Author: Fourat

Fourat is a science writer, photographer, and author of Random Rationality and S3: Science, Statistics, and Skepticism. With help from the scientific community, he has compiled a book on GMOs: The Lowdown on GMOs According to Science featuring chapters by Mark Lynas, Ramez Naam, and others involved in the science and exposition of biotechnology. He claims no title other than that of self-educated layman. Fourat frequently writes about science, especially biotechnology, on his blog:

The ‘Right to Know’ is an Imposition

Over at the Genetic Literacy Project, there was a delightful article recently written by Jane Palmer on the GMO labelling campaign. As many know, it was recently defeated in Colorado 55% to 45%. In this article, Jane writes what may be the most lucid, at least to my eyes, sentences that aptly sums up the implications of the Right to Know movement. For context, Jane was once for labeling, and over the course of the article, she shares how she started to doubt the proposition, and eventually change her mind. Here it is:

“I realize that my ‘right to know’ might affect someone else’s ‘right to choose’, or even worse their ‘right to eat.’”

That is a wonderful distillation of the potential consequences of what might occur if a Right to Know campaign actually wins. There are precedents too: in Europe, when legislation required GM food to be labelled, Europeans subsequently disavowed their purchase. Consequence: food companies simply swapped their GM ingredients for more-expensive non-GM ingredients. Those who cheer such a change are invariably of the 1% of the food movement for, as usual, those who bore the brunt were the poor. Suzy do-gooder could afford the increase in foodstuffs (if she wasn’t already shopping organic to begin with), the average Jane on the street suddenly has less money for her children’s daycare, transport, insurance etc.. This is a serious concern those higher up the social ladder are often oblivious too.


Heroes of Science

I found the coolest list the other day (wow, that sounds so cheesy!), it is a site called Science Heroes. There is one page in particular that had me floored: the general gist of it  most important contributions to humanity via lives saved. (I know, I know, lists suck, but this one doesn’t!) The answers might surprise you.

Fritz Haber takes the list with 2.72 billion lives saved. How did he do it? Synthetic fertilizer. If I had to take a guess before seeing such a list, I would’ve guessed Edward Jenner, who came up with the concept of vaccination when he noticed that milk maids who had been exposed to Cowpox did not succumb to Smallpox. Jenner, it turns out, is number 5 with an estimated 530 million people saved. Haber solved, it turns out, a century-long problem that had vexed humanity’s growth: how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to be used in farming. It is safe to say that industrialized farming exists in a long chain of cause-and-effects because of this man. His successful discovery of this problem (later industrialized by Carl Bosch, #2 on the list) is what earns him the top spot of the greatest scientists list. The number of people that he saved is hard to understand at an emotional level: 2,720,000,000. Almost 40% of the population of Earth today! Or, 2.72% of all the humans that have ever lived in Earth’s history (100 billion people). Second, as I alluded to earlier, on the list, is Carl Bosch who duly shares in this discovery by mass-producing the process; something which Haber was not able to do. (It’s not all roses, however: Faber was instrumental in the chemical warfare that become the defining feature of WW1 on the German side, so there’s that.)


Objections to the Food Babe’s Objections

Yesterday, Vani Hari (the Food Babe) wrote a long reply concerning detractors explaining why and how they got her all wrong to her readers. (I encourage you to read it here.) She does so mainly by doing in reverse what she accuses them of doing to her, and mistaking her subjectivity for objective truths. I haven’t really got that involved with the Food Babe and her subjective meanderings into the food industry, but I thought that now is as good a time as any.


soylent liquid food

A Review of Soylent – The Future of Food

I’ve always been a fussy eater (much to the disdain of my mother), a crappy cook, and a lazy person (especially in the kitchen). To top off that list, cooking healthy food, I’ve found, takes far too much time, and, for me personally, is not an enjoyable process. Each and every meal I make, I find myself romanticizing about the things I could be doing instead: writing; reading a book; playing video games; going for a walk and so on. Being inherently lazy, I was delighted to hear over a year ago that a new company had formed to make this odd thing called Soylent. (So named to encourage people to take food less seriously.) It is a food product developed by Rosa Labs, that, In their own words, is “designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort.”

To make it, one simply mixes the contents of a bag of Soylent (see below) with a liter (approx. one quart) of water. The resultant liquid provides 2010 calories made up of 252 grams of carbohydrates, 118 grams of protein, and 59 grams of fat. What I like about Soylent, at first glance, is the “maximum nutrition with minimum effort.”


War and Food

I recently finished reading Robert Greene’s marvellous book, The 33 Strategies of War. The book is essentially a 33 stage journey in destroying your enemies on the battlefield, politics, the office, and other scenarios as explicated in the book and explained via fascinating historical example. As I was reading this delightful compendium of strategy, history, bloodshed, and intrigue I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the strategies seemed strangely familiar. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself, “last time I checked I wasn’t a warmonger.” Yet, with this strange sense of deja vu, and due to the absorbing nature of the material, I continued reading…until, at last, it hit me. About halfway through the book I realised that “I didn’t know these strategies, I had seen these strategies…” From where is a very good question? From the anti-GMO brigade.

War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society.” ~ Robert Greene

At first, that struck me as an odd realisation. Yet the similarities in tactics and strategy were just too uncanny…the pieces just…fit, and continued to fit as I progressed. And I remembered that, often times, the antis proclaim themselves as waging a war so it’s not much of a leap, then, to using the strategies of war. It is interesting to note that a recent study published in the Environmental and Development Economic Journal of Cambridge early in 2014 calculated the lost life years due to opposition to genetically modified golden rice (Wesseler et al, 2014). All in all, it estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost as a direct result of anti-GMO opposition. Collateral damage?