Thursday, August 20, 2015

What's Going Wrong with the Genetically Modified Food "Debate"

The whole GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) debate is a farce. We keep pretending that GMO's are either bad or good. But it's an umbrella term. So why the hell don't we talk specifics? GM corn is not GM soy.

So when scientists are talking to us about how safe GMO's are, we're hearing that ALL GMO's are safe and that science is infallible. When we hear that we're safe, we're only talking about our health. What effect do they have on the environment? High intensity single crop farming has an effect on the environment whereas a more natural and less damaging approach is to rotate your crops (you grow corn one year, tomatoes another year etc.).

What happens if GM corn is found to have adverse effects on our health? This has happened before.

When vitamin deficiencies were linked to certain diseases, such as scurvy, the thought was to essentially carpet bomb your system with vitamins. It was then discovered that excess levels of vitamin-A and vitamin-E increase the likelihood of particular types of cancer.

There's loads of shouting about Monsanto. Who incidentally, are the only ones really benefiting from the GMO debate. While people are calling each other Monsanto shills and paranoid hippies, no one is talking about Monsanto's practises around patents. Farmers can not save the seeds from a Monsanto crop for replanting the following year. Farmers who break this rule are sued. This is where it gets interesting though:

Corn is a really interesting case because cross pollination happens really easily. At the top of each corn plant is a tassel which contains the pollen. Those stringy bits at the end of your corn cob receive the pollen. Each of those strings corresponds to a kernel and the nature of that kernel is dictated by the pollen that string receives. A bit of a wind is all that is needed. (Which is why you can get loads of different types of corn on a single kernel i.e. black and white corn on a single cob is quite ornate).

Imagine you have two farms side by side who are growing corn. One farm is using Monsanto's patented corn. The other isn't and relies on being able to save seed and grow it the following year. Monsanto can sue (it doesn't matter if they win or not because the nuisance is already enough to convince a farmer to pay for their seed) the farmer who doesn't use Monsanto seed because the saved seed contains Monsanto's patented seed by virtue of corn's pollination method.

Add to all of this the fact that we aren't privy to the information needed to make informed decisions. Imagine you go and do your research on GMO soy and decide that you prefer not to expose yourself to it. You can pay a premium (small runs, and possibly lower density growing rather than higher expense) for GMO free foods, or avoid anything with soy altogether.

One of the main reasons capitalism simply doesn't work is that we're not given the information needed to be able to make decisions around the products that we buy. Talk to any right winger about this and they'll do that whole "expense" thing that always has me imagining a infomercial actor failing at everyday tasks. i.e. "it'll cost soooo much money and that'll be passed onto the consumer. And they'll bring up out of context examples such as "may contain traces of peanuts" as if traces of GMO's is instant death i.e. the reason so many products have that particular warning is that peanuts (a legume) and nuts may have serious immediate consequences in small doses so any factory line processing different foods, only some of which contain nuts or peanuts, contaminates all other foods processed on that line.

We could insist on a supply line indication. i.e. default all ingredients that are likely to be GMO to having a GMO status, marked in the ingredients (it's not a branding, it's informing), and if the supply line can be confirmed i.e. the farmers mark their crops, and that information is sent down the line. Trace amounts could be ignored (no serious immediate consequences for trace amounts).

The real pity about all of this is that it could create a market differentiation. The reason I wasn't keen on NZ adopting GMO crops wasn't so much that I had any real objection to it, but that it was an opportunity to further the clean green image and create new markets by exporting GMO free foods. Smaller quantities sure, but a branding that could bring in higher prices.

Meanwhile, due to dairy intensification, our clean green image has fallen by the wayside while our branding seems to be all about short hairy footed people.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Privacy in Education in a Networked Age or: How I Learned to Live with the Bomb but Accept that it Might not be to Everyone's Taste

It's here. The information highway. Everything we do on the Internet is now logged and tracked. That pretty Gmail interface, with it's unobtrusive targeted text advertising, must at some point scan the contents of your emails in order to pick up words to come up with that targeting.

Expand that out to ANYWHERE that there's targeted advertising. All of that content is scanned for your convenience. What do we get for it? In the case of Gmail, I get spam filtering that I would never be able to accomplish on my own. I am not the customer. I am the product. Even if I turn off advertising via an adblocker, that scanning is still going on. That information is still going somewhere. My movements are known. As scary as that is, I have agreed to those terms.

But what if you're not old enough, and (or) don't have the capacity, to be able to make informed decisions about privacy? Hell... who are those terms and conditions really written for? And who has the time to read them?

Unfortunately schools might not be our friends here.

While they're scrambling to find real benefits of various services (blogging for engagement in writing through "authentic audience" and giving monitored free rein gives "authentic voice"), privacy concerns can fall by the wayside in a "Just click that checkbox there and that button there and we're up and running!".

But worse than that, as ownership models change to 1:1 where the devices may be taken home as opposed to school owned held on school premises assets, privacy may be invaded by the schools themselves.

Anything that allows a teacher to view what's going on on a student's machine in the classroom without looking over their shoulder is something that can also view what's happening on that machine outside of the classroom.

Do teachers have a right to know what's happening on a student owned (or rather, owned by their parents) device in places where they have an expectation of privacy? In the relative safety of their own homes or in their bedrooms for example. Isn't this equivalent to having a camera, controlled by the teacher/school, pointed at their monitor at all times?

Is big brother really just the giant faceless corporations where our data is stored "in the cloud", subjected to a whole tangle of jurisdictions and various laws?

Even when that jurisdiction is known, the big champions of privacy, MEGA.co.nz, are able to, at the very least scan the individual file names of the information stored there. There's more than enough to be concerned about.

Add to this concerns about the right to be forgotten. In 2006, Argentina and the EU established laws around "the right to be forgotten" which requires search engines to remove indexes to certain information. That information is not gone. It's just not searchable. The BBC has now started publishing a list of their links that have been "forgotten" due to some silly practises around it.

How is this relevant in an education discussion? Imagine you've grown up in a world that's full of computers. Cellphones just always were (except when they weren't - when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Learning is done on computers (in the same way that my generation couldn't imagine learning without paper. Boy did that change teaching). That time that you over shared something when you were 12 and funny things were happening to you...

You could, if you happen to live in the EU or Argentina, make a request for Google to remove that content from their searches. Hell, you could even chose to "delete" that content from a service.

Wait a minute though... when you delete that content, is it really deleted?

Facebook have time and again tried changing their terms and conditions to allow them to use any "IP content" put on there, non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license, in perpetuity. It's only through the efforts of a few people who actually read those terms and conditions, and kick up a fuss about it, that has made them relent and grants them those rights (except the "in perpetuity") until you delete the content (except when that content has been "shared with others and they have not deleted it").

What about other services? Facebook's got a lot of users and thus a lot of eyes keeping track of what they're doing. What happens for services where there isn't that critical mass of people limiting the power these companies grant themselves? Can that content be removed? Shouldn't children have a "right to be forgotten" as my, and earlier, generations did? Hell, all I needed to do was change schools. Side note: This, incidentally, was the only way I was given permission to write in pen. I never did earn my "pen license" in primary school.

Finally, we get to the elephant in the room: Imagine kids were given the option to opt out. Schools didn't essentially force a student to sign up to a service without understanding the privacy issues they might face if they did sign up. If this is the way that teaching is now done, and there's a student who refuses to sign up to it... Would that be like a student refusing to look at a whiteboard due to the fumes of whiteboard markers or a blackboard due the dust? Is their concern over their own safety less important than a teacher's/school's choice in media of teaching?

I offer absolutely no answers here... It's one of those amazingly difficult problems, which at conferences seem to be dominated by "Faceless Corporation" comments. In a room full of educators, no one wants to hear "Who's going to protect the children from you?". Who is asking the REALLY tough questions?

That one I do have an answer to...

In 2011, the NZ Labour Party made a campaign promise to invest $75,000,000 in establishing 1:1 programmes encompassing 31,000 students (A pilot scheme). These questions weren't being asked then and still aren't being asked now.