Tag Archives: economics

Do you GMO?

Happy New Year everyone!

During the holidays someone asked me about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and I thought it important to further expound on this. Because my thinking is definitely gray on parts of this, but very strong on two aspects – medicines and labelling of GMO foods!

First, what is a GMO? Well, it is creature or plant or virus, that’s been genetically engineered, i.e. had its DNA modified via direct human intervention affecting both itself and its progeny. But let’s be clear, humans have been modifying other species for as long as agriculture and husbandry has existed – by selecting which variants of a species to save, care for, protect, feed and water, prevent or encourage reproduction; AKA, artificial selection verses ‘natural selection’. Domestic dogs in all their variation are a sub-species of the gray wolf created by humans!

Since 1973, humans have had much greater ability to modify DNA, via direct biotechnology manipulation, including the transplant of genes from totally unrelated species. For example, using a bio-luminance gene from a fish in a bacteria, along with other changes, such that the new bacteria species will glow in the presence of certain toxins; or implanting other genes to allow the bacteria to produce human insulin, etc. The medical research, pharmaceuticals and even industrial resources (e.g. making bio-fuels to replace fossil fuels) enabled by genetic engineering methods have been hugely beneficial to the humans species and show great potential for our environment too. So I am highly supportive of this!

But I’m less supportive of genetic modified crops in food production. No, I do not believe there is any ‘built-in’ risk or safety concern about human consumption of a GMO (if you’re a US resident, then surely you’ve already eaten some, I’m certain; it’s been prevalent since the late 1990s thanks to our highly industrialized food supply). Rather my concerns are about the legalities and commercial aspects, the potential for ecological impacts, and the future risks of specific/multiple modifications.

By US patent law GMOs are patentable; meaning the company awarded the patent will have a minimum of 17 years of exclusive use of it, a.k.a. a legal monopoly. An example might be a company that modifies rice to increase its nutritional value as well as improve yields. There are plenty of examples, including the tomato with a thicker skin that makes it easier to transport, and a squash with enhanced mold resistance. But at least one seed company has taken their monopoly to the extreme, with an internal staff of >75 whose sole purpose is to investigate, threaten or prosecute farmers (or others) who use their herbicide-tolerant GMO seeds or the resulting crop in any fashion other than what the company dictates. The person may not have even signed a licensing agreement with them (the farmer does, and is supposed to require that anyone further down the chain also agrees to the licensing terms). Anyone who handles, processes, purchases, saves seeds to replant, or even has their own nearby non-GMO crop contaminated by GMO pollen is at risk being sued or threated with a lawsuit. Maybe in the future just cooking it ‘wrong’ or eating it will become a violation! This, IMHO, is commercial agriculture gone wrong.

Given the behaviors of the second company, I surely want to know when their GMO is in a product, so that I can boycott it. Correspondingly, if the first company distributed its rice without restrictions in poverty stricken areas or countries, I might decide to purchase more of that company’s products when spending my well-earned dollars. But to know this, I need more information than just is a product (or component) GMO or non-GMO.

And let’s look deeper at that herbicide-tolerant seed. The company is making out really well, selling the seed year after year as well as lots of the specific herbicide to the farmer. The farmer plants the seeds and sprays just that one herbicide to combat weeds (maybe even spraying overall less that they might have in the past). But after a few years, interesting problems could start to arise. Other herbicides might be taken off the market when their owners no longer find them economical. Certain insect pollinators that are necessary for the crop to produce well could be struggling because they no longer have a food source during the remaining 11 months of the year. Then without certain weeds in the fields (nor in the neighboring areas that are impacted too by the herbicide applications), the migrating birds and butterflies no longer have a food supply either and stop coming. Or, perhaps certain weeds start to develop their own resistance to the herbicide (like the corn has)… What now is the farmer to do? Spray more, with what?!  These are possible unintended commercial and ecological effects. We know monocultures are bad for resilience and sustainability. GMO crops seem perfected intended to create even larger use of monocultures in our food supply. Small farmers (and consumers who like variety) beware.

But as the field of synthetic biology and especially the iGEM contests illustrate, this won’t be always as simple as just a couple of genetic modifications at a time. The technology holds huge potential; both in what GMOs can do positively, but as well as for massive abuse. What happens if a peanut gene is used in wheat (just to make up an example) and some people with deadly peanut allergies consume that wheat… even if only a very small percentage is affected!?  How can these people know that this particular GMO is bad for them, but others are fine?

It’s a good thing that in the US GMOs are tested against known allergens prior to be authorized for consumption or any “open” planting/testing. But what I want to see is a label that indicates the specific modification(s) made. It can just be a simple number, much like the existing PLU 5-digit numbers used for fresh produce. In the ingredient listing, it would say something like “corn syrup GMO#1033” and maybe there’s a competitor corn seed provider that has GMO#2045. I could then decide which (or neither) I prefer to buy. Plus, we’d need an on-line database with more information, with those numbers as an index. Yes, this is more complicated and potentially confusing to the ‘standard’ consumer compared to just a GMO or non-GMO label. But it’s more meaningful and aligned better (and traceable) to the possibles risks and (at least to my) concerns.

To learn more about GMOs, I strongly recommend reading this 26-part series from what is normally a very “green”, likely anti-GMO-biased source. It seems to me to be well researched and written (if somewhat long-winded and sometimes drifting off focus). If you don’t GMO, then the good news is that since 2000 USDA rules prevent GMOs from being labelled “Organic”, so go for it! (but then again the bad news is there’s that GMO pollen in the mix,… ouch!) – Jack

What is Sustainability?

This morning I attended a wonderful talk given by Dr. Scott Smith, retiring Dean at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment during the monthly “First Friday” breakfast event, hosted by the Sustainability Working Group of the college. During his 13 years in office, Dean Smith has overseen/participated in the radical (though he didn’t use that word) transformation of the college, Kentucky agriculture and perhaps even some Kentucky culture. He told some wonderful stories and was very insightful on the rapid KY-wide transition from a “tobacco, cattle and grain” family farm culture with a ~100% male student body (in 1978 when he joined the faculty) to one that is now highly inclusive and diverse, both in its people (60% of the students are women! and with e.g. chefs, economists, etc. on the facility) as well as in the topics and species/crops/products that the college supports and that Kentucky produces. He highlighted the fears of the unknown future that the Kentucky farm community had when he took office on what would happen after the federal tobacco pricing program stopped (in 2004). He said it turned out to be very much about sustainability, organic, ‘value-add’ programs, investment and marketing (e.g. Kentucky Proud, etc.) All concepts which were almost unheard of in his own agricultural education and early teaching days.

I can’t hope to capture all the components and insights of Dean Smith’s talk here. But one particular (and small) question that he addressed really caught my brain and is very aligned with my own recent thinking. The question was “Will there ever be a Department of Sustainability?” His answer: No. Rather, sustainability is an integrated concept in most, if not, all the college’s courses and activities, and perhaps in all of our culture. This is also very true for me. And while he didn’t discuss sustainability in exactly the same way as my own thinking, he did touch on many of these same elements.

Sustainability in my thinking has at least three major elements or themes; or, being the engineer that I am, I’d say it has three “necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, requirements” to be true:

  1. [My engineering viewpoint:] The “system” of input resources, processes and outputs has to be in balance over time. If, over time, an input resource will be depleted, then the system is NOT sustainable (obviously)! If a process produces an output (whether waste or other) that accumulates over time without a place for it to go and for it to become an input (with similar flow rates) into some other process (whether natural or human-driven) then that’s not sustainable either! The “lifecycle” of each resource/element, including also the energy used/produced, must be quantitatively in balance for it to be sustainable. Math is required! Others may label this theme an environmentalist’s viewpoint, but to me it’s the fundamental concept of “systems engineering.”
  2. [Also having a ‘product manager’ mindset:] The economics of any human-driven process must be positive! Without being value-additive, a process cannot be operated for very long. A business case must exist with positive financial gains (math, again!) for those involved. When a process depends upon charity or donations, then it may be helpful (or even necessary) to get started, but it won’t be sustainable over time. And unlike any of the “resources” in #1, the human concept of this thing we call “money” has no law of conservation.
  3. [The social (a.k.a. human) being prospective that:] Any human-driven process must not cause injustice to any of the people involved. Others may use the term morality, or some other wording. And I wish I find a positive wording of that statement, rather than the “not cause” wording here (that software logic mindset again…). This theme (of the three) was not something I had understood as a young engineer (I was oblivious). But as I age (wiser?), it is ever clearer to me that “human resources” is NOT appropriate terminology! Human beings should never be viewed in the same mindset as taken with the other things we call “resources”, whether a component, natural resource, chemical compound, or any animal or a plant species, etc. Justice (not the same as fairness!) must be present in our society and communities, or else they (we!) are not sustainable! In practical terms, injustice is cause for civil unrest which leads to civil disorder which is not at all sustainable (and this is not the same disorder as in Chaos Theory).

Perhaps this third theme is better articulated by the fields of social science, politics (which is what Dean Smith referred to often), or the domain of the liberal arts and philosophers… Or, perhaps, this engineer is still learning new concepts… Which reminds me of the bumper sticker (and the series of books by Henry Petroski) that states “To Engineer is Human.”  Yet at this time, I can only hope that humanity is also sustainable! [Time to balance those equations!]

About time!

Last week the Washington Post discovered the federal government has finally begun installation of a solar system on the White House roof.

Well, it is about time! This was actually announced way back in 2010. So what took nearly 3 years for the installation to begin?  [No, this will not become a discussion of politics (no one in the solar industry wants the business swings!). Let us all remember that George W. Bush installed a solar system in 2003; after a prior republican administration removed the solar thermal system installed back in the 1970s (see this link for a review of the history).]

This was a federal procurement that had to be competitive bid. So I get that took some time, and possibly more than one round of that, plus of course the federal bureaucracy. Yet the US military has been installing solar at bases in more than 31 states over the past several years. So they already know lots of experienced, reputable installers, with proven reliability and good system designs out there. Ok, maybe, they were waiting to confirm that global climate change is a national priority… which is what the President finally confirmed last month. Can’t be that…

Or maybe, they were just waiting for prices to come down? Which is exactly what has happened! Solar PV modules are down more than 60% verses what they cost in 2010 (from ~$2/watt to $0.75/watt of capacity). And that’s way way down from the >$75/watt in 1977 – a 99% price drop over the past 35 years! So low that the panels are no longer the primary cost element in residential scale systems. Yes, there is other hardware required, such as the wiring, racking and mounting hardware, as well as the electrical inverters, which make the AC power that we generally consume, from the DC power that is natively produced. Of course, there is the labor costs (i.e. local jobs) that will vary greatly with the type and complexity of the installation site. But there’s also the local permitting, interconnect and inspection costs that can be as high as $2500 or more for a simple residential system (and will vary greatly by municipality and utility company). According to the DOE, these and other soft costs are holding back the adoption of solar in the US. Maybe that was the White House’s problem … but I doubt it!

Well…who knows what took so long inside the government. But now, the real question: what’s holding you back from going solar? Isn’t it about time? – Jack

BTW, according to a Lawrence Berkley National Lab study released earlier this month, the US average 2012 ‘all-in’ price of the residential solar PV systems was $5.30/watt of installed capacity. That’s nearly a $1 more than what we paid for our system installed in June last year (and we paid extra for US manufactured PV modules).  So these numbers may vary greatly for you too, and these are all before federal, state, and utility incentives that can lower your actual cost even more!)

Everybody Smile!

Ok, everyone, today at around 5:30pm (Eastern Time) today be sure to lookup and smile! Really, really big!

Our picture is being taken by the Cassini spacecraft from orbit. And not Earth’s orbit, but from the orbit of Saturn, which is currently approximately 898,500 million miles (1.446 billion kilometers) from Earth. Therefore it will take the light from our shinny faces over 80 minutes to reach the camera (which is taking a mosaic picture of Saturn and all its rings, while Earth ‘just happens’ to be in the background). For more detail and interesting things about this, see this JPL blogsite.  Ok, yes, we (the whole Earth) will actually be less than one pixel of the final picture, but at least in my opinion we have lots of reasons to be smiling:

  1. In other space news, Luca Parmitano (pic above) is fine!, after having to cut short a planned 6.5 hour EVA (spacewalk) on Tuesday. While performing maintenance outside the International Space Station, his spacesuit started leaking (no, not leaking air, but) water internally, and he was having difficulty seeing, hearing (his headset shorted out), and even breathing due to more than a liter of water accumulating in his helmet.
  2. The global telecom industry seems to be through the worst of the current wave of cutbacks. Much is stilled needed to return to a fully sustainable business, but the pathways and impacts of the transition to IP should now be clear to most everyone.
  3. The US government (though not Congress, as yet) seems to finally get that global climate change requires more and serious action!
  4. The DRBC has again delayed permission for fracking in the Delaware River watershed. And while some people will be getting less money due cancelled drilling leases, there’s hope that this glorious area will stay a great place to live and retire to, and that our drinking water will remain clean and pure.
  5. Our own solar PV system has completed one year of operation, and we had overall a net positive production of electricity over what we actually consumed. We’re cashing a small check from our utility for the excess that they purchased from us!

Lastly, of course, it’s FRIDAY! And the current heat wave will be breaking tomorrow! So only one more night of sleeping with the windows fully open, but while it’s still 78-80F in the house!

Hope you too have good reasons to be smiling this summer. Stay cool, everyone! – Jack

Do you GIS?

I have come to the belief that Geographical Information System (GIS) is the next Excel – i.e. a tool that will become indispensable in everyday life, and most especially to an engineer.

My first exposure to GIS was in the mid-1990s. On a project for PacBell (now AT&T, again), we were building a revolutionary new, fully integrated Operational Support System (OSS) for their ‘new’ network that was going to replace POTS throughout California (I’ll write more about that project sometime soon). But we didn’t get very far with GIS then. A decade later, when Mary Anne was hired to teach Environmental Science at Ramapo College, one of the courses they wanted her for was GIS. She didn’t know much at the time, but with her background in CompSci, she dived in and learned it. She’s been teaching it semi-regularly for nearly 10 years, and continues to do so now at Georgetown. Last year, while on the Wi-Fi project that I mentioned last week, a super talented RF Engineer on the project came up with an analysis methodology using GIS tools. It is a really powerful way to analyze lots of data (and present it geographically), and greatly helped our clients to decide where and how much to build out their networks. I have always been intrigued, but never had the time to learn GIS myself – that is, until now.

I have had a great deal of fun these past 8 weeks, following along on some of the projects Mary Anne’s students are doing this semester (e.g. tromping through a remediated wetlands with a GPS recorder), plus diving into the textbook that she teaches from. I’ve learned a great deal, though somewhat specific to ArcGIS version 10 from ESRI, the company that has most commercialized GIS technology (and is still privately held!). If you’re interested, I recommend “Understanding GIS – An ArcGIS Project Workbook” by Harder, Ormsby and Balstrøm, and published by ESRI. They include a DVD of the software with a limited license and a reasonably complex project to work on over its 9 chapters. It includes discussion of the ‘fun’ parts of any technology project, such as uncertain or changing customer requirements (noooo, I’ve never had that challenge), how to make an analysis easily repeatable and flexible, and even a whole chapter on creating the presentation with the results of analysis. It is a little overly scripted for me, but that likely makes it easier to teach to a general audience (without a computer software background).

When I was a young engineer and anxious to get that first promotion, I looked closely at what others were doing when they got promoted. In those days, business skills were still rare in Bell Labs/AT&T Network Systems, and were ever more important than prior to the 1984 Divestiture. So I focused on developing those more (a.k.a. I turned to the ‘dark side’). For me, that included a rotational program into our sales force (more about that sometime, too), and then coming back to a role in product management. It was there, that I first started using Excel regularly. I developed spreadsheets to track our budget verses actual expenses, our software R&D capitalization/amortization schedule, another for our sales opportunity funnel and revenues, and then put it all together in a product-specific income statement. At the time my peer product managers had no similar insights into these details, as very limited financial information was computerized (and mostly on mainframes). But I could run all kinds of ‘what-if’ business cases or probability assessments, and see the profitability impacts instantly. Since then I’ve used Excel for lots of non-financial things too: engineering performance modeling, net zero energy (NZE) analysis, requirements tracking, contact lists, uncountable charts for presentations, weather analysis, and even a game or two. In 1992, I got that first promotion, and I have always attributed it to my abilities with Excel, bridging technology with business skills. But now that I’m learning GIS, I am wondering, how does an independent consultant earn a promotion…? 😉

Where does your food come from?

Another aspect of sustainability that we have been caring more and more about over the past few years is food. Yes, that stuff that we can’t get by for long without stuffing in our face; that stuff that grows in dirt and compost, and yet produces tastes so extraordinarily wonderful; all that stuff that makes us so highly content and satisfied. A good meal is the second best feeling in all of life! Yes, I’m a closet foodie!

One of the projects I’ve had a lot of fun doing these last few weeks is volunteering at our local food co-op, very appropriately called Good Foods. Specifically we are working a new vision for the year 2020, and I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with Joel DiGirolamo from Turbocharged Leadership, who is facilitating the process. As part of that, and of course being the systems engineer that I am, we had to define what is the “food system” and our places in that. Well, I’m most impressed with this representation (used with permission):
FoodSystemDiagram640x480I have adopted a specific definition of food, per Michael Pollan: “that which your great grand-mother would recognize.” And mainly because, physically, chemically, etcetera: you are what you eat, exactly!

These days our food of choice comes from local farmers, or is certified organic. We’re not 100% always able to eat this way, and not everyone can afford it. But I want to be made up of exactly that, rather than something chemically or genetically constructed by the big agri-companies. The next time you sit down (or rush-through) a meal, stop and think for a minute about what you are made of? And where do you want your food to come from…? For me the answer is quite dirty!, and also chemical-free!

We should all care more

One of the topics Mary Anne and I care greatly about is sustainability. Unlike some of my engineering student peers, I took extra economics classes in undergrad. I had troubles with a statement made by one of the professors: roughly phrased he said “There is always either growth or decline, never stability” (his main point was that investors can make money from either bull or bear markets). Yet as engineers we always preferred stable states (afterall, statics is much easier than dynamics!), and especially in my field of computer engineering, stable electrical states are mandatory to perform digital processing. Processor speeds are limited by the capacitance of the circuit, i.e. the time it takes for the electrical state stabilize after a state change. Of course in the last 30+ years CPU clocking cycles have gone from the kilohertz range to gigahertz, as semiconductor unit sizes have shrunk.

After I left school and entered the working world, it was the economics viewpoint that became my firm belief. Afterall, prices were always increasing (due to inflation or limited supply), or sometimes decreasing (increased supply, e.g. computers), but never stayed stable for long. But then Mary Anne went back to school for her Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Rutgers. She left the clean world of math and computers to study all those wet sciences: chemistry, biology, ecology, etc. Somewhere in that time (1994-2002) I first learned of climate change and the human-caused increases of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. As an engineer, and especially as a “systems” engineer, the large movement of carbon from trapped underground formations into our atmosphere is easy to grasp (burning), and it’s just as easy to understand that the system (Earth’s atmosphere) must change as a result. The positive feedback loops are, perhaps, not as easy to grasp, but appear to be just as real. This is not sustainable for human civilization!

Even as Moore’s Law keeps hanging in there (due to economic drivers), we still know it can’t continue past certain real physical constraints (the size of atoms, if nothing else). And so it is with our civilization’s burning of carbon…

So, now the critical question: How do we humans wish to live in the future?
I vote for a gradual self-directed change, rather than the dynamic (and likely harsh) consequences of continuing the same behaviors as the past 30 or 130 years. Oh, and yes, we very likely need both engineering and economics (and time) to reach that more sustainable state… [Oh, the ambiguity!]