Venezuela Bans GMOs, Utopia via the Borg Collective, and Cancer: Bad Luck or Environment?

A scitech research and policy roundup for January 6, 2016



Venezuela obviously has no big social and economic problems left to address, so the government has turned its attention to the menace of FrankenCrops and has adopted "one of the world's most progressive seed laws," say the folks over at EcoWatch. Among other things, the new seed law will establish a centralized National Seed System that aims to consolidate national food sovereignty, regulate the production of hybrid seed, and rejects the production, distribution and import of GMO seed. Article I of the new law states:

The present Law has as its objective to preserve, protect, and guarantee the production, propagation, conservation, and free circulation and use of seed, as well as the promotion, research, distribution, and commercialization of the same, based on a socialist agroecological vision (emphasis added), with the aim of consolidating our food security and sovereignty, prohibiting the release, the use, the propagation, and the entrance into the country and the national production of transgenic seeds as well as the patents and right of the breeder over the seed, in a manner that is sovereign, democratic, participatory, co-responsible and in solidarity, making special emphasis on the valorization of the Indigenous, afro-descendent, peasant and local seed, that benefits biodiversity and helps to preserve life on the planet in conformity with what is established in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Article II outlines the goals of the new law. Of particular interest are goals 3 through 5:

3. Promote the transition to communal and eco-socialist agriculture, in order to protect agro-biodiversity by means of the production of local, peasant, Indigenous and Afro-descendant seed.

4. Revalorize and re-legitimize the local, traditional and ancestral knowledge wisdom, beliefs and practices of the peasant, Indigenous, Afro-descendant and other communities.

5. Prohibit the privatization of seed.

Surely the advent of "eco-socialist agriculture" will bring a swift end to recent food shortages in the Bolivarian Republic.

If you live long enough, you will get cancer. The median age at which cancer is diagnosed in the U.S. is sixty-five, and 53 percent of all cancers are diagnosed in people over age sixty-five. Seventy percent are diagnosed in people over age fifty-five. But what causes this steady increase in cancer with advancing age?

In January 2015, Science published research that concluded that most cases of cancer are "due to 'bad luck,' that is, random mutations arising during DNA replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells." If you live long enough, accumulating errors as your cells duplicate themselves will eventually hit upon a combination that frees them to become tumors. Consequently, the researchers concluded that "only a third of the variation in cancer risk among tissues is attributable to environmental factors or inherited predispositions."

Well, that was last January. This month Nature has published a study by cancer researchers that argues the opposite:

Here we provide evidence that intrinsic risk factors contribute only modestly (less than ~10–30% of lifetime risk) to cancer development. First, we demonstrate that the correlation between stem-cell division and cancer risk does not distinguish between the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. We then show that intrinsic risk is better estimated by the lower bound risk controlling for total stem-cell divisions. Finally, we show that the rates of endogenous mutation accumulation by intrinsic processes are not sufficient to account for the observed cancer risks. Collectively, we conclude that cancer risk is heavily influenced by extrinsic factors.

What kind of extrinsic factors? As the American Council on Science and Health explains the "researchers found that smoking, diet, excess weight, drinking and environmental conditions account for between 70 and 90 percent of gene mutations that make cancerous tumors." ACSH adds:

Their main culprits in carcinogenesis included smoking (of course), viruses (specifically human papillomavirus or HPV, and hepatitis C), UV radiation (mainly from sun exposure), alcohol in excess, and obesity. Some hormonal medication, specifically estrogen-progesterone combinations, were also deemed as likely cancer-causing agents.

Exposures to trace amounts of natural and synthetic chemicals are not a big cause of cancer. For example, Cancer Research UK notes, "Large organizations like the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research into Cancer have estimated that pollution and chemicals in our environment only account for about 3 percent of all cancers. Most of these cases are in people who work in certain industries and are exposed to high levels of chemicals in their jobs."

Forget the 2055 Robot Rebellion! The coming computer-human mind meld will "solve the world's most dire problems." This is the conclusion of a new study in Science published by researchers from the Human Computation Institute. They point to several examples in which the combination of computation power with crowd-sourcing has solved problems that could not otherwise have been addressed. So will Utopia arrive via the Borg Collective?