Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Conversations with Uncle Danny

Last weekend I went to visit my fictitious, totally made up Uncle Danny at the retirement home where he now lives. Uncle Danny is older than most rocks, and has spent his long life as a soldier, radio newsman, pilot, and international Don Juan. (He claims to have single-handedly liberated the French Riviera in World War II and come home with five French women on an Algerian freighter.)

Did I mention that Uncle Danny is also a vegetarian? Well he is—perhaps as a result of his stint as the spiritual leader of Thailand, or maybe from the years he spent teaching auto mechanics to natives of the Amazon rainforest. Uncle Danny loves being a vegetarian, and knows everything there is to know about the subject. He's the guy I go to whenever I need inspiration.

And so it was that I found myself on Sunday afternoon meeting my uncle in the lobby of his building.

"Whacha got in the bag, kid?" he asked me right away.


His eyes lit up and he grabbed the paper bag out of my hands. Uncle Danny loves pistachios. Then I followed him outside into the sunshine, and we sat on a park bench while he pulled apart nuts with his thin, curled fingers.

"Why the long face?" he asked. "You got problems?"

"The world has problems," I answered. "I get depressed every time I pick up a paper. Have you read the news lately?"

"No." He shook his head. "I've found it's usually a bad idea."

"Well, your generation left us the world in reasonably good shape, and we're messing it up big time."

My uncle smiled. "You shouldn't get so upset. Try to live by the words I once discovered excavating the tomb of an ancient Egyptian king: 'Leave your worry on the doorstep and direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.'"

"No Uncle Danny, I believe that was from a popular American song of the 1920s."

He shrugged. "Whatever."

"But Uncle Danny," I persisted. "Have you been hearing all that stuff about the oceans dying, and the grain shortages that have sprung up in Asia because they're raising more cattle? And now the animal waste problem has gotten so bad that even Congress can't ignore it. One of the big food conglomerates is building a hog farm in Utah that will generate as much waste as the entire city of Los Angeles!"

Uncle Danny didn't seem to care. "We're both vegetarians, aren't we?" he asked.


"Well, then. When everyone else decides to follow us—and they will—those problems will go away like magic!"

"You make it sound so easy."

"It is." He tossed a pistachio to a squirrel who had been waiting patiently a few yards away. "Just remember what Winston Churchill said when he consulted me about covert operations during the war: 'What, me worry?'"

"No, I believe it was actually Alfred E. Neuman who said that, in Mad magazine."

"Yes, that's a possibility, too."

"But Uncle Danny, maybe you haven't heard about 'Mad Cow' disease, and all the new strains of E. coli bacteria, and the deadly bird and swine flues from Hong Kong that could wipe us all out any minute. Humankind is only holding on by a thread!"

Uncle Danny dismissed that notion with a wave of his hand. "Aren't you listening, boy? Vegetarianism will solve all those problems too!"

"Sure it will. But how are we ever going to get everyone to be vegetarian?" I asked. "In this crazy world if a person goes on television and says she'll never eat a hamburger again, she gets dragged into court in Texas."

"You're talking about Opera Windows?"

"Oprah Winfrey," I corrected him.

"And the cattlemen who are out to get her?"


Uncle Danny laughed. "Now, don't you think a smart woman like that is going to make mincemeat out of those 'beef' heads?"

"Well…. You know, you may be right."

"Of course I am. It's just like that ridiculous McLiberal litigation—"


"—Win or lose, the vegetarian cause gets loads of free publicity."

I'd never thought about it that way. But looking at my uncle, a guy who'd seen just about everything and still viewed the world through the rosiest of lenses, I knew his kind of optimism was not only perfectly sensible, but just what I needed. That was why I was here.

"I hope you didn't want any of these nuts," Uncle Danny said, popping the last pistachio into his mouth. Then his gaze went across the street to the park where some children were playing soccer. "You know, the Mahatma Gandhi once gave me some good advice when we were traveling by train across India. He said: 'Don't worry—be happy.'"

I couldn't stand it any longer. "Uncle Danny, you never met Gandhi in your life, and that line was from a popular song by Bobby McFerrin."

He turned back to me and shrugged, the smile refusing to leave his face.

"Whatever," he said.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Well, they've cloned sheep and they've cloned monkeys. Now everyone is asking whether humans will be next. It's the moral dilemma of the year. Of course, the mere fact that this is the question on people's minds should tell us something. Ever notice that nothing becomes an ethical problem until it affects (or potentially affects) humans? Make all the identical tadpoles you want and no one will notice, but threaten to grow little copies of Elvis and that's big news.

Naturally, we vegetarians look at the broader picture. For us the ethical issues associated with biotechnology started a little sooner. For example, we knew genetic engineers were up to no good way back when they planted that "anti-freeze" flounder gene into the "flavr savr" tomato. We tried to tell everyone who would listen that only bad things can happen when we play God and experiment on our fellow creatures. We railed against the whole idea that animals are something that can be created, patented and profited from. But did anyone listen? Of course not!

It's only nownow that it's actually become possible to clone a young Sandra Dee and film a remake of that movie classic Gidget Goes to Poland—that people are starting to take notice. But, of course, it's too late. The juggernaut of genetic engineering is at full speed, and we're standing on the brink of Brave New World. (Pass me some soma please, and while you're at it, you may as well clone me someone to clean out my garage.)

Of course there's the possibility that we're getting this all wrong. Maybe we vegetarians have been focused on the "doom and gloom" aspects of genetic engineering for too long. Maybe we should go with the flow for once in our lives and look on the brighter side of things.

We won't exactly need our sunglasses, but there is some potential light on the horizon. For example, if people are going to experiment on animals anyway, would it be so bad use clones, so that fewer animals could be used to make a statistically valid sample? If people are going to raise animals for food anyway, wouldn't it be better to genetically engineer them to resist, without antibiotics, the diseases they're likely to encounter on the "factory" farm? And what's so terrible about corn genetically engineered to be pest resistant, so we can do away with pesticides?

Of course anyone concerned with animal rights or human health could counter by saying that these "good" things only help to solve problems that humans created in the first place. We don't need animal testing at all. The "vegetarian" model of organic farming is better still. And the biggest medical advances could come very simply if people would only eat healthy food.

How about genetically engineered animals being raised to supply "body parts" for transplantation into humans, you ask? How about people simply signing organ donor cards when they get their drivers' licenses renewed instead.

A recent CNN/Time poll found that 66% of Americans think it is morally wrong to clone animals, and 56% said they would not eat meat from cloned animals. How long should we expect those numbers to last? If hamburger from cloned animals is on our friendly grocer's shelf for 30 cents a pound cheaper than the other stuff, what are people going to choose? Are morals worth 30 cents a pound?

Like it or not, and for better or worse, genetic engineering will play a huge part in our future lives. And when cloning, or any other kind of bio-manipulation of plants and animals, and even humans, becomes commonplace, it will be a moral issue no longer.

How do I know this? From personal experience. I don't shun gorgeous blondes merely because thousands of years of natural selection have accentuated the traits in all of us (…well, not me personally) that people find attractive. I like dogs too, even though greed-driven "genetic engineers" of times long past created them from wolves. And this spring I'll choose seeds for my organic garden from the only kinds available—genetic "hybrids" that are worlds different from their ancestors in the wild. When I see the big, perfect plants they produce I'll think about the "ethical" issues George Washington Carver must have faced, but I won't have any moral misgivings about those things now.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to fear in the future. A hundred years from now cloned sheep will be no big deal compared to the bio-ethics problems facing humankind. Who knows what people will be doing by then, and who knows what they may be "manufacturing" to put on their dinner tables. It's a scary thought.

One thing I know they won't be eating at the end of the next century is the "flavr savr" tomato. After all the fanfare, it will be remembered as the biggest bio-flop of the long-gone 1990's, and will be seen only on display in the Smithsonian Institute. There it will sit—on the shelf between the Tickle Me Elmo doll and the Rubic's cube—juicy and ripe forever.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Assorted Weird Diseases Part II—The Dumb Things We Do

Some people believe that the dinosaurs, proud inhabitants of this earth for 165 million years, were finally driven to extinction not by meteorites or floods, but by the spread of some contagious disease. A tiny bacterium and his buddies bringing down the mighty T-Rex? Well, I don't know if that happened or not. But I would give you odds that when the human race finally hangs up its Reeboks it won't be because of nuclear weapons, global warming, or even Jerry Springer. No, the biggest threats to our species, by far, are all microscopic.

Of course, biological threats have been around forever, and will always be with us. The real question is how we are managing them. Unfortunately, not very well. And in that respect, nothing is speeding the journey to our eventual rendezvous with microorgasmic disaster faster than our animal agriculture and animal research practices. Just look at some of the dumb things we do:

  • We raise billions of farm animals under conditions of horrible confinement and stress, to make sure that diseases spread as easily and rapidly as possible. (Remember how sick you got last winter when you were on the elevator with that guy who had TB? Same thing.)
  • We use huge quantities of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, creating a perfect environment for the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms. (Roughly half of the 25,000 tons of antibiotics produced in the United States each year are used on farm animals.)
  • We take new antibiotics that are in development and use them on farm animals, to make sure that antibiotic resistance keeps up with antibiotic development. (Example: Since July of this year every intensively-raised chicken in the UK has been fed an antibiotic growth promoter that is cross-resistant to a new, vitally-important medical drug on trial in British hospitals.)
  • We do medical research on animals, creating the perfect opportunity for cross-species transmission of disease. (Example: The vast majority, if not all, of our existing lines of stem cells were cultured with mouse cells. This will present a real problem if they are ever used in human treatment.)
  • We intentionally feed diseased animals to other animals…
  • …and to ourselves! (The next time you're at a fancy cocktail party remember that "Foie gras" is liver from geese with the painful disease hepatic lipidosis.)
  • We have slaughterhouse and food inspection procedures that we know will allow a certain number of diseased and contaminated animals to pass into the food supply, because it's just too expensive to test every carcass.
  • We blindly accept the fact that millions of people get food poisoning from eating meat (and other foods contaminated by meat) every year. (My meat-eating friends are getting sick all the time.)
  • We transplant animal organs into humans ("xenotransplantation"), creating the risk that we might contract diseases from these animals in the process. (When asked if this could cause an outbreak of new infectious disease, Phil Nogouchi, M.D., a pathologist and director of the FDA's division of cellular and gene therapies said frankly, "We don't know.")
  • We create genetically modified organisms using viruses and bacteria (precisely because they have the ability to break down barriers between species), and introduce these organisms into the environment.
  • And if all of this isn't enough, last summer some Bozo stole three research pigs from a lab at the University of Florida and had them ground into sausage for human consumption. (Mmmmm… doesn't that sound tasty?!)


    Of course the dumbness doesn't stop there. We see it around us all the time. On the evening news the other day I saw a doctor interviewed about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, and the possibility of contracting it from eating cows infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow" disease). The doctor agreed that this is a serious problem that we should all be worried about. There was a somber moment in the studio, until the commentator asked: "Doctor, do you eat beef?"

    "Oh yes!" the doctor answered, and there were smiles all around. I guess as long as a doctor is still eating meat nobody has to be worried about anything, much less think for him/herself.

    Speaking of mad cows and humans, a recent article that appeared on WebMD downplayed the risks of Mad Cow disease in the United States, citing the effectiveness of the FDA's feed separation rule to prevent the spread of the disease by banning the feeding of cows to cows. (It is widely believed that cows become infected through eating feed containing infected bone meal.) The article noted with approval the FDA's finding that "about 90%" of the animal rendering plants inspected are in compliance with the rule.

    Hmmm…. Doesn't that mean that "about 10%" of the inspected plants are out of compliance? Isn't that a problem?

    In September Japan reported its first case of Mad Cow disease. By the time it was discovered, the cow in question, a five-year-old Holstein milk cow (name apparently withheld pending notification of kin), had already been "processed" into the week's batch of meat and bone meal. ("Hey guys, this cow we're grinding up looks kind of funny. Why don't we test her for Mad Cow disease?" "Good idea, Yokomo. Let's eat some hamburgers while we're waiting for the test results.")

    Humans have been around, in one form or another, for only a few million years. It's looking like we'll be extinct long before we reach the longevity of the dinosaurs.

    They had walnut-sized brains. We aren't that smart.