Hacking Life

June 27, 2010

About a month back, there was an announcement that a group at the J. Craig Venter Institute at Rockville, MD had succeeded in their efforts to chemically synthesize the genome of a simple microorganism. The project was alternately reported in the press as “synthetic life” or “creating life”. What the team did was to use a process that they devised to create a string of DNA that matches the DNA in a naturally occurring micro-organism, then they inserted their string of DNA into a cell that had had its own DNA removed. Low and behold, the new “synthetic” organism works just fine. It reproduces and does all the things that a single-celled organism is expected to do in order to qualify as being alive. This is not so much a science achievement as a technology achievement. Scientists have long assumed that this was theoretically possible, but no one had been able to successfully manipulate such a long piece of DNA before. It’s a little off the track for a food blog run under the auspices of a Community Supported Agriculture, but it happens that I know one of the authors on the paper that was published in Science personally, so I’m going to blog about.

There is a lot of pretty good information on this event that has already been widely distributed on the web. I would direct people who want an accessible and unbiased report on what this team achieved to the story from the Manchester Guardian, in the UK. There is a pretty cool video on the site that you can also watch. You can also go right to the horse’s mouth. The Venter Institute maintains a pretty good web site, themselves. Now in the interests of full-disclosure, I should mention that I have a grant from the Sloan Foundation in which I am collaborating with some people at the Venter Institute on a project to discuss the ethical implications of synthetic biology. You can regard this blog as an “advance notice” of what that work may produce, though if you pass any of this on you should also mention that the actual project is still very much in progress and that we have not reached any conclusions that we are prepared to share.

In conjunction with this work, I look at a lot of websites. One of the scientists I met on the project directed my attention to a website that nominally has nothing to do with synthetic biology. It’s a site called “bunnie’s blog” and it is apparently a pretty famous blog written by someone who is well known among computer scientists. Most of the posts deal with pretty technical issues in information technology, but bunnie clearly has a side interest in biology. According to the site, all the work is licensed under Creative Commons, which I take to mean that bunnie will not object to me posting a link to the site here.

The particular blog that interested me is called “On Influenza A”. The blog basically tells people who understand computer viruses how they can use that knowledge to understand a real virus. It gets into stuff about “ports” and “RNA subroutines”, stuff that is way too complicated for my blog. But here’s the bit that ties this to synthetic biology. The blog talks about how you could re-engineer a virus such as H1N1 to make it more deadly, and how you could order the DNA to do this from a website, quoting bunnie, “such as the cutely named Mr. Gene”. I think that the real ethical significance behind synthetic biology may have very little to do with anything that could legitimately be called “creating life”, and everything to do with the possibility of hacking the swine flu and ordering replacement DNA from Mr. Gene. There are lots of people who understand computer viruses out there, and there are plenty of them who can afford the roughly $100,000-$250,000 it would take to set up a molecular biology lab in their garage. If bunnie can figure out how to hack a real virus, I’m pretty sure that there are other people from the computer world who can do it, too.

The larger implications of this are unclear, but they are not altogether unrelated to farming. One of the actors in opposing synthetic biology is the ETC Group, formerly known as Rural Advancement Fund International or RAFI. Under the RAFI designation, the group cut its teeth on defending the interests of poor farmers from developing country, especially when genetic information from the seeds they develop was appropriated by plant breeders and biotechnology companies. As ETC, the group has been one of the most important critics of GMOs and agricultural applications of nanotechnology. ETC seems to assume that the implications of synthetic biology will follow the same trail as agricultural biotech: big multinational companies that use the technology to pursue profits at the expense of poor farmers in the developing world.

As I see it, bunnie’s blog suggests a different trajectory, one that is more like the world of computing where very small inventers and entrepreneurs do a lot of stuff in their garage. A few of them become Microsoft, Apple or Google, but lots of them use a CreativeCommons license, develop share ware or otherwise nibble away at the dominance of the big boys. But I do not see this as all happiness and light. There are also the adolescent boys that are spending their time figuring out how to swamp my mailbox with invitations to accept a transfer of funds from Africa, or to attend a prestigious conference on humanitarianism in Burundi. Then there are the guys who make computer viruses that cause my system to crash. Unlike Monsanto (or Michigan State, for that matter), I don’t expect these guys to have their projects approved by the institutional biosafety committee, and I don’t expect them to have an attorney that will tell them about the regulatory hoops they must jump to get their new synthetic organism on the market.

It’s a new world, folks. Let’s not fight the old battles instead of the new ones.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

In the Buburbs

June 20, 2010

Kudos today to Laura DeLind and Laura Anderson. Yesterday’s open house celebrated the opening of Urbandale Farm. The farm is located in Lansing’s Urbandale neighborhood. The farm’s produce will be sold at a farm stand on the premises, primarily to Urbandale residents (who will receive a discount). It will be operated by volunteers as a non-profit organization. Some volunteers will come from the Urbandale neighborhood while others, like DeLind and Anderson themselves, will be contributing time in hopes that the farm will improve diets and build community to an underserved population.

So if a “Bubba” is slang for a farmboy in a gimmee cap (remember, that’s what they called Clinton), and a suburb is a an area located adjacent to a city, I guess that makes Urbandale a “Buburb”. (I’m really sorry for this folks, but Diane keeps insisting that I find some way to inject humor into these blogs. Blame her.)

As it happens, I stopped by the Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit on Friday. This Buburb venture has been operating in one form or another for over a hundred years. The current farm is on the premises of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which has been offering free meals to all comers ever since the Great Depression. The site itself, however, was farmed well before that under the auspices of the Capuchin Franciscans. I highly recommend some time on the Earthworks website, perusing their program and learning how they have organized a longstanding charitable mission first around providing subsistence, but now around the idea that growing food can be an empowering way to build community and personal capability. The Earthworks Urban Farm is, according to them, at least, the only certified organic farm currently operating within the city limits of Detroit.

People may have had the idea that people eating in the kitchen were growing their own food, but that has not actually been the case. The farm was, like the kitchen itself, operated by a blend of paid staff, interns and volunteers, and the whole (as mentioned above) is operated as a mission of the Catholic Church. There is an extensive youth program that involves children and young people in developing both kitchen and gardening skills. For its first decade after food production resumed in 1997, most of the food from the Buburb was actually sold in local markets and farmstands. In an effort to close the gap between perception and reality a bit the basic idea here since 2008 is that food grown on site goes into the food served in the kitchen.Some of the food continues to be sold at markets and farm stands, which are a part of the youth education program. What is more, this activity supports food access for people in the neighborhood. I believe I was told that Earthworks has also made some efforts to find ways that soup kitchen clients can be more fully integrated into the volunteer program when they show some interest in doing so, but I don’t find any confirmation of that on the website.

In my all too brief visit, Lisa Richter was showing us some small four-by-four plots, each totally unique and bearing sometimes colorful name tags. The plots are a new project on the farm that has been started in response to some pushback the farm staff was getting from local volunteers who had been enlisted to help with some of the farm work. If I have this right (and given the quick nature of our visit, it’s entirely possible that I don’t), volunteer clients were quite willing to help, but some were not really responding all that well to the instruction that leadership in the farming operation were trying to provide. They did not want to be told that the tomato plants needed to be planted eighteen inches apart. They did not want to work on the asparagus because they, in fact, did not particularly like asparagus. And they did not like to be told that they must pick the broccoli before it went to seed. I remember that President George H.W. Bush did not like broccoli, and presumably he would have been pleased with this outcome. The point, however, is that they wanted to experiment and learn for themselves.

The result is pretty amazing. I wish there was a picture of these plots on the website, for they are a true cacophony of garlic, potatoes, tomatoes (growing too close together) and in a few cases, weeds. One plot, but only one, was almost totally brown. There may not be much harvested from these Buburb plots, but there may be more than one lesson that can be learned from them.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Wet Spring

June 13, 2010

They say it’s been a wet spring in Michigan. According to the Charlotte Observer a wet spring means more snakes. That does kind of match my mood. I’m of a mind to see snakes everywhere: in the pool, in the bathtub, and especially on all those planes I’ve been riding for the last twelve weeks. Since March 15 I’ve been to State College, PA, South Bend, Nashville and Bloomington, IN (three separate trips), Washington DC (also three times), Rome, Italy, Phoenix, AZ, Minneapolis, MN, Chicago, IL, Amsterdam (twice), Madrid and Cadiz, Spain and I’m just now back from Beaver Dam, WI. Not all of those were plane trips. Today I was on a boat. But I’m sure there were snakes on there, somewhere. I’m just glad I didn’t see any. Right now I’m ready to curl up by the fire and enjoy Michigan for a while. At least a couple of weeks.

Wait a minute! What am I saying? Curl up by the fire? It’s the middle of June already! As they say on TV, “WHASUP?”

Which brings me back to the subject of this blog. This is, I’m told, another El Niño year. If you’re like me, a decade or so back you thought El Niño was the children’s special at La Fogata: a bean and cheese taco with applesauce. Noo. El Niño is a periodic warming the Pacific Ocean that is generally noticed around Christmas time (hence the name). Some say that El Niños are increasing because of climate change, but while I’m no climate skeptic I have absolutely no desire to wade into even more snakes than I am already dealing with here. So suffice it to say that the science lesson ends here. El Niños often bring colder and wetter weather in spring. Actually the spring here in Michigan has not been cold. In fact it’s been warmer than usual, at least until recently. As of eight minutes ago, it was 73° in Lansing, which is about normal this year. The point, if I can ever get around to it, is that it’s wet out there.

How wet is it? As wet as a weekend in Wigan, I’d say.

Actually, as far as I know it’s not all that wet on weekends in Wigan, though they say that a wet weekend in Wigan is the gold standard for boredom. I worry what Baba Wawa would wonder when wet weekends in Wigan woom woozily on Wednesday. But I digress.

It’s the farmers who are telling me that it’s been a wet spring in Michigan, and they should know. Apparently, it’s been so wet that lots of local farmers lost their Memorial Day weekend because it was the only time that it was dry enough to plant. Some whose plans prevented them from working may lose a significant percentage of this year’s crop. And this is worth taking a minute to ponder for those of us in CSAs. I don’t honestly think I could farm seriously. I could say that I’m not cut out for it, but a better way of saying it is that I am, at my age, habituated to a pattern of living that is incompatible with the “make hay when the sun shines” mentality that is absolutely necessary for successful farming. I like my morning coffee and my weekends off. Of course I don’t get as many weekends off as I would like. It’s all those snakes on the plane, in my case. But readers get my point I think. Farmers have slow periods, but they can’t really schedule them, and when a dry weekend in a wet spring comes along, then it’s just tough luck for the barbecue, the softball game, the bike ride or even the long pot of coffee while you kick back and read. I’m grateful that they are out there planting, and I know that shifting to that kind of thinking would take a major shift in my pattern of behavior.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics

Food in Bloom

June 6, 2010

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Bloomington, IN farmer’s market. It’s considered to be one of the big success stories. The permanent facility consists of three or four covered awnings, each about thirty yards long and able to accommodate 10 or 12 vendors with plenty of room to spare. The awnings themselves were providing shade yesterday, when the temperature in Bloomington was nearing 90°, and they would at least keep the vendors and those inspecting their wares dry in case of rain. They have a wrought iron look that fits in well with the “Main Street” feel of downtown Bloomington. Yesterday, there were also a lot of additional vendors set up in an adjacent paved area that may double as a parking lot. I would guess that there were at least an additional 25 vendors occupying this area. There was a very wide array of products, ranging from lots of fresh strawberries (it’s mid-June in Indiana, after all) and heirloom tomatoes (impressive to see these so early) to pasture-raised pork and Kobe beef.  The wild mushroom vendors are a special treat. All this makes the Bloomington market competitive with some of the best one-day markets I’ve seen. It certainly rivals the Saturday market that operates off of Dupont Plaza in Washington, D.C.

On the one hand, this is to be expected. Bloomington has long been known as a haven for people with progressive tastes in food. Over three days there I also had a stop at Thai, Indian and Tibetan restaurants, the last of which is reputedly operated by a cousin of the Dalai Lama. There are multiple possibilities for all these ethnic cuisines in Bloomington, and one can continue the tour with Malaysian, Korean, Japanese and the usual European possibilities if one has more time in town than I had. It’s not surprising that a community supporting such a rich variety of unusual ethnic tastes in its restaurants would also support a robust and bustling farmer’s market, especially on a sunny day in late spring when people are really getting cranked up to enjoy the fine weather.

On the other hand, Bloomington has less than 70,000 people (albeit with an average income of $50,000). There is no “metro Bloomington”. Metro Lansing has over half a million, though the city itself is more like 113,000 (with an average income of $38,000). With the greater metro area included we get closer to Bloomington’s $50,000 average household income figure. It’s thus worth thinking about why we do not approximate something closer to what they have in Bloomington for food choices. I want to propose two hypotheses.

First, there is culture and tradition. Mid-Michigan may just be one of those meat and potatoes areas where you get ridiculed if you know what a latte is. People are proud of their pedestrian food tastes. Yet while this hypothesis accounts for our lack of Tibetan restaurants, it doesn’t really account for the paucity of fresh produce and pasture raised pork. The foods being hawked at the Bloomington farmer’s market fit well into a mainstream Midwestern food culture. It’s not at all clear to me why we would prefer to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon picking over California-grown produce in the stale air-conditioning at Meijer or Kroger’s.

Second, we have a splintered local food community. Every neighborhood wants its own farmer’s market, and the City Market is an every day affair. This puts the limited number of farmers interested in selling at markets racing around for at least four markets a week chasing down a much smaller number of potential customers than were strolling the grounds yesterday afternoon in Bloomington. There is a rationale for multiple locations, as the Lansing area is certainly big enough to make traipsing out to the Okemos market (arguably our most robust) difficult for anyone in the city limits, and especially so for those on the short end of our $38,000 average income figure. Nevertheless, all of our markets (and here I include Okemos and the City Market) are pretty much ragtag affairs in comparison with what I experienced in a much, much smaller city yesterday afternoon. I can’t escape the judgment that there has been a failure of leadership in our food community somewhere.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University