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Reading Blog - January 2023
This is my first Reading Blog on the new site. I'm halfway through Anthony Sattin's Nomads and John Andrew Morrow's Finding W.D. Fard, which are thick with fascinating details. The month when I finish those will be sweet. But with only a week left in January, I'm not likely to get it done right now.
Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs (Mark Lynas, 2018)
Found this book around the time that I read Starved for Science. Lynas starts the book with a story about destroying a research field of GMO maize one night in 1999. He once organized Greenpeace UK campaigns to occupy a Monsanto office, destroy research fields, and attempt a kidnapping of the cloned sheep Dolly. Yet later in the book he is touring research farms in Tanzania to promote drought-resistance and pest-resistance. There were a few turning points:
- when he hit Bjørn Lomborg with a pie, and the attention seemed weak in place of arguing on research and merits
- a dive into scientific references on climate change, which led him to notice a scarcity of anti-GMO science
- environmentalist Steward Brand's surprising call to embrace GMOs and nuclear power in Whole Earth Discipline (2009)
The next, more standard journalism segment finds the author traveling to Belgium to meet a researcher and tell their life story. Van Montagu discovered that tumors in plants were caused by bacteria which inject DNA into the nucleus of their cells (finally a chance to recall plasmids from high school bio).
This research found its way to Monsanto. This leads into their story of transforming from soda sweetener to megacorp. Though often associated with their past with Agent Orange and PCBs, their big innovation was the herbicide glyphosate / Roundup and the later development of resistant seeds. With less-toxic chemicals and obsoleting weed-tilling, Monsanto won over farmers, and would claim that it would be carbon-neutral by 2021 [no follow up though?].
GMO fears, along with the double-dip of pesticides and seeds, made the company an easy villain. The backlash included mistaken beliefs, and runaway stories. This is probably what most of us associate with Monsanto: the terminator genes, farmers punished for a few seeds blown in by the wind. Misleading as these stories were, the multiple PR crises likely contributed to Monsanto halting wheat research and getting acquired by Bayer.
After publication of this book, California juries and settlements have picked at whether glyphosate could be carcinogenic. But a court of law is not peer review, so the situation remains murky. Lynas last Tweeted about glyphosate in 2018 and 2020.
Instead of being swayed, activists may see the author as a sellout. That got a rocky start when press would identify him as a Greenpeace co-founder. But even in his early activism, he acknowledges that a day job (tech for a nonprofit) got him labeled as a less serious, "weekend warrior" type. It's less obvious in the text, but I can't help but think that his publicity around nuclear and GMOs in 2011–2013 was a calculated turn toward author / academic-on-TV. He even apologized about the pie incident, though Lomborg continues as a prominent climate denier in books and podcasts 21 years later.
The latest: in November 2022, Lynas helped launch RePlanet (video / RebootFood.org) on "precision fermentation" to cultivate animal-free protein. They are telling governments to shift subsidies and re-wild farmland to help this industry and reduce CO2. I'm not sure if they believe lab-grown products will be on par with meat, milk, and cheese soon? I usually hear info about this industry through the Good Food Institute and Twitter, and so far meat with structure (such as steaks, fish filets, etc.) seems exorbitant and unscalable in the near future.
A Kazakh Teacher's Story: Surviving the Silent Steppe (Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, 2012)
The sequel to the Kazakh nomad autobiography Silent Steppe which I read in summer 2020. This book picks up when the author returned to his home village in the eastern end of Kazakhstan, around the end of WW2. Like other parts of the USSR, his home village was worn down by years of the war economy, with millions of young men away at the front or killed. Shayakhmetov even regrets returning home while still recovering from his injuries, because he is an extra burden for the family.
In the middle of obligatory visits to his extended family, we get a meet-cute where his future wife pops into the house to borrow something. Shayakhmetov describes a mysterious feeling which seems almost a call from fate. Though he always speaks highly and protecting of his family, it's only in the final chapters that he returns to describe family activities and his children's futures.
Much more than Silent Steppe, this covers the author's coping with and outlasting communism. In his new role as a teacher, he's more aware of local politics, makes speeches on Soviet history, and is called to be a Party member. Despite reassurances, he is still rejected for being from a Kulak family. Ashamed and pessimistic for his future, Shayakhmetov even thinks his wife would have done better to marry someone else. Luckily he meets a higher official and petitions for reconsideration.
From the present day he can look back at backwardness of the system, for example there were delegate quotas of men and women from each profession, to the point that an incompetent teacher or shoemaker might be the only candidate. Middle-manager types always appear to be incompetent or deliberately rude. The Russians sort of exploited the Kazakhs' nomadic tradition around supporting guests, and a naivete that officials must be great and wise. Through time in a larger mining town (and a lot of office politics), Shayakhmetov becomes more aware. The death of Stalin allowed for openness about the trauma years, but he views it as the beginning of the end for communism, as people struggle to accept the truth.
Yet there were also a few things lost from those days. Shayakhmetov looks back happily at most of his colleagues and college courses. And before a market economy, there were years where his brother's basic job could keep the whole family afloat, or his wife received excellent healthcare in a smaller town. There used to be a network of buses to the smallest villages, which helped families keep in touch.
Updates to Previous Reads
A video on cassava gene editing mentioned CRISPR, but also (new terms for me) Zinc finger nuclease and TALEN.
There's a folk history that Muslim sailors landed in the Americas before Columbus, via https://newbooksnetwork.com/the-muslims-of-latin-america-and-the-caribbean
This is an interesting podcast episode on the actualities / debunking of food deserts. This breaks food desert locations down into a few categories, and vibes well with a recent experiment in Chicago (Whole Foods closing in Englewood after 6 years). Update 1/26/23: It became a Save-A-Lot.
The Blowback Podcast Season 3 (paid access) is an excellently done retelling of the Korean War. From brutal suppression of the Korean worker councils on Jeju, to US empowering former collaborators from the Japanese occupation, to possible bio-warfare and secret movements of nuclear weapons. I'm thinking to listen to it again for anything that I've missed.
Extended content includes a mention of a Soviet system, the Khabarovsk war crimes trials, after the Tokyo trials' failure to include the biological weapons program from WW2.
This is old news, but Twitter pointed out that Disney's Lightyear is oddly close to The Forever War.