Category Archives: technology
Some cynics write off citizen action including petitions and sign-carrying protestors. They don’t believe such small efforts can make any big difference. But the more than 600,000 people of Dutch city Rotterdam disagree. Their efforts, which began with a petition, have led to a “green initiative” in their city including the banning of Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship product.
The petition campaign was called “Non-toxic Sidewalks for Our Children.” With support from that country’s Green Party, concerned citizens were able to make a significant change for their city and their future.
As we know, Roundup (glyphosate) is a dangerous pesticide that is used all over the world. Though its maker, Monsanto, would have you believe there’s nothing to be afraid of, research says differently. As a matter of fact, glyphosate has been connected to numerous health problems including respiratory distress, cellular damage, and even cancer. Check out this article which outlines just 7 nasty effects of pesticides.
“It is bad stuff and I’m glad we’re giving it up,” says Emile Cammeraat, Green party leader in the council. “The producer Monsanto also provides genetically engineered seeds, Monsanto’s own plants are the only thing RoundUp doesn’t kill. In such a business district as you want to be, no Roundup is simply necessary, as there are organic alternatives.” (Translated by Fritz Kreiss)
Global consumers are getting wise to the dangers of Roundup and the GMO seeds designed to resist it. They don’t want Monsanto and other GMO-seed giants taking over the global food supply and have started grassroots resistance movements around the world. The problem lies in getting enough people to take actual action against the seed giants and local, state, and federal lawmakers who support them in one way or another.
Collectively, the people of Rotterdam were able to make their voices heard, essentially eliminating glyphosate from their local environment. There’s no reason similar cities in other areas of the world couldn’t do the very same thing.
Comically, the U.S. government has recently decided to increase the allowable amount of glyphosate in U.S. food crops, just as another place bans the substance. The new rule allowing for even greater use of this damaging ingredient would take existing limits on glyphosate and dwarf them with new, higher ones. These limits would truly only work to benefit the interests of one, and it’s not the American people, but Monsanto – the giant corporation who is making millions off of genetically modified crops and the destruction of agriculture and human health.
In addition to the Roundup ban, Rotterdam’s green initiative will provide new parks and play areas, and even get the city involved in planting fruit trees. There will be more flowers and environments to support bees and wildlife, and more places for the urbanites to take in nature without fear of contamination by Monsanto’s evil poster child
Digital carjackers met with Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg to demonstrate how they can program a Ford Escape’s computer systems and crash it pretty much by pushing a button. On Wednesday, Forbes posted the video to YouTube, and you’re probably going to want to watch it, so press that button.
Warning: For some reason Andy Greenberg thinks we want to know that he flew out to meet these dudes on an an airplane. I’ve seen enough airports in my life. If you have too, I advise you to skip ahead to about the 0.58 mark where we actually meet digital carjackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek.
The trio plus an unseen camera person test the 3,500 pound Ford Escape in the weedy parking lot of a South Bend, Indiana strip mall.
With Greenberg at the wheel, the digital carjackers mess with the reporter’s mind by making his dashboard show more gas in the car than he actually has or by making his speedometer read 199 miles per hour.
The scariest stunt involves making the brakes fail with a melodramatic bellow — fortunately at 5 miles per hour so that nobody is hurt.
There’s much, much more in Greenberg’s article available online as well in the August 12 issue of Forbes.
The takeaway seems to be that bad guys can mess with your car computer just like they can with any other computer. And I don’t see why not.
However, what Greenberg, Miller, and Valasek may — or may not — know is that they have just fueled the flames of a thousand burning candles of conspiracy.
From what I’ve seen of Los Angeles, that kind of death isn’t too unusual.
But some people have speculated that he was killed because of his opposition to what he called the surveillance state.
I have no reason to believe that’s true. Andy Greenberg doesn’t mention Michael Hastings in the video or the online copy of his article.
But YouTube viewers of the videos are not so circumspect. Comment after comment reads: “RIP Michael Hastings” or “Hum… so is this what they did to Hastings when he was assassinated by the government goons?”
A farmer fills his planters with seed corn using a leading Monsanto brand.
Oops. The World Food Prize committee’s got a bit of egg on its face—genetically engineered egg. They just awarded the World Food Prize to three scientists, including one from Syngenta and one from Monsanto, who invented genetic engineering because, they say, the technology increases crop yields and decreases pesticide use. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Monsanto and Syngenta are major sponsors of the World Food Prize, along with a third biotech giant, Dupont Pioneer.)
Monsanto makes the same case on its website, saying, “Since the advent of biotechnology, there have been a number of claims from anti-biotechnology activists that genetically modified (GM) crops don’t increase yields. Some have claimed that GM crops actually have lower yields than non-GM crops… GM crops generally have higher yields due to both breeding and biotechnology.”
Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and director of the Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety, says he first began looking into the matter after he heard a remark made by Paul Collier in 2010. Both Heinemann and Collier, an Oxford economics professor and author of the bestselling book The Bottom Billion, were speaking at a conference in Zurich.
Collier “made the offhand remark during his talk that because Europe has shunned GMOs [genetically modified organisms], it’s lost productivity compared to the US,” Heinemann recalls. “That seemed odd to me. So while he was talking, I went to the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] database and I had a look at yields for corn. And over the short term, from 1995 to 2010, the US and Western Europe were neck and neck, there was no difference at all. So his assertion that lack of GMOs was causing Europe to fall behind didn’t seem true.”
Heinemann attempted to ask Collier for the source of his facts through the conference’s Internet-mediated audience Q&A system, but he never got an answer. He continued poking around for data and stumbled upon what he calls “the textbook example of the problems that come from a low genetic diversity in agriculture” – the 1970 Southern corn leaf blight epidemic.
“Really what happened by 1970 was that upwards of 85 percent of the corn grown in the US was almost genetically identical,” explains Heinemann. “The US is the world’s biggest producer of corn and both geographically and in quantity, so when you cover that much land with a crop of such a low genetic diversity, you’re simply asking for it to fail… In 1970 a previously unknown pathogen hit the US corn crop and the US almost lost the entire crop. It was a major crisis of the day. The only thing that saved the corn crop was that the weather changed in 1971 and that weather change wasn’t as favorable to the pathogen, so it gave farmers and breeders and extra year to swap over the corn germplasm to a variety that wasn’t as vulnerable.”
All told, the epidemic cost an estimated five trillion kilocalories in lost food energy, making it “many times larger than the Irish potato famine,” said Heinemann.
“Now that was in a day where biofuels were not being made from corn. So there was no competition for those food calories… Fast-forward to the drought of 2012. How many food calories were lost because of it? In kilocalories, it’s 89 trillion just from the drought. That’s just from an annual variation due to weather… The U.S. is the biggest producer and exporter of corn.”
When the U.S. corn crop fails, the entire world feels the pain.
Given the stakes, Heinemann decided to look at the productivity and sustainability of the U.S. agricultural system. And when examining sustainability, he means it in a very literal sense: can this system be sustained over time? Is U.S. agriculture resilient or is it highly susceptible to variations in weather, pests or other stressors?
Instead of examining North America alone, he chose to measure it against Western Europe. Therefore, he is able to measure not just whether North American agriculture improved over time, but whether or not it improved more or less than a similar region. Agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic is fairly similar, with the major exception the adoption of GE crops.
Both the U.S. and Canada were early adopters, whereas Western Europe did not adopt GE crops. The study compared crops that are common to both regions: corn and wheat in the U.S. and Western Europe, and canola in Canada and Western Europe. Almost all of the corn and canola grown in North America is genetically modified, whereas no GE wheat is grown in either region studied. Therefore, the study could isolate whether any increases in yields were thanks to genetic engineering or simply due to conventional crop breeding.
Even in genetically engineered plants, most of the genes in the plant come from conventional breeding. Think about the new sheep genetically engineered by scientists in Uruguay to – no joke – glow in the dark. Its DNA contains genes that tell its cells to make wool, hooves, four legs, a head, and everything else that makes it a sheep. Only a few genes – the ones that make the sheep glow in the dark – were inserted via genetic engineering. If the sheep happens to have the best wool for making sweaters or it produces the best milk for making cheese, that’s due to conventional breeding and not genetic engineering.
The same is true for crops. One or more genetically engineered traits can be added to any variety of corn, soybeans, or canola. Most of those crops’ traits come from conventional breeding. If a GE crop does particularly well or particularly poorly, the success or failure could be due to the genes inserted via genetic engineering… or it could be due to all of its other conventionally bred genes.
Heinemann’s group found that between 1985 and 2010, Western Europe has experienced yield gains at a faster rate than North America for all three crops measured. That means that the U.S., which grows mostly GE corn, and Canada, which grows mostly GE canola, are not doing as well as Europe, which grows non-GE corn and canola. The increases in corn yields in the U.S. have remained relatively consistent both before and after the introduction of GE corn. Furthermore, Western Europe is experiencing faster yield gains than America for non-GE wheat.
What does this mean? “There’s no evidence that [GE crops] have given us higher yields,” says Heinemann. “The evidence points exclusively to breeding as the input that has increased yields over time. And there is evidence that it is constraining yields in the North American agroecosystem.” He offers two potential reasons why. First, he says, “By making the germplasm so much narrower, the average yield goes down because the low yields are so low.”
In other words, the lack of biodiversity among major crops today results in bigger losses during bad years.
Companies that make GE crops benefit from a relatively new law, passed in 1994, allowing for much stricter intellectual property rights on seeds. Previously, a company had the rights to sell its seed. A farmer could buy that seed and cross it with other seeds to produce locally adapted varieties. He or she could then save and replant those varieties. Now, the company can patent the genes inside the plant. It doesn’t matter if a farmer breeds Monsanto’s corn with a local variety and produces a brand new type of corn. If the resulting seeds have Monsanto’s patented gene in them, then Monsanto owns them. The farmer cannot save his own seeds.
This means that seed companies now control the amount of biodiversity available to farmers. And the number of varieties they sell has been going down. For example, the study found that in 2005, farmers could choose from nearly 9,000 different varieties of corn. The majority (57 percent) were GE, but farmers still had over 3,000 non-GE varieties to pick from. By 2010, GE options had slightly expanded, but non-GE options plummeted by two thirds. Similar reductions in varieties sold were seen in soybeans and cotton, too. By 2010, only 17 percent of corn varieties, 10 percent of soybean varieties, and 15 percent of cotton varieties available in seed catalogues were non-GE.
But these numbers make the U.S. seed supply look more biodiverse than it actually is. Within all of those thousands of corn varieties sold, one single variety, Reed Yellow Dent, makes up 47 percent of the gene pool used to create hybrid varieties. All in all, corn germplasm comes from just seven founding inbred lines. More than a third come from one of those seven, a line called B73.
With farmers in nearly every state planting such genetically similar corn, farmers experience booms and busts together. Farmers in Mexico, the birthplace of corn, plant a fantastic variety of corn. The plants differ in color, height, ear size, drought tolerance, maturity time, and more. If bad weather shows up late in the season, the early maturing varieties still provided a harvest. If it’s dry, the drought tolerant varieties survive. If a new disease shows up, some of the corn is bound to have some resistance to it whereas other varieties will be more susceptible to it. Biodiversity acts almost like an insurance system.
Planting genetically identical crops results in the opposite. It’s like betting all of your money on one lottery number. And when U.S. corn farmers lose the lottery, they all lose together so the national yield plummets.
Second, Heinemann adds, “Another possibility is that it’s not genetic engineering per se but it’s the innovation policy through which genetic engineering is successful that is causing the U.S. agroecosystem to invest in the wrong things. So the innovation strategy gives signals to the industry to produce things that can be controlled by strict property rights instruments, but these things are not contributing to sustainable agriculture. The problem is that the biotechnologies that the US is invested in are limiting the sustainability and productivity of the agroecosystem.” (Heinemann means “biotechnologies” in a very broad sense, as in any technology humans use in agriculture, even something as simple as using mulch or composting.)
“Western Europe has gone for a different kind of innovation strategy,” he continues. “Because Europe has had to innovate without using genetic engineering,” due to its laws that do not allow GE crops, “it does so in a way that rewards the plants. They’re getting greater yield and using less pesticide to do it. But the way the US is innovating, it’s penalizing all plants whether they are genetically engineered or not.”
Yep, that’s right. In addition to increasing crop yields faster, European nations have also reduced pesticides more than we have.
“The US and US industry have been crowing about the reduction in chemical insecticide use with the introduction of Bt crops [GE crops that produce their own pesticide],” says Heinemann. “And at face value, that’s true. They’ve gone to about 85 percent of the levels that they used in the pre-GE era. But what they don’t tell you is that France went down to 12 percent of its previous levels. France is the fourth biggest exporter of corn in the world, one of the biggest exporters of wheat, and it’s only 11 percent of the size of the U.S.
“So here is a major agroecosystem growing the same things as the US, corn and wheat, and it’s reduced chemical insecticide use to 12% of 1995 levels. This is what a modern agroecosystem can do. What the US has done is invented a way to use comparatively more insecticide.” Comparatively more than what? “More than it should be!” exclaims Heinemann. “It should be down to 12% too!”
Come Thursday, we’ll know whether O’Brien’s background impressed the Naypyitaw government more than the stolid, faceless managers of China Mobile.
A woman waits for customers at a “public call office” in Yangon on May 27, 2012. Just a few million out of Myanmar’s 50-plus million population have mobile phones and access to an as-yet extremely limited system
The biggest and most colorful collection of telecommunications companies assembled in years is waiting for the decision bell to ring in Naypyitaw this week on one of the world’s last untapped mobile phone markets.
Twelve international telecom businesses and consortia are on a government shortlist, out of which only two will be awarded contracts to build networks for potentially more than 50 million new telephone customers.
The decision on Thursday will pave the way to propelling Myanmar into the 21st century, at least in telecommunications terms.
Just a few million out of Myanmar’s 50-plus million population have mobile phones and access to an as-yet extremely limited system.
After years of tightly restricted mobile phone ownership through extortionate prices, the government of President U Thein Sein wants wireless telecommunications to be available to up to 80 percent of the population by 2016.
Some of the world’s biggest telephone network companies and some of the most obscure are on the short list, whittled down from about 90 firms.
They are China Mobile Limited and Vodafone Group in a partnership; Singapore Telecommunications; Bharti Airtel of India; MTN from Dubai; the Irish-owned Digicel Group; KDDI Corporation of Japan; Sumitomo Corporation, also from Japan; Malaysia’s Axiata Group; Telenor of Norway; Millicom International Cellular of Luxembourg; Qatar Telecom; and Vietnam’s Viettel Group.
The world’s two biggest mobile phone service operators, China Mobile and Vodafone, have 1.14 billion subscribers globally between them. They have teamed up to make the most powerful bid.
But probably the most colorful is the joint venture put together by the small Digicel, which operates mostly among the small Caribbean islands, although it is owned by an entrepreneur from Ireland.
Digicel’s joint venture partners in the license bid are Quantum Strategic Partners, owned by American billionaire speculator George Soros, and Myanmar’s Yoma Strategic Holdings, owned by noted Rangoon businessman U Serge Pun.
“The challenge for the winners will be recovering the cost of building and maintaining mobile phone networks in one of Asia’s very poorest countries,” said an industry executive with a large Bangkok-based phone company who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Burmese are just about the lowest paid people in the region and so although the price of SIM cards and phones has become more universally affordable in recent months, the unanswered question is how will these people pay for phone services?”
SIM card prices have plummeted dramatically from US $250 just over a year ago to a mere $1.70 today. But they are not yet widely available. About 350,000 cards were issued in April, many on a lottery basis, and similar numbers will be issued in the coming months.
Can the chosen network franchise holders recoup their investment?
“The opportunity is tremendous, but not without risk,” Nomura Securities’ chief of Asian telecoms Sachin Gupta told Bloomberg. “There are 60 million users potentially, but that needs a lot of network investment.”
Other foreign telecommunications companies are waiting in the wings to offer ancillary services once the network licenses are issued.
Avaya of the US, which specializes in video conferencing and data networking, has teamed up with local firm First Myanmar, which is also in U Serge Pun’s business stable.
“We believe that we are uniquely positioned to offer affordable first-class communications to the people of Myanmar and are looking forward to having the opportunity to do so,” Digicel owner Denis O’Brien told the Irish Independent, which he also owns.
Unlike some of the other bidders which have kept a profile as they quietly lobby behind the scenes to promote their credentials to government ministers and officials, Digicel has pursued a high-profile public image in support of their bid.
The Jamaica-based firm, ranked only 65th in customer size in the global telecoms market, has been sponsoring Myanmar sport, promoting brand awareness among people who don’t yet even have a phone, and surveying sites for transmission aerials across the country.
“The low mobile penetration rate in [Myanmar] presents a significant opportunity for telecoms firms, but the Digicel consortium will face some stiff competition for licenses,” commented the Irish Independent newspaper, pointing out that O’Brien’s telecommunications forays into the Caribbean islands in the past 10 years have made his fortune.
Not bad for someone who started out on his business career selling horse medicines for his father.
The Digicel joint venture is up against the might of the world’s biggest mobile phone service operator, China Mobile, a state-owned enterprise with 97 percent of the colossal Chinese market and over 700 million customers. But perhaps the recent backlash against China’s strong business influence in Myanmar will influence bid decision-making.
Come Thursday, we’ll know whether O’Brien’s background impressed the Naypyitaw government more than the stolid, faceless managers of China Mobile.