Archive for July, 2011



                  THE END OF OIL, AND THE RISE OF DENIAL       

Climbing Hubbert’s Peak        

         Good evening everyone.  We are here tonight to give you some facts, and some surprises.  We hope that you will like what we call our entertainment.

          I am going to start with a bit of history, about a man with a peculiar name.  Back in 1956, an oil geologist, by the name of L. King Hubbert, published an article in which he predicted that oil production in the United States would reach its peak between 1970 and 1972, and from then on would decrease every year.

         Despite the fact that Hubbert was a respected scientist and that he presented solid evidence for his conclusions, he was derided, laughed at, or ignored by almost everyone in the oil industry.

         Then came 1972.  In that year, oil production in the U.S. peaked, and since then it has declined every year. That, and not oil industry greed, China’s new energy appetite, or rebellions in Nigeria, is the main reason why you paid over $3.00/gallon for gasoline last summer, and our country is dependent on foreign oil.

          By the way, whose bill for heating and cooking with Propane went up this winter? ___________  Mine increased 50%.

         Other scientists have improved Hubbert’s calculations, and have extended the methodology he successfully used to predict Peak Oil in the U.S., to Peak World oil production. They have concluded that world oil production will peak within a few years from now, or has already peaked.

         It is in the nature of the oil industry that the figures given out by oil companies and OPEC countries cannot be trusted.  We only learn about such events sometime after they have happened.

         Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University, Colin Campbell, who is a geophysicist, energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, and a Republican Congressman from Maryland, Roscoe Bartlett, have been sounding the alarm. They have been derided, laughed at, or just plain ignored. It is only now, after the price of energy sky-rocketed last summer, that they are getting any public attention at all.    

The End of Cheap Oil

         The impending loss of cheap oil is going to profoundly affect the way we and our children lead our lives.

(enter stage L — a fairy, dressed in pink tutu, with a diamond tiara, and a wand with a star at its end – “she” is flippant and bubbly, and speaks in falsetto, kind of like Glenda the Good, from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz)

[TF]         “Hi, I’m the Tooth Fairy (TF) and I’ve come to tell you that there’s nothing to worry about. There’s plenty of oil left. All you have to do is look for it under your pillow!”

[KF]         Hey, wait a minute! You’re interrupting a serious discussion. And you look ridiculous in that tutu. These people are here to learn important things that will affect their lives. Please do not interrupt us.  (TF glares at K, petulantly, hands on hips)

         Now, where was I?  Oh yes, even the phrase “oil production,” is misleading. Human beings have never produced even one drop of oil. It was all produced by Nature some 600 million years ago. More properly, we ought to call it “oil extraction.” The amount of oil available is, for all intents and purposes, finite (unless you want to wait around another 600 million years.) When it’s gone, it’s gone, and all the wishful thinking in the world won’t bring back a drop of it.

         Our contemporary, technological civilization is organized around and totally dependant on cheap oil. This situation is being compounded because every year America’s appetite for oil is increasing. China and India’s economies are growing at 10%/year and they are running around the world, trying to lock up all the existing and potential oil and natural gas sources they can get their hands on. When demand increases and supply goes down, the law of economics tells us that the price will increase.         

[TF]         Oh, yoo–hoo! I have an easy solution. You know, when children lose a tooth, all they have to do is put it under the pillow, and the tooth fairy (that’s me!) will come in the middle of the night and replace it with a dollar bill. Now, all you have to do is place your empty gas tank under your pillow and the Tooth Fairy will fill it up with oil made from Canadian tar sands, or Pennsylvania coal, or Ethanol from corn

[KF] Now look here, you demented elf! You are interrupting a serious discourse and making a farce out of this. Leave this room right now, or I’ll Canadian tar-sand and feather you! (TF exits in a huff, stage Rt.)

Say Goodbye To Cheap Oil

         Thank goodness were rid of that ridiculous person.  Magical thinking will not help us. Only a few years ago, the price of oil was 35$ per barrel. Last summer it shot up over $70. 

         Do not allow yourself to be fooled by the short-term ups and downs of the market.  When oil pipelines get blown up in Nigeria, or Putin threatens to cut off Russia’s oil supply to Belarus, the price spikes.  When the Northeastern United States experiences a tropical winter, oil prices dip down. Notice what happened recently to prices at your local gas station when old man winter finally hit New England.

          I am going to go out on a limb and predict that the price of oil next summer will jump over $70 per barrel again (sotto voce – may be even $80) and that the price will go up every year from now on. 

         The high price of energy will profoundly change our lifestyles.  The Global Economy, which is based on the ability to cheaply transport goods from one part of the world to another, will inevitably collapse.  Economies will, of necessity, become localized, and we will have to depend on local food supplies.

         Everyone knows. . .

[OF]   Hi there. I’m the Oil Fairy and I’ve come to tell you that there’s plenty of oil around the Caspian Sea. And, we know there’s lots of oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without having even drilled test wells there, or ……

[KF]   Great! Another idiot! Look here!  If they started exploring ANWAR tomorrow and found oil, which is not certain, it would take at least 10 years to locate, drill, and build a pipeline to carry the oil down to us. But, it sure would make a lot of money for Exxon, BP, etc. And maybe they can even get Halliburton to build the pipeline.

[OF]           Oh, but what about that oil they just found in the Gulf of Mexico?

[KF]   First, they have to go down 3,000 feet from the surface to the sea floor, and then drill another 5,000 feet to reach oil that may or may not be there.  You see, that oil is going to be very expensive to get, and that is just my point. 

[OF] But all I have to do is wave my magic wand and. . .

[KF] There is no such thing as magic!  You can’t make something from nothing. Why don’t you go away and stop bothering us with your wishful thinking?  (TF stands petulantly, hands on hips, & glares at KF)

         They have looked everywhere, and there are no hidden sources of oil. There is no adequate substitute for oil. You can’t stick a nuclear energy plant in your car and make it run. Too heavy. You can convert coal to gas, but the more coal you dig, the more expensive it will be to get to.  And up and up will go the costs.

         As for corn-derived Ethanol, it is the latest fad of the technofixers. Corn is a very energy- demanding crop.  At least two scientific studies have shown that more energy has to be put into the process than can be gotten out of it.  That’s a heck of a way to free yourself from foreign oil.

         Not only that, but every acre put into production of corn for Ethanol, is an acre taken out of the production of food in a country where the number of food-producing farms is shrinking every year. If our government is so worried about our dependency on foreign oil, how vulnerable will we feel when we become dependant on foreign-grown food?

         This is not theoretical.  The price of tortillas in Mexico has risen 50% in the last few months because a large portion of the US corn crop that used to be sent there has been diverted into ethanol.  And that’s no joke to the average Mexican family, who use tortillas for almost all their meals. 

         If you think that this situation is a concern only for poor Mexicans, think again.  The Associated Press reported only a few weeks ago that “strong demand for corn from ethanol plants is driving up the cost of livestock, and will raise the prices for beef, pork and chicken.” 

         What we now have is what amounts to a competition for shrinking agricultural land between automobile owners and families, who need to put food on the table for their children.  If you will excuse the expression, there is no free lunch, and that is for sure.

What Is Oil Good For?

         The first thing people think about when you mention oil is fuel – energy – energy to drive your car to work, to fly by plane to the West Coast, energy to push that diesel truck up the Interstate bringing cheap stuff to Home Depot and Wall Mart.

         But energy needs are just the tip of the iceberg. Where do you think your anti-allergy pills come from? Your antibiotics?   Most medications are synthesized from oil.  What do you think will happen to your medical bills when oil hits $100/barrel? $200/barrel?

         Does anyone here know what the Asphalt that our highways are built with is made from?  ________________ 

         Did you notice that last summer, Bonner County cut back on paving local roads  by 50%?  And, a few weeks ago, the Idaho Transportation Department announced that they were delaying 2 out of 4 widening projects for highway 95.  Both situations occurred because the price of asphalt has doubled in less than a year. That is just a little taste of what is to come.   Will Idaho be able to build more highways?  We will be lucky if they have enough money to fill in this winter’s pot holes.

                  What do you think plastic is made from? Take a wild guess. ( _________ )

[KF]  Hey, Oil Fairy, do you know how much plastic there is in your refrigerator? your iPod?  your automobile?  I’ll bet even your magic wand is plastic

         Another question for you fairy! Do you like bananas in your cereal for breakfast? Now, don’t tell me you just wave your wand and make them  appear!  Do you know where that banana came from?

[OF] (Timorously) – Ecuador? 

{KF} How many bananas are you going to eat when the cost of transporting them from Ecuador doubles, triples?  Food distribution patterns are going to have to change or we will not be able to feed over 300 million Americans. 

Bioregionalism anyone?

[OF}  I think I’ll leave. The batteries in my magic wand seem to have run down.  I wonder what batteries are made of?  Goodbye.

[KF] Good riddance! Whew! We are finally rid of her! Now, where was I?  

         Oh yes. Let’s talk more about food.  After all, it is your ultimate energy supply.  What is the fertilizer that makes that food grow, made from?  Anyone?  _________

         How about the pesticides and herbicides that they use on farms? What are they made from?  _______________ How much oil did they expend to manufacture the combines, tractors, and the other mechanized equipment found on most farms today?  And, how much energy is used to run them?  How much fuel was expended to transport food from Imperial Valley, California to your dining room table last night?

The Technofixers

         And that’s just the beginning. What about – - – - – - – - – - – (Big rumpus –Technology Fairy enters – stage L)

[TF]  Hi – I’m the Technology Fairy, and I’ve come to save you! Not to worry! I’ve got a technological fix for everything! Just look under your pillow!

(someone in audience shouts – “Hey “Techy,” you’re cute”)

[TF]   I’m not only cute, I’m clever. Hey, do you know what we can do to squeeze more out of an oil field? I can drill on a slant to get oil from under nearby mountains or drill down a mile with offshore drilling rigs.

[KF] (exasperatedly) It’s already been done.

[TF] Oh – well, I can pump water or steam into the wells to push up more oil.

[KF]   Been there – done that. It adds to the cost, and eventually it messes up the entire oil field.

[TF]    Oh – well, I can explore other parts of the world, using high-tech equipment, 3-D computer imaging, and find loads of oil.

[KF]   (addressing audience)  They have almost certainly already found all the great oil fields on Earth.  There is no other place to look for large amounts of oil except the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea.  That’s why China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam have recently been threatening each other over that area. I don’t think that superpowers fighting an oil war is going to help lower the cost of oil.

[TF, getting surly]  Yeah, well how about all those hydrogen-driven cars? -  clean, no pollution, free energy. yippee!

[KF]    You know, it’s a funny thing.  Nobody talks about where they’re going to get all those H2 atoms. You see, they’re going to pull them off of – guess what?  _____________ oil and natural gas. That’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. You see, H2 cars are not energy sources. They are really just big batteries, and where is all that infrastructure to transport the H2 atoms to where they can be pumped into cars? It’s non-existent.  And, are they going to store the H2 in tanks.  I do not think I would want to live near one of them.

(ImageHindenburg exploding)

[TF]   Well, what about all the energy you can get from that Liquefied Natural Gas from Africa?

[KF] Listen, speaking of energy, you’re wasting ours. What’s next? Are you going to invent a perpetual-motion machine?  First, they must transport the LNG at -260° F in tankers.  Then, what do you do with it?  They will need to build special ports to receive LNG, and special facilities to store and transport it throughout the United States.

          Do me a favor Technology Fairy. Get lost!  Put an egg in your shoe and beat it!                                         

[TF]    Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, go drown in your misery. What a grouch! I have a million ideas of how to get more oil. Maybe there’s some on Mars. There’ll always be a technological fix right around the corner. Off I go to find one. Don’t worry – be happy. La De Dah De Dah – - – - – - – -  [exit stage R]

[KF]   Well, I sure hope we’ve seen the last Fairy.

(voice from audience –“Don’t you bet on it”!)

         One of things that most concerns me about Peak Oil is that in our efforts to find substitutes, the world will turn to even more highly polluting fuels, like coal, that emit high amounts of CO2.  This will only exacerbate and speed up Climate Change.

          The end of cheap oil will obviously have profound effects on our lives, both upon our economy and our social structure.  Lanie will talk more about that when she speaks to you about the role of cultural beliefs in the way we treat the Earth.

The Role of Psychological Denial

         If you accept the seriousness of what I have just been telling you, you must be thinking ‘How on Earth have we gotten ourselves into such a predicament?’  After all, there are very smart people in governments, business, and academia all over the world.  How could they have overlooked this situation?  Why did they not start planning for these contingencies long ago?

         I would like to take a few moments to explore these questions because I think that they are important in understanding what we are up against when we try to change people’s attitudes.

         Three weeks ago (3/7/07), there was a public meeting in New Orleans, called by city officials to discuss plans for the reconstruction of the city after the devastation of Katrina.

         After discussing such critical matters as where a new baseball stadium would be constructed and the repair of an historical fort, a woman stood up and demanded to know why strengthening New Orleans’ levies was not included in the plans.  A city official replied that, “It was an oversight, and would be corrected in the revised plan.”

         How would you account for such an “oversight” as forgetting the levies?  There is an explanation for this.  It is called Denial.

         Psychological Denial is a defense mechanism, often put into use when a person is faced with a fact that is too painful to accept, and rejects it instead, despite what may be overwhelming evidence.

 I believe that not only individuals but, entire cultures can go into a state of denial when faced with a situation, which, if taken seriously, would force them to reevaluate their entire lifestyle and change it.

         I believe that is the situation our culture is facing right now with respect to the end of Oil and Climate Change.

          Polls show that it is only recently that a majority of the American people has accepted the reality of Global Climate Change.  This has happened only after: a lot of strange weather, many showings of “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the recent well-publicized report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states unequivocally that climate change is a reality and that Man has had a central role in bringing it about.

         In order to convince the Doubting Thomases, we need to just keep chipping away, and not get discouraged.  Eventually, their defenses will break down, and they will admit reality.  Of course that long delay may put our entire society in a position from which it cannot extricate itself.

( Joshua Walters comes in, plays “Swimming in D’ Nile” on his guitar, & leads the audience in the refrain)

         The good news is that, we in Sandpoint do not have to wait for our government and most of the country to catch up with our understanding of this situation.  We can start planning right now.  With the help of local groups like ClimateCAN, we can work to assess what needs to be done to make our region more self sufficient in the basics, like food, fuel, and transportation, and to persuade our public officials to start planning for the inevitable.

         Yes, we can come together and start to form a true community like the ones that prevailed in small town America little more than a century ago.  A lot of the changes we have to make will be inconvenient and even painful. But Sandpoint at least will have a head start, and we may find some of the changes even to be good, with a renewed emphasis on family, friends, and community.








Ancestors of African Pygmies Separated 60,000 Years Ago


ScienceDaily (Apr. 11, 2009) — All African Pygmies, inhabiting a large territory extending west-to-east along Central Africa, descend from a unique population who lived around 20,000 years ago, according to an international study led by researchers at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. The research concludes that the ancestors of present-day African Pygmies and farmers separated ~60,000 years ago.

Pygmies are characterized by a forest-dwelling hunter-gathering lifestyle and distinctive cultural practices and physical traits (e.g., low stature). Two groups of Pygmy populations live in the African rainforests: the "Western Pygmies" and the "Eastern Pygmies". The common origins of the two groups of Pygmies, separated by thousands of kilometers, have been long debated, and their relationships with neighboring farmers remained obscure.

The researchers, led by Lluis Quintana-Murci, studied the genetic profile of twelve populations of Pygmies and neighboring farmers dispersed over the African continent, using sequence data from non-coding regions of their genomes. Using simulation-based procedures, they determined that the ancestors of Pygmy hunter-gatherers and farming populations started to diverge ~60,000 years ago, coinciding with a period of important human migration both within and outside Africa. Much later, ~20,000 years ago, Western and Eastern Pygmies separated, concurrently with a period of climate change leading to large retreats of the equatorial rainforest into refugia.

The common origin of all Pygmies unmasked in this study led Etienne Patin, one of the leading authors, to conclude that "they have probably inherited their distinctive shared physical traits, such as low height, from a common ancestor, rather than by convergent adaptation to the rainforest". However, complete genome-wide profiles of these populations are now needed, both to characterize more precisely their demographic history and to identify genes involved in the adaptation of these populations with different lifestyles to their specific ecological habitats.


Journal Reference:

  1. Patin et al. Inferring the Demographic History of African Farmers and Pygmy Hunter-Gatherers Using a Multilocus Resequencing Data SetPLoS Genetics, 2009; 5 (4): e1000448 DOI:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000448

The Empire Strikes Back


                                    “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

                  How Agribusiness Treats Scientists Who Question GE Safety

                                             by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.


Doctor Pusztai’s Potatoes

     My Phone was ringing off the hook.  When I breathlessly reached it, I found my neighbor, Dr. Charles Benbrook on the other end.  “I have a house guest who I think you might want to meet” he said.  “It’s Dr. Arpad Pusztai. We are having a get-together tonight at my house.  Do you want to come?”

Did I want to come?  Is the Pope Catholic? Do cows give milk?  I had been reading about Pusztai for months in preparing for a lecture I was about to give on Genetic Engineering.  The name Arpad Pusztai (pronounced poos-tee) is not exactly a household word, but in some rarified circles he has rock star status.  He lives in Scotland.  What on Earth was he doing in the little town of Sandpoint, Idaho? I had better begin at the beginning.

Genetic Engineering(GE) is the science of taking genes from one organism and inserting them in the cells of another, thus making novel combinations of genes that never would have appeared in the normal course of Evolution.  e.g. When a gene for producing the pesticide Bt is inserted into corn, every cell in the corn plant becomes a miniature insecticide factory.

Right from the beginning, there has been controversy about the nature of these new combinations, dubbed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their possible effects. Proponents of GE, which include Agribusiness, many Molecular Biologists (scientists who do GE), and US government agencies, argue that it will bring great benefits and is safe because GMOs are essentially the same as naturally-occurring organisms.  Its opponents disagree, both as to the so-called “normal” nature of GMOs and as to their possible effects.

The question arises, how can we determine if GMOs, are safe to use as food and to let into our environment? One obvious way is to do scientifically controlled experiments on their safety.  But because of the official government attitude that GMOs are a priori “substantially the same” as natural organisms, relatively little research into that question has been done.

In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, who worked in the Rowett Institute in Edinborough, Scotland, received the first grant in the United Kingdom to examine the effects of GMO food on animals.  Dr. Pusztai, who fled his native Hungary during the anticommunist uprisings of the 1950s, is a biochemist, who specializes in nutritional studies.  He has written almost 300 scientific papers and has an international reputation.  He was thrilled to get the grant.  He did not know that it was going to destroy his scientific career.

Dr Pusztai studied rats fed GMO potatoes, in which a gene from the Snowdrop plant was inserted.  That gene produces a Lectin.  That is a chemical that helps protect plants from insect pests.  He thought that it was going to be a straightforward study that would support the conventional scientific wisdom that GMO plants were just like ordinary plants.  He found instead that the presence of the gene resulted in stunted organ growth and produced immune system problems in the rats.

He sent off a paper to one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world, an English  journal, The Lancet.  It was reviewed and accepted.  That was his first mistake.  The second one was when he was interviewed on BBC national television about his discovery.  The Head of the Rowett Institute called Dr Pusztai and congratulated him on his presentation.

Three days later, the roof fell in.  He was locked out of his laboratory and subsequently fired. His wife and co-author also lost her job at the institute, and the wrath of the scientific establishment came down on his head.  Letters came pouring into The Lancet, criticizing his paper and The Lancet for having accepted it.  They ranged from charges that his controls were inadequate, his interpretation of his data incorrect, to insinuations that he had totally botched the experiment by mistakenly putting an entirely different, toxic chemical into the potatoes.  The Editor of The Lancet, to his credit, vigorously defended the scientific value of Dr Pusztai’s paper.

After weeks  and months of such a bombardment, Dr Pusztai and his wife decided to take a vacation to get away from all the stress.  That was mistake number three, and this is when the story really gets scary.  While he was away, his home got broken into, and guess what was taken – his research data books!  I wonder how much they would bring at a pawn shop?  At about the same time his former lab at the Rowett Institute was also broken into.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came when rumors were spread that, yes, Dr. Pusztai had been an eminent scientist, but that now he is old and suffers from dementia.  He had become addled.

Back to that evening at Dr. Benbrook’s house on Upper Pack River Road.  Chuck Benbrook runs an internet information service, called Ag BioTech InfoNet.  It is devoted to GE impacts and applications to agriculture, especially pesticides.  Dr Benbrook is an agricultural economist, who formerly worked in Washington D.C. as Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture .  He met Dr Pusztai at a conference in Paris, and invited him to the US where he had arranged a speaking tour for him.

I spent over three hours dinning and talking with Dr. Pusztai.  I found him to be charming, highly intelligent, and surprisingly unbitter about what had happened to him.  If he is demented, maybe we should all have Alzheimer’s.  He was as sharp as a tack.


The Mexican Maze

     University of California at Berkeley (U C Berkeley) graduate student David Quist went down to Oaxaca, Mexico, to show farmers how to test seeds for GMOs.  Oaxaca is known as the birthplace of Corn, and its ancestor plant, Teosinte, still exists there.  It was feared that genes from GM corn (or maize as it is properly known), might, by way of its airborne pollen, get into Teosinte and the form of maize farmed there called Criolla, and turn them into “superweeds.”  These are wild forms of domestic plants, that because they have been genetically transformed, with let’s say built-in pesticide-producing capabilities, can successfully compete with their agricultural relatives and crowd them out.  For this reason, and because transgenic (GE) crops are considered a particular threat to biodiversity, the Mexican government had declared Oaxaca a GMO-free zone.

Quist needed controls to show the farmers what both positive and negative results looked like. For the positives, he brought along store-bought corn from the US, where at least 40 % of the crop is now GMO.  He used native Mexican Criolla for the negatives.  But, something was wrong.  He kept getting positive signals from the Criolla.

Quist took samples of the Criolla back to Berkeley where he and his major professor, Dr Ignacio Chapela of the Department of Environmental Science, decided to do more detailed studies.  They came up with two major findings: (1) Much of the Criolla had a Cauliflower Mosaic Virus(CMV) gene in it.  CMV is used by Molecular Geneticists as a Promoter, typically used to “turn on” or activate inserted foreign genes; and (2) There was other foreign genetic material in these plants, and (3) most importantly, it had moved around in the Criolla DNA.  Genes are not supposed to do this.  They are supposed to sit tight where they are put.  If they move around, they could have different, unexpected effects.

Chapela and Quist submitted their findings to Nature, perhaps the most respected and tough-to-get-into journal in the world.  Their paper underwent four rigorous peer-reviews in eight months, was accepted and published.


The Death Star

     The proponents of GMO’s insist that GE is a safe, predictable, and exact science.  They give the impression that they know and can control where each inserted gene goes in the genome, and how it is expressed.  They do not talk much about the possibility that these genes could be passed to other plants.

This paper challenged all of those assumptions, and the reaction was not slow in coming.  Several Letters to the Editor were sent to Nature by both present and former graduate students and others who had connections with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, across the campus at U C Berkeley.

Plant and Microbial Biology had recently signed a contract with bioengineering giant, Syngenta, for which they received twenty five million dollars.  In turn, they agreed to do research for Syngenta and to put Syngenta employees on their Board of Directors.  Even in these days of megabucks, this is a lot of money for one department.  Quist and Chapela had been among a lot of people at the University who had opposed the deal, concerned that it would encourage research that favored genetic engineering and curtail  studies that did not.  We shall see how this plays out.

The letters were unusual for a scientific publication.  There were the usual challenges about possible errors in: techniques, controls, statistics, and interpretations.  However, there were in addition,  ad hominem arguments, accusing Quist and Chapela of allowing their political convictions to sway their research conclusions. There were also allegations that they did not have appropriate scientific backgrounds to understand the intricacies of GE.

Nature ran an editorial that for the first time in 133 years of publication, rescinded support for a paper which however they did not ask to be withdrawn.  In addition, in an unusual move, Nature asked Quist and Chapela to retest their samples using a different technique, and gave them a scant four weeks in which to do it.  They actually accomplished this, and confirmed their original results.

AgBioWorld Foundation, a pro-biotech web site run by Tuskegee scientist C.S. Prakash, was a center for criticism of Quist and Chapela.  It posted many emails critical of them, and curiously enough, 60 of the emails seemed to come from two persons, Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek.  This caught the eye of an enterprising columnist, Jonathan Matthews, from the British publication, The Ecologist, who succeeded in tracing the emails to the Bivings Group, a Washington PR firm. One of Bivings’ largest customers is another bioengineering giant, Monsanto.  Bivings specializes in ‘Internet Advocacy’ campaigns and ‘Viral Marketing’.  In other words, Bivings floods internet postings and chat groups with anonymous or bogus correspondents, in an attempt to influence opinions favorable to their clients.

Matthews discovered that neither Murphy nor Smetacek are real people. He also revealed that AgBioTech was linked to Bivings on the internet.

GMOs have become a multibillion dollar business, very important to the AgBioTech industry and to the governments of the United Kingdom and the U.S., which support these businesses. This industry has many allies in the molecular biology field, whose prestige, research money, and very jobs depend on the public’s perception that GE is a good thing.  These institutions  will go to great lengths to protect their investment, and they will oppose anyone who tends to cast doubt on the worth and safety of their discoveries.  And, they do not always play fair.

An analysis of these circumstances shows a clear pattern of strategy. Attack the dissenters’ science and methodology through letters to the editor in scientific journals, internet web sites, and press releases from scientific organizations, controlled or influenced by the judicious use of industry money.  In this way, divert the argument away from biological conclusions and toward experimental techniques.  Make personal attacks, either upon the investigators integrity or competence, or better yet, both.  Finally, attempt to destroy their careers, thus preventing them from doing further research along these lines, and as a warning to other scientists that research into the safety of GMO’s will not be helpful to their careers.

I will bring you up to date about Drs. Chapela and Pusztai.  Quist and Chapela’s results have been confirmed by several other investigators. Dr. Chapela later came up for tenure at Berkeley.  He was supported both by his own department and by the unanimous vote of the university tenure committee.  In an unprecedented move, he was denied tenure by the Chancellor.  He will have to leave the University.  Protests were organized and letters circulated by students and faculty, to no avail.

As for Arpad Pusztai, veterans of the Hungarian uprising are not creampuffs.  They are survivors.  Dr. Pusztai started an organization with a web site, devoted to telling about the other, darker side of GE.


For more information on GEs and GMOs, we refer you to Dr. Fischman’s first article, “The Dark Side of Genetic Engineering,” which appeared in The Reader, vol. 2, No. 1, Jan. 6. 2005., and is posted on the web site, Ancient Pathways To A Sustainable Future, or



The Number of Wolves Needed for Survival



There has been a swirl of recent events, which threatens the very survival of wolves in the northern Rockies. First, there was the delisting of wolves from the ESA, then the declaration by IDF&G that there will be no kill quota in most of the state during the upcoming wolf hunt, and IDF&G's target of killing 60 out of the estimated 80 wolves in the Lolo region of the Clearwater NF, for allegedly lowering the numbers of elk there. 

Right from the beginning of wolf reintroduction, there has been controversy over the numbers of wolves that would indicate that they were biologically and genetically recovered. Much of the numbers thrown around were quite frankly politically derived and not scientific.

The following article is as far as I know, the first serious attempt by a reporter to examine this issue in an objective way. For that reason, it is well worth reading, if only to compare it with the nonsensical and often irrational opinions that have appeared in much of the western states media.

Ken Fischman



Scientists debate ‘magic number’ of wolves needed for species' survival


By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian | Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:00 am |


Conservation groups and the federal government continue to disagree how many gray wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies to ensure the species’ survival. 

One of the biggest arguments left unresolved by last year's wolf lawsuit was the most obvious: How many wolves are enough?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the gray wolf off the endangered species list in 2009, with the caveat that at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs endure in each of the three states in the northern Rocky Mountain population (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming).

Recent surveys found at least 1,700 wolves in that area – more than enough to justify delisting.

But a coalition of environmental groups sued the government, claiming those numbers were wrong. To survive and thrive, they argued, the population needed at least 2,000 and preferably 5,000 wolves.

FWS biologists said they used the best available science to pick their number. Coalition members cited the well-established rules of conservation biology to justify their threshold. While the scientists dueled, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy decided the case on a technicality and Congress reversed him with a budget rider. Wolves in the Northern Rockies are now delisted, but almost nobody's happy.


Over the past decade, biologists have sought a "magic number" that would simplify endangered species debates. In 2010, an Australian team led by Lochran Traill of the University of Adelaide published a study declaring 5,000 was the population size required to prevent any species' extinction.

"We don't have the time and resources to attend to finding thresholds for all threatened species," Traill told Science Observer Magazine. "(T)hus the need for a generalization that can be implemented across taxa (classes of animals and plants) to prevent extinction."

But another group of U.S. Forest Service researchers along with American and British professors warn that a simple tool may be a flawed tool. While they agree that an easily understood standard helps persuade judges or members of Congress of the need for action, the 5,000 figure doesn't add up. Their paper will be published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

"It's natural for any policy maker and practitioner to look for ways of simplifying the overwhelming process of endangered species management," said Greg Hayward of the Forest Service's Alaska Region Office. "If that worked, it would be a delightful world to live in. But if you're really going to do anything positive, in terms of turning around the situation for these species, going for that simple rule of thumb isn't going to help."

Both sides use a lot of math to make their points. Traill and company looked at 1,198 species with a computer model that calculated how many of each would be needed for the plant or animal to survive in the long term. In particular, the study looked at how many are needed to ensure a species doesn't in-breed itself into extinction.

That's key because one requirement to getting off the endangered species list is a population big enough to guarantee genetic diversity. Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold relied on that in his argument to Molloy, to show why the wolf should remain a listed species.

"If you're talking about genetics, then there are some basic genetic principles that apply across all species," Honnold said. "It's been documented with every species that's been studied."

Honnold referred to what's called the "50-500 rule" which states you need at least 50 breeding-age females of a species for short-term survival or 500 for the long term. In the case of wolves, there's usually only one breeding female in a pack of four to 10 wolves, so the total population number balloons to 2,000-5,000.


The "magic number opponents" respond that genetics isn't everything. In the case of wolves, where might that 2,000-5,000 figure apply? Do we need a minimum viable population in the three states where wolves were reintroduced back in 1995? Or should the figure be spread across the six-state area now delisted by congressional fiat (adding Utah, Washington and Oregon to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming)? Does it count the Canadian wolves that have relations with American packs along the international border?

"Under the Endangered Species Act, we sort of ignore other segments of populations that are outside the United States," said Hayward's colleague, Steven Beissinger of the University of California-Berkeley. "In the case of the paper we did, one thing we found was, the particular technique people used to come up with this minimum number was very context-specific."

In other words, each animal needs its own formula. Passenger pigeons had different lifespans and breeding rates than wolves. They could fly across continents at will, while wolves may be stymied by freeways. Passenger pigeons were, in fact, the most abundant land bird in the continental United States – 3 billion to 5 billion individuals – before the population crashed between 1870 and 1890. [ note: Here I disagree with the reporter. The passenger pigeon population did not crash. It was deliberately exterminated, using the most atrocious means imaginable.]

Science rarely gets to be just science. Lots of scientific reasons justify the wolf's presence on the landscape: It reduces elk populations, which in turn improves the plant communities along streams, which brings back songbirds and beavers.

But reduced elk numbers aggravate a hunting community that's invested millions of dollars to improve elk habitat. Wolves also have proved a poster target for politicians who want to leash the Endangered Species Act.

Natural Resources Defense Council staff scientist Sylvia Fallon said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew it would face public resistance if it proposed reintroducing lots of wolves, so it picked a deliberately low 150-per-state figure to get the reintroduction in play.

"They (FWS biologists) say they came up with that number in consultation with scientists, but they never said who they were," Fallon said. "It was some guesswork factoring in social and political considerations at the time, what would be acceptable to the states and the public."

FWS attorneys rejected that claim in their court briefs, but they never got to have the argument in Molloy's courtroom. Without ever discussing what an appropriate number should be, the judge only said the federal government illegally used state boundaries to divide a natural population.


Beissinger suggested a better target in the search for the elusive magic number. Instead of a unified field theory of how many of a species is needed to survive, we humans should settle on what risk factor we're willing to work with, he said.

"In my profession, we don't have a single standard that's been set for what degree of risk we're willing to accept for a species to go extinct," he said. "I could make a calculation for a species and say nine times out of 10, it would be viable there, for 50 years. Would that be good enough, or would you want a 95 percent chance, or an 80 percent chance? But it's too naive to use just measures of population size and come up with some rule of thumb whether a population is safe or not."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at