an animal’s lungs and that animal’s efficiency at aerosolizing particles through exhalation (there are other factors as well). It may well be, in the case of monkeys, that their physiology is such that airborne transmission is an important pathway of exposure. In short, observing such transmission in monkeys does not necessarily mean this route is driving transmission in humans, although admittedly this should raise some eyebrows.
To better answer the question regarding humans, it is more informative to turn to epidemiological studies. Historically, such studies have shown Ebola to spread in close circles, usually to family members or nurses giving care to infected individuals, as well as those involved in the handling or funeral preparations of deceased Ebola victims. In fact, cases of Ebola in people who never had direct contact with other infected people are quite rare, even when infected individuals live in the same household. Where there is no direct contact, there is usually no spread of disease. Even among people who have limited direct contact with patients, transmission is still low, as was learned following the 1979 outbreak in Sudan.
To further consider the “airborne hypothesis,” it is useful to look at the rate of geographic spread of the current epidemic. Were Ebola truly an airborne killer, we would expect the virus to spread much like other airborne killers from the past, such as the SARS epidemic which spread internationally across 26 countries in 2003, or the swine flu which traveled the entire 3,000 mile length of the U.S., infecting all 48 states in a matter of 7 months. By contrast, we are now over five months into the present Ebola outbreak and the virus has remained confined to four nations of western Africa. While four nations is not insignificant, three of these nations happen to share close borders with the epicenter of the outbreak. In brief, the rate of spread of this outbreak, though of grave concern, does not follow the pattern we’d expect of an airborne killer.
In light of low evidence for airborne transmission of Ebola, can we completely rule out the air as a pathway of exposure? No. And this is largely what has aroused suspicion and criticism among the public regarding statements made by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Before hastening to criticism, however, one must note that direct contact (versus airborne) as defined by the CDC includes large airborne droplets, such as those generated from sneezing and coughing. So when they are denying airborne exposure, they are not necessarily denying airborne exposure as perceived by the public. Their acceptance of the virus’s ability to spread through airborne droplets is in fact reflected in their 2005 medical guidelines for managing Ebola which identify the importance of eye and mouth protection. Definitions aside, it would make little sense for the CDC to risk panicking the nation by uttering the word “airborne”, particularly when such transmission accounts for the fewest of Ebola cases and that the media is known for making mountains out of molehills when it suits their interests.
A likely reason for low airborne transmission of Ebola is that the infection does not cause coughing, meaning the generation of infectious airborne particles from the lung is relatively low. This is in stark contrast to SARS which caused incessant coughing and spread rapidly to many countries. So if the virus hasn’t gone airborne, to what can we attribute the explosiveness of the current Ebola outbreak? Are such epidemics likely in the future? In my next blog I will discuss this topic as well as present an informative graph I created that really puts this current epidemic in perspective. See you soon!  

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                                                                                     -Shahir Masri, MS


Ebola: Death Toll Rises in West Africa

Since the CDC hasn't updated their website, I thought I'd provide you with the latest statistics relating to the Ebola outbreak, according to the WHO Regional Office for Africa. 

Cases = 1,711
Deaths = 932
Case fatality rate = 54%

This is madness!
Check in soon for more updates.

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Ebola Virus Outbreak: Background & News

          To those unaware, a deadly Ebola outbreak of historic proportions is ripping its way through West Africa as of this writing. Further history was made last Saturday when an American infected with Ebola virus was flown in an isolation chamber from Liberia to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital to receive emergency treatment. This represented the first known Ebola patient to ever be treated on U.S. soil, something that has alarmed many Americans. This Tuesday, a second patient is due to arrive to the same hospital for treatment. In this blog, I will briefly outline the latest as it relates to this deadly Ebola outbreak. Additionally, I’ll provide insight as to what Ebola virus is and shed light on its background to help put the current situation in perspective. I am intending to follow and report on this outbreak periodically through a series of blogs. So stay tuned  for updates on the issue.

About Ebola Virus

          Endemic to Africa, Ebola virus disease, as it is technically referred, was first recognized in 1976 in the equatorial region of the continent. Though the reservoir of this virus is not entirely known, it is increasingly thought to reside in non-human primates and bats. Frighteningly, Ebola is about as virulent a disease as we see on this planet, with a case fatality rate of up to 90%. In other words, Ebola kills up to 9 out of 10 people infected, with the least deadly outbreaks still killing over 50% of those infected. To compare, the highest case fatality rates for avian flu are around 60%. The average for West Nile is about 25%. Cholera, though not a virus, kills roughly 0 – 10% of those infected, depending on the country.
          Ebola infection is characterized by sudden onset of fever, extreme weakness and muscle pain, as well as headache and sore throat. Not too dissimilar from the symptoms of common illnesses we’ve all experienced. Later symptoms, however, include diarrhea, vomiting, rash, and impaired function of the kidneys, liver and other organs. In some cases, internal and external bleeding can occur. The current state of knowledge on Ebola transmission is that the virus can be contracted from person-to-person, but that such transmission can only occur through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. I will discuss more on this last point and the possibility of airborne transmission in my next blog.

Situation in West Africa

          Outbreaks of Ebola are not very uncommon, however, most outbreaks are usually confined to small villages, fizzle out quickly, and produce no more than 100-200 fatalities. Among the largest Ebola epidemics was the 1995 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which resulted in 315 cases and 244 deaths. By comparison, the present outbreak has already resulted in 1,603 cases and 877 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. These numbers are staggering to say the least!  Furthermore, since the first cases originated in Guinea around Feb/March, the epidemic has not remained confined, nor has it faded away. Instead, it has crossed borders into neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, and most recently into non-neighboring Nigeria.
          The present issue is certainly raising concern among health and government officials around the world, particularly given the rapidity with which people in the modern day can move from country to country. The incubation period for Ebola can be up to 21 days, meaning an infected person can easily board a flight and travel to another country before ever presenting symptoms of the deadly virus. Additionally, there has been some talk about the possibility that this Ebola virus is of a strain that can be spread via airborne transmission. Were this true, it would of course warrant enormous concern to nations around the world, far surpassing both the SARS and H1N1 scares. Having spent extensive time studying air pollution and the transport mechanisms of airborne particles, I have my own thoughts on this possibility. However, I will reserve this discussion for Part 2 of this Ebola blog series. Note, depending on how often I post on this topic, I may not link all posts through Facebook, so be sure to "join" or tune into the blog directly for updates. In the meantime, let’s send our prayers to the people of West Africa and all others affected by this terrible epidemic. 

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How much paper does a tree produce?

     Answering this question is not easy because the answer depends on a number of variables, such as the density of the wood, the size of the tree, and the type of pulping process used. Recently, however, the Sierra Club published a response to such an inquiry, estimating that a single 8 inch diameter tree produces about 10,000 – 20,000 sheets of paper. Other numbers I’ve seen range as high as 100,000 sheets per tree. This may not sound like many trees necessary to meet consumption, but when you consider that the U.S. alone produced nearly 21 million tons of paper last year, this amounts to millions upon millions of trees. According to the American Forest & Paper Association, about 60% of the paper consumed in the U.S. is recovered  each year for recycling. Though this is good news, it leaves much room for improvement.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
     Every ton of paper recovered for recycling saves approximately 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 380 gallons of oil, and 4,000 kilowatts of energy (enough to power the average U.S. home for six months!). That said, reducing paper consumption translates to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well, thus lessening the impacts of climate change.

Not Simply for “Tree-Huggers”

     It is important to highlight that recycling is not simply a “tree-hugging”, “eco freak” measure to save the forests, but rather to protect human health as well. Paper mills are highly polluting operations around which many human populations reside. For every one ton reduction of paper consumed there is a corresponding reduction in air and water pollution. So reduce your paper consumption when you can, and recycle your used paper ALWAYS!

10 Tips to Reduce Paper Waste

1)    Copy on both sides of the paper.
2)    Adjust fonts, margins, and spacing to fit more text on a single sheet.
3)    Use lighter weight paper. Lighter paper requires less energy and fewer raw materials when it's manufactured.
4)    Reuse paper that has been printed on one side. It can be used as scratch paper or for printing internal memos.
5)    Use email and voice instead of hard prints when possible.
6)    Eliminate unnecessary subscriptions. Cancel newspapers, newsletters, and magazines you don't read or can access online, and take your name off mailing lists to reduce junk mail.
7)    Use electronic data storage instead of hard copy files.
8)    Use recycled-content, chlorine-free paper products, and use soy or other agri-based inks for printing projects.
9)    Place recycling bins near high-traffic areas such as conference rooms, kitchens, photocopy rooms, and fax areas in your office building.

10) Conduct a "paper" audit to determine the kind and volume of paper waste your company generates, then take steps to lessen such waste. 

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GMOs: What Are the Risks?

Part I

What Are GMOs?

            GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.”  In the context of food, GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic information has been modified, or genetically engineered, usually to produce a greater yield or increase processing efficiency.  In other words, to increase company profits and usually reduce consumer costs.  Unfortunately, however, with such biotechnology has come concern for human health and the environment.  In the United States in particular, whether you know it or not you’re consuming GMOs or products made with GMO ingredients on a daily basis (even a can of coke uses high-fructose corn syrup made from GM corn). The important question then is, what are the risks associated with GMOs, or put another away, can we trust Frankenfoods?  The news fortunately isn’t as bad as you might think and is in fact much different than most people suspect.  Note that in the interest of keeping things short, this will be a 2 part blog.  In this first blog (Part I) I’ll discuss plant GMOs while the topic of animal GMOs will be reserved for Part II. 

Issues with GM Crops

            A primary means of increasing crop yield through genetic engineering is by preventing damage by insects.  In fact, in the U.S. over 90% of our corn and soybean crops are genetically engineered for this purpose!  Such engineering is usually accomplished in one of two ways, either by engineering plants to be pest-resistant or engineering them to be pesticide resistant, or both.  The main issue with engineering a crop to be pest-resistant is the potential that the gene of interest may be an allergen to some individuals.  Further, there is the potential when imparting a pest-deterring protein into a crop that the gene itself will cause unforeseen toxicity to human health.  At present, there isn’t much scientific evidence that supports the existence of such effects.  While this doesn’t guarantee that these effects aren’t occurring, it at least doesn’t suggest reason to sound the alarm (the “not so bad” side of the story).  That said, some find the lack of scientific investigation into such effects coupled with the incredibly widespread use of GMOs to be reason for concern.  A valid perspective.
            While the above concern is no-doubt valid, what strike me as more disturbing are the implications of pesticide-resistant crops.  These crops are imparted with a gene that allows farmers to essentially spray the hell out of our food without worrying about damaging the plant. Sure, the plants are resistant to the pesticides and come out okay, but what about the people who eat them?  Crop yields go up, profits increase, but at whose expense?  Not the agricultural or pesticide industry, that’s for sure.  And let’s not forget about the ecologic effects of pesticides running into streams and lakes or the indirect human health effects of pesticide-contaminated drinking water and air. 
            Beyond the impacts described thus far is the concern of imparting antibiotic resistance genes into our food and ecosystem.  When desired genes are inserted into an organism, they are usually tagged with an antibiotic resistant gene.  This enables biotechnologists to test whether a plant has successfully incorporated the new gene by growing the plant in the presence of antibiotics.  If the plant grows, then the gene transfer was a success.  The concern that arises with this process is due to the possibility that bacteria in the environment as well as bacteria in the guts of humans and other animals will pick up this antibiotic resistance.  The prevalence of anti-biotic resistant bacteria has in fact increased quite dramatically in recent years, causing alarm among medical practitioners who are finding it increasingly difficult to treat certain bacterial illnesses.

Monsanto and GMOs

            Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ seeds are probably the most heavily marketed pesticide-resistant crops on the market.  By no coincidence, Monsanto also owns the particular pesticide (Roundup™) these crops are resistant to.  So a farmer who purchases Roundup Ready™ seeds will also need to purchase Roundup™, both products of Monsanto.  And since the crops are resistant to Roundup™, a farmer will actually purchase even more pesticide than usual.  An all-too-beautiful system for the agricultural powerhouse. 
            Recently Monsanto, along with the largest food and beverage companies, broke a record.  By spending $22 million to oppose a Washington state bill that would require labeling on products containing GMOs, the group contributed the largest amount of money even spent on an initiative in the Washington state’s history!  Their money paid off as the bill was subsequently defeated.  Monsanto was the single largest company donor, spending $5.4 million on the opposition’s campaign. 
            Monsanto has gained an increasingly bad reputation with the public and smaller farming industry for not only their role in showering the nation with GMOs and pesticides, but also for their ever-increasing monopoly power and consequent ability to influence the political system relating to agriculture and food.  The spread of GMO crops has not only put many small farmers out of business, but Monsanto has successfully sued neighboring farms when their patented seeds have blow into nearby fields and sprouted “stolen” crops.  Monsanto seeds are also an issue for organic farmers whose fields are sometimes contaminated when GMO seeds blow into their farmland. 

The benefits of GM Crops

            Though this blog is intended to shed understanding on the risks associated with GMOs, it is at least worth noting some benefits of agricultural biotechnology.  Aside from pest protection, crops are often modified to express desirable nutrients.   In this way, genetic modification has positive potential in malnourished areas.  Sure, nourishing genes such as vitamin precursors are also of benefit in the developed world, but their importance is truly secondary to that of nutrient enrichment in the developing world.  A well known innovation exemplifying this is Golden Rice.  Globally, up to 500,000 children go blind each year as a result of vitamin-A deficiency.  This is mostly in impoverished regions of East Asia and Africa where cheap vitamin-A deficient foods such as white rice constitute an immense portion of the native diet (vitamin-A is an essential micronutrient in the development and maintenance of vision).  Golden Rice, however, is a form of rice that is specifically engineered to express beta-carotene (the vitamin-A precursor).   Though Golden Rice is still undergoing research and testing, and therefore has yet to hit the market as a commercial product, if it were to be substituted for ordinary rice in rice-dependent regions of the world where blindness is rampant, the positive impacts could be tremendous.  This certainly represents utility for biotechnological innovation.
Closing Thoughts

            Though GMOs have been approved for consumption and use as ingredients in food products throughout the U.S. and other nations, some food companies have taken it upon themselves to omit their use.  Just last year ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's pledged that it would strike GMO ingredients from its products.  Additionally, restaurant chain Chipotle said it would phase out GMOs this year. Whole Foods has pledged to label all products in its stores with genetically engineered ingredients by 2018.  And just recently, even General Mills pledged to avoid GMO grain and other ingredients from its classic Cheerios cereal beginning 2014, undoubtedly representing the largest win for those opposing GMOs. 
            In general, agriculture is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  And like any industry, the goal is to maximize profits.  Particularly in the United States, the immense size of the agricultural industry is only matched by its lobby power and influence over food regulations. Consequently, different biotechnologies are rushed through the approval process each year in the U.S., the burden of protection falling on government agencies to later prove toxicity rather than on industry to preemptively prove safety.  Where in the world is quality control and consumer protection?  In the short time frame in which new chemicals and technologies are studied prior to hitting the market, it is virtually impossible to ensure safety.  Only acute human toxicity can be assessed, while cancer and other long term consequences are left unknown. 
The human body is an extremely complex system, becoming only more complex with the introduction of foreign chemicals.  It may very well be that most GMOs are perfectly safe.  And by and large, they probably are.  However, their indirect consequences should not be overlooked and their direct consequences should receive more thorough investigation, particularly considering that GMOs and pesticide-laden food products are reaching nearly every household in the world and being consumed on a daily basis.  When exposure is so widespread, even the most seemingly benign exposures can translate to astronomical risks.  This is in fact plainly visible in the very equation that calculates risk (Risk = Toxicity x Exposure).  For this reason, it seems prudent to employ greater regulatory caution and dampen the adoption of GMOs and pesticides in the marketplace.  
In countries of rampant malnutrition, the unknown risks posed by GMOs are almost certainly outweighed by their benefits.  However, in other countries such as the United States, GMOs represent nothing more than increased processing efficiency, higher profits, and monopolization for companies that are able to engineer and patent their own crop genes.  This is best exemplified by Monsanto, which essentially owns soy beans in the U.S. now and controls most U.S. corn production.  European countries have already taken initiative by rejecting a number of GMOs and chemicals that haven’t been investigated thoroughly for safety.  What’s more, chemicals that Europe has approved have only been allowed after mandatory proof of safety by industry.  This is in accordance with Europe’s newest REACH legislation, which takes a much more precautionary approach to public health and safety than America’s TSCA regulations.  It is time the U.S. steps up now and puts public health ahead of private interests. 

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                                                                                                -Shahir MasriMS