bottom of the barrel

The more I’ve learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their dangers, the more convinced I am that their prime promoter and beneficiary – Monsanto – has got to be reckoned one of the most recklessly, fiendishly destructive entities on the face of the earth.

I read Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith, shortly after it came out, along with a couple of other shorter books on the subject. I’d already had a great deal of skepticism on the subject from my understanding of how thoroughly interdependent are all phenomena and how cataclysmically powerful and dangerous human manipulation of the natural world can be (cf. nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; a great many pharmaceuticals; pollutants of all kinds). The argument that genetic engineering is just another form of what nature itself has done all along has never washed with me: nature is simply not capable of forcing genetic material from a salmon into tomato DNA. (Or spider into goat, jellyfish into pig, human into corn and rice, hepatitis into corn…)

But as a non-scientist, the study of scientific papers takes me a great deal of time. It’s not very cost-efficient, as it were, and furthermore – at least in the case of real “science” science as opposed to social “science” – I simply lack a deep enough background to feel comfortable, much of the time at least, forming fairly certain conclusions. (What I am capable of doing, as is anyone with the interest, is asking the larger philosophical questions about scientific paradigms of one sort or the other. And querying certain more general assumptions, aspects of design and methodology, and the basic health and integrity of scientific culture today.)

Taking all of this into account, my judgment has been that GMOs have already been shown unsafe in at least several important respects to both humans and other species, along with the earth as a whole, with much more evidence of further danger likely to come over time. Leaving all this aside, it’s been incomprehensible to me how the US still doesn’t have GMO labelling laws in place, given the newness of this technology, with all of its long-term unknowns.

But gradually, also, I have been forced to conclude that the Monsanto Corporation is more-or-less at the bottom of the barrel. They have already given us Agent Orange and DDT, and for decades now have been producing more and more of our food, promising complete safety in their technology, yet exercising all kinds of veto power over research into this (see the 2009 Scientific American editorial reprinted here).

There is a wealth of important information on GMO health risks here (see in particular the eye-opening articles under the headings “GMO Education” and “Fraud.”)

According to the ETC Group, Monsanto owns 23% of the global proprietary seed market, far and away the largest share (DuPont is second with 15%; Syngenta, another chemicals company, is third with 9%) – the article is here).

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our government believes Monsanto’s assurances every time, despite a mountain of evidence of serious health risk and ecological danger in this technology.

I can’t think of any issue more important than the very integrity of our food. A good starting point to understanding what is at stake is this FAQ page.

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climate change: an elemental view

Brendan Kelly, an acupuncturist and herbalist, also writes on Chinese medicine and is completing a book on climate change from this perspective. His approach demonstrates how necessary an elemental/energetic view is in confronting the multi-faceted challenges we face.

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Our culture looks to science-technology to solve more-or-less everything, but the very expectations and attitudes we bring to problem-solving can also contribute to the mess. What Chinese medicine brings is an ancient and deep way of seeing, one which recognizes complete interdependence at all levels of our experience, inner and outer. So normally we think: climate, ah, “outer,” and ask technology to fix all such “external” problems. Isolate something we can improve, and pretty much ignore everything else.

The trouble is that this “everything else” is always, inherently, inseparable from what we’ve extracted from it, and there’s nothing we can do about that. So solving deep-rooted problems means solving them, well, deep-rootedly, and with big vision.

Western medicine, too, has a strong reductionist tendency. It thinks in terms of disease – analyzing down to symptoms deemed treatable (often succeeding in doing so very powerfully). Chinese medicine on the other hand always sees through the lens of health, health as an ever-fluctuating harmony subject to various kinds of imbalance. The body has an innate kind of intelligence, and so do ecosystems. They are always seeking balance, and our intentions and actions can either help or hinder this process.

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So generally speaking Western medicine treats conditions discretely, whereas the Chinese approach is to look for the deeper level of energetic or elemental imbalance which is the true origin. It thus is always relating to causes and conditions as well as symptoms, and treating in such a way as to avoid the creation of further imbalances in the future (the “side effects” that pretty much inherently bedevil Western-style pharmacology).

Brendan’s approach in this article is to look at climate change as a symptom of our collective body in the same way he looks at symptoms of the individual body in the clinic. One of the things he sees, on multiple levels, is heightened yang energy and a depletion of yin. We are overheated internally – individually and collectively – and now our earth too is quite literally overheating.

We value speed, power, novelty, and frenetic activity. We devalue simplicity, stillness, nourishment, contemplation and openness. Our minds and bodies are frantically multitasking and all the media we are immersed in has made it much harder to contact space in our lives.

In Chinese thought when a situation is out of balance too far and for too long there comes a point when it begins to right itself, one way or another. Our choice is whether that way will be directed by us, or imposed upon us.

The aspect here that interests me the most is the understanding that in attempting to reverse our course we cannot rely on the same basic energetic approach that got us here in the first place. We haven’t learned this lesson, however. We still think cleverer technology – one magic bullet after another – can do it all for us, that we won’t have to change our basic orientation to the physical world, the elements, ourselves, each other. But we will. Among other things, we’re really, truly, going to have to learn how to sloooooow … dowwwnnnn…

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what health care + unlimited profit cannot help but create

There has been a flurry of good books recently on the state of psychiatry, more specifically on the proliferation of “syndromes” over the past several decades, and the vast increases in people being prescribed drugs for these – including ever larger numbers of children. Marcia Angell had two excellent pieces in The New York Review of Books a year or so ago: “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” and “The Illusions of Psychiatry”. These reviewed the following: Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry – A Doctor’s Revelations about a Profession in Crisis, by Daniel Carlat; Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker; and The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, by Irving Kirsch.

Now comes one of the single best summations of what is terribly wrong with our current system of health: an article in The Guardian by psychiatrist Ben Goldacre called “The Drugs Don’t Work: A Modern Medical Scandal.” It’s long but very worth reading in full.

What Goldacre’s piece is so good at is making clear just how corrupt the process is by which new drugs become approved for sale. For example, most people are not aware that negative test results simply don’t need to be published, and rarely are. Goldacre begins with an experience he’d had prescribing the antidepressant Reboxetine. He’d read the published studies (the results of the trials were “overwhelmingly positive”), talked it over with his patient, and they went ahead. However, two years ago a much bigger picture emerged when researchers were able to locate and collect all the data on this particular drug. It turns out that out of seven trials comparing it to a placebo, only one of these showed a positive result. And this, of course, was published. The other six trials, making use of nearly 10 times the number of patients, showed the drug worked no better than a sugar pill.

These were never published.

The story is the same with studies comparing Reboxetine to other antidepressants. And it’s the same with studies on side effects.

Here is Goldacre’s summary of the current state of affairs:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.

In their 40 years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all.

Goldacre includes a disturbing example of a dangerous drug (Rosiglitazone) remaining on the market for years because the system is so flawed. The trouble is: nothing changes in this regard. There has been a record number of fines imposed upon the pharmaceuticals in recent years but even though the amounts seem high to us, they represent a non-constraining fraction of annual profits. So there is simply no incentive to be safer; every incentive to cut corners, spin results, and find new “markets”…