Sunday, February 28, 2010


This morning I read a short blurb in the local newspaper reporting recent progress by scientists in genetically altering the Aedes aegypti to suppress the development of wings in the females. The modification would be spread through the males (whose wings are unaffected), eventually wiping out the mosquitoes, providing a cheaper, more environmentally friendly and equitable method of control than chemical sprays.

I have no soft spot for those female Aedes aegypti. They are the vectors of dengue fever, a horrible experience for the 50 million people who come down with it every year (and one that is sometimes fatal, especially for children). Two-fifths of the world's population is at risk (mostly in Southeast Asia and Africa) and there is no vaccine and no treatment.

So getting rid of this mosquito is a good thing, right?

The more I learn about the natural world and the intricate connections in ecosystems, the more hesitant I am to say "yes". More often than not when it comes to making drastic changes to any environment or population, intervention tends to beget more intervention. Dam a river for flood control and then spend decades and millions of dollars trying to restore local fish populations and prevent downstream beaches from eroding, only to realize that the sediment building up behind your dam will eventually force it to give way (resulting in a flood far more catastrophic than any the dam prevented). Refine wheat to create a whiter, "tastier" bread, only to find that the most important nutrients were in the parts of the grain removed during refining, and then spend millions figuring out how to fortify flour with the nutrients you removed (and come up with something as absurd as whole wheat white flour). Get rid of the pigs in your garbage dumps to prevent the spread of swine flu and then realize the huge volume of waste they disposed of and have a trash problem to deal with. Eradicate Aedes aegypti and...who knows? The question of intervention gets even more complicated when you consider the prior interventions that made these things necessary (settling on flood plains, creating cultures of waste, heating up the planet and expanding the habitats of disease vectors like Aedes aegypti). Are we so locked into patterns of working against nature (poison all the insects in a field) rather than with it (planting habitat for beneficial insect populations) that we can't stop the cycle of intervening?

Thursday, February 4, 2010


#1: I just gave antibiotics to livestock.

I dosed (actually, per the instructions of Pat at the feed store, double dosed) my chickens with Sulmet to prevent whatever illness is making one of them sick from getting to all of them. While I know heavy and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock is a big problem (it's often used to make up for the effects of the unhealthy diets and unsanitary conditions animals are raised in, and it produces antibiotic-resistant bacteria), my poor sick hen is a little different. She likely has coccidiosis, which domestic birds get from contact with the droppings of wild birds (which assumes that your poultry has enjoyed the outdoors).

#2: Animal suffering really gets to me.

For years when people asked about why I was a vegetarian I made sure to distance myself from any animal rights connection. I didn't stop eating meat because I thought killing animals was cruel - I stopped because I didn't like meat. That's still the primary reason I'm a vegetarian - I prefer meatless meals (and I've been veg long enough that no matter how good the carne asada taco sounded at 2:30 am, my body will be sure I pay for eating it). I'm also increasingly convinced that eating fewer animal products (and that includes milk, eggs and cheese, all of which I love) is better for the environment and promotes a more just distribution of the world's resources. But recent events on the farm make me wonder if there isn't a little bit of aversion to animal suffering in the background too.

By "recent events on the farm" I mean a lot of exposure to animal suffering in the last week - one chicken crippled by some mysterious illness, another one sick, and a rabbit that got hit by a tractor in our field today. I've avoided all three because it's just so hard to watch.

As a kid I remember boycotting cartoons and seriously wondering if I could ever be happy again whenever one of my hamsters would get old and start to deteriorate. In high school I always felt ashamed when I had to excuse myself from watching a goat slaughtering as soon as the animal started to suffocate (which is to say I couldn't last through the first 30 seconds). While my friends ate raw kidney and marveled at the contents of the animal's stomach I'd sit a safe distance away trying to ward off the lightness on the edges of my vision. In Cambodia I could barely eat my way through a small frog still very much resembled a frog. Now I find myself asking my housemates to do more of the chicken upkeep because it's hard to be around the ones that are in pain.

I don't like this about myself. It interferes with the self-image I try to cultivate of a strong, independent woman unencumbered by the need for rich-world comforts like toilet paper or a rodent-and-cockroach-free bedroom or food that no longer resembles the living thing it once was.

But there it is.