The First GMO Animal Was Just Approved. But You Probably Won’t be Eating It Anytime Soon.

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:52 PM EST

Since the mid-1990s, a US company called AquaBounty Technologies—now partially owned by the synthetic biology company Intrexon—has been trying to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a salmon variety genetically engineered to put on weight faster. On Thursday, the FDA finally did so. Theoretically, at least, US retailers can now stock the fast-growing fish, and they don't have to label it.

The only GM salmon that makes it onto US store shelves will come from eggs produced in Prince Edward Island, which will be shipped and raised in Panama, only to be shipped back to North America as filets.

But don't expect it to take over the seafood counter of your local supermarket anytime soon. We import about two-thirds of the salmon we eat, the great bulk of it grown on large farms in Chile, Canada, and Norway. But the FDA is hyper-specific about where AquaBounty's engineered salmon can be grown:

The AquAdvantage Salmon may be raised only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama. The approval does not allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be bred or raised in the United States. In fact, under this approval, no other facilities or locations, in the United States or elsewhere, are authorized for breeding or raising AquAdvantage Salmon that are intended for marketing as food to U.S. consumers.

Why the caution? Standard salmon farming takes place directly in the ocean in net cages. Escapes are inevitable. In areas like the North American west coast from California to Alaska—home to some of the globe's last remaining wild salmon runs—escaped fast-growing salmon could out-compete and displace their wild peers. A highly detailed 2013 risk assessment from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that, without strict containment, the AquaAdvantage super-salmon presents a "high" risk to wild populations. 

So for now, until the FDA approves other facilities, the only GM salmon that makes it onto US store shelves will come from eggs produced in one approved facility on Canada's Prince Edward Island, which will be shipped and raised into fish at another approved facility in Panama, only to be shipped back to North America as filets. That one facility in Panama is not likely to pose much competition to, say, Norway's vast salmon farms.

Meanwhile, the biotech-watchdog group the Center for Food Safety has vowed to sue the FDA to reverse the decision, claiming that "the review process by FDA was inadequate, failed to fully examine the likely impacts of the salmon’s introduction, and lacked a comprehensive analysis."

Add limited supply and a legal challenge to the fact that several regional grocery powerhouses—including Kroger, Safeway, and HEB—have pledged not to sell GM salmon, and it seems unlikely that many consumers will be savoring AquaBounty's bounty anytime soon.



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This Jeff Goldblum Video Isn't Really That Funny, But I Give Him Credit for Trying

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:41 PM EST

It's pretty hard to be funny about climate change. Not just because the subject tends to be grim, but also because the solutions tend to be technical, wonky, and interesting mostly just to nerds.

The video above, released today by Funny or Die in affiliation with the League of Conservation Voters, makes a valiant effort. It features Jeff Goldblum explaining the Obama administration's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a boardroom full of cartoonishly evil fossil fuel executives. I won't spoil what he says, since it's the punchline (such as it is). Suffice to say the execs don't like it…and something about Miami Vice star Don Johnson.

I also won't go on record vouching for the jokes in this. I chuckled a few times. I will say that Goldblum—or rather his character, the mysterious "Fixer"—nails his description of the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from the power sector by about a third by 2030, and which will form the backbone of Obama's contribution to the upcoming global climate talks in Paris. The framing of the video is also spot-on: The plan is indeed facing stiff opposition from coal companies and the industry's allies in statehouses and in Congress

The Clean Power Plan is admittedly kind of boring to most people, despite being a groundbreaking policy achievement and an important step toward saving the planet from global warming. So if it takes Jeff Goldblum to get people interested, I've got no problem with that. Enjoy!

Here Is Hillary Clinton's Plan to Defeat ISIS

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:25 PM EST

Here's the Reader's Digest version of Hillary Clinton's plan for defeating ISIS:

It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign....We need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services....We can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission....We may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility.

....Ultimately, however, a ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight. But that won’t happen so long as they do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS....We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation.

....We should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units....Increased support from our Arab and European zones....create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.

....Arab and Turkish partners....military intelligence and financial contributions....We need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS, and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS. The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS.

For anybody who's been following this stuff, none of this should come as a surprise. At this point, I'd call it the conventional wisdom on ISIS: a stronger air campaign; local ground troops; political reconciliation in Baghdad; and better alliances with Turkey and our Arab allies. The truth is, this speech could have been given by any thoughtful Republican too. They would have spiced it up with a few more references to unspeakable evil and wars against civilization, and they would have pretended that all this stuff would be easy if we didn't have an appeaser in the White House, but the practical advice wouldn't differ much. As near as I can tell, that's because there just aren't many alternatives.

Now, the obvious problem is that all of this is easier said than done. A bigger air campaign is easy. But turning the Iraqi army into a competent fighting force is harder. Pressuring Baghdad to get its house in order is even harder. And a diplomatic solution in Syria that frees up local rebels to fight ISIS is so hard that I doubt we can do it.

So in a sense, this all boils down to competence. Roughly speaking, everyone agrees on the basic outline of what needs to be done. The question is which candidate is most likely to be able to do it. It's easy to figure out that, say, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are at the bottom of that list. But who's at the top? Who do you trust the most to make progress on all this stuff? That's where the hammer and the nail finally meet.

The Press Needs to Stop Encouraging Republican Lunacy Toward Muslims

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Donald Trump is still Donald Trump, trying to gain attention by saying obviously outrageous things. But his latest outrage looks a little contrived. Here's the full context of his recent interview with Yahoo's Hunter Walker:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

It would be one thing if Trump floated the idea himself of warrantless searches and special IDs. It's quite another if a reporter brings them up and Trump tap dances a little bit. Needless to say, in a better world Trump would have explicitly denounced all these ideas. Obviously we don't live in that world. Still, the only thing Trump actually said here is that we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. The rest was just a reporter fishing for a headline.

To state the obvious: no, we don't need to do anything that was "unthinkable" a year ago. As my colleague Miles Johnson notes, "of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the US since the September 11 terrorist attacks, only two have been arrested on terrorism-related charges." The American Muslim community has been instrumental in preventing jihadist violence in the US since 9/11, and to deliberately alienate them, as Trump and many other Republicans are proposing, is just about the most dangerous thing we could do.

We know how to fight dangerous people. We know how to fight terrorism. And we don't have to shred the Constitution to do it. Instead of fishing for headlines and stoking the latest round of fatuous fearmongering from Republicans, maybe we'd be better served if reporters started asking them hard questions instead.

Read Elizabeth Warren's Heartfelt Email in Support of Syrian Refugees

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 11:54 AM EST

As more Republicans declare their opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Thursday sent out an email to her supporters, passionately urging them to stand with her in pushing back against calls for rejecting those fleeing violence in Syria and the Middle East. 

Here's an excerpt:

In the wake of the murders in Paris and Beirut last week, people in America, in Europe, and throughout the world, are fearful. Millions of Syrians are fearful as well—terrified by the reality of their daily lives, terrified that their last avenue of escape from the horrors of ISIS will be closed, terrified that the world will turn its back on them and on their children.

Some politicians have already moved in that direction, proposing to close our country to people fleeing the massacre in Syria. That is not who we are. We are a country of immigrants and refugees, a country made strong by our diversity, a country founded by those crossing the sea fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom.

We are not a nation that delivers children back into the hands of ISIS murderers because some politician dislikes their religion. And we are not a nation that backs down out of fear.

Warren's letter was sent out by her Senate campaign, but it made no request for donations (which is rare when a politician zaps out an email to her list of supporters). The note follows a similar plea she made to her fellow lawmakers in the Senate on Tuesday. Warren is among only a handful of politicians who publicly support accepting a limited number of refugees in the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday.

"It is easy to proclaim that we are tough and brave and good-hearted when threats feel far away," Warren said in that speech. "But when those threats loom large and close by, our actions will strip away our tough talk and reveal who we really are. We face a choice, a choice either to lead the world by example, or to turn our backs to the threats and suffering around us."

Here's the full email:

Over the past four years, millions of people have fled their homes in Syria, running for their lives. In recent months, the steady stream of refugees has been a flood that has swept across Europe.

Every day, refugees set out on a journey hundreds of miles, from Syria to the Turkish coast. When they arrive, human smugglers charge them $1000 a head for a place on a shoddy, overloaded, plastic raft that is given a big push and floated out to sea, hopefully toward one of the Greek islands.

Last month, I visited the Greek island of Lesvos to see the Syrian refugee crisis up close. Lesvos is only a few miles away from the Turkish coast, but the risks of crossing are immense. This is a really rocky, complicated shoreline – in and out, in and out. The overcrowded, paper-thin smuggler rafts are tremendously unsafe, especially in choppy waters or when a storm picks up.

Parents try their hardest to protect their children. They really do. Little ones are outfitted with blow up pool floaties as a substitute for life jackets, in the hope that if the rafts go down, a $1.99 pool toy will be enough to save the life of a small child.  

And the rafts do go down. According to some estimates, more than 500 people have died crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece so far this year. But despite the clear risks, thousands make the trip every day.

I met with the mayor of Lesvos, who described how his tiny island of 80,000 people has struggled to cope with those refugees who wash ashore – more than 100,000 people in October alone. Refugees pile into the reception centers, overflowing the facilities, sleeping in parks, or at the side of the road. Recently, the mayor told a local radio program that the island had run out of room to bury the dead.

On my visit, I met a young girl – younger than my own granddaughters – sent out on this perilous journey alone. I asked her how old she was, and she shyly held up seven fingers.

I wondered what could possibly possess parents to hand a seven-year-old girl and a wad of cash to human smugglers. What could possibly possess them to send a beloved child across the treacherous seas with nothing more than a pool floatie. What could make them send a child knowing that crime rings of sex slavery and organ harvesting prey on these children.

Send a little girl out alone. With only the wildest, vaguest, most wishful hope that she might make it through alive and find something – anything – better for her on the other side.

This week, we all know why parents would send a child on that journey. Last week’s massacres in Paris and Beirut made it clear. The terrorists of ISIS – enemies of Islam and of all modern civilization, butchers who rape, torture and execute women and children, who blow themselves up in a lunatic effort to kill as many people as possible – these terrorists have spent years torturing the people of Syria. Day after day, month after month, year after year, mothers, fathers, children and grandparents are slaughtered.

In the wake of the murders in Paris and Beirut last week, people in America, in Europe, and throughout the world, are fearful. Millions of Syrians are fearful as well – terrified by the reality of their daily lives, terrified that their last avenue of escape from the horrors of ISIS will be closed, terrified that the world will turn its back on them and on their children.

Some politicians have already moved in that direction, proposing to close our country to people fleeing the massacre in Syria. That is not who we are. We are a country of immigrants and refugees, a country made strong by our diversity, a country founded by those crossing the sea fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom.

We are not a nation that delivers children back into the hands of ISIS murderers because some politician dislikes their religion. And we are not a nation that backs down out of fear.

Our first responsibility is to protect this country. We must embrace that fundamental obligation. But we do not make ourselves safer by ignoring our common humanity and turning away from our moral obligation.  

ISIS has shown itself to the world. We cannot – and we will not – abandon the people of France to this butchery. We cannot – and we will not – abandon the people of Lebanon to this butchery. And we cannot – and we must not – abandon the people of Syria to this butchery.

Thank you for being a part of this,


Brennan Center: No "Crime Wave" in 2015

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 11:24 AM EST

Has there been an explosion of crime in 2015? It will take some time before official figures are available, so the Brennan Center decided to compile some unofficial figures through October. They surveyed the 30 largest cities and asked for both the murder rate and the overall "index" crime rate (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft). Their conclusion: the murder rate is up 11 percent while the overall crime rate is down 1.5 percent.

It's true that some cities have seen very large increases in their murder rates. But that's not uncommon. The base of murders is pretty small, so it doesn't take much to create a big spike in a single year. The overall crime rate, which has a much larger base, is usually more stable.

Any time the murder rate goes up, it's a good idea to be concerned. But murder rates have ticked up by 10 percent or so on several occasions in the past. There's just a lot of noise in the data. Overall, though, there's little evidence of any kind of explosion in either the murder rate or the crime rate. A few cities (Baltimore, DC, Denver, most of Texas) seem to have a serious problem, but that's about it.

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Louisiana Republican Stokes Fears of Syrian Refugees to Boost Struggling Campaign for Governor

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 10:31 AM EST

In the days since terror attacks roiled Paris, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has been trailing in the race for governor against his Democratic rival John Bel Edwards, has settled on a new strategy for winning over voters: warning them about Syrian refugees entering the state. 

After Edwards released an apparently altered statement on Facebook in the attacks' aftermath noting he would help "to assist the people coming here and fleeing from religious persecution," Vitter's campaign pounced. In a robocall over the weekend, Vitter warned that President Barack Obama's "reckless policies" for allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country would turn Louisiana into a "dangerous refugee zone." (The State Department confirmed to the Times-Picayune that only 14 Syrian immigrants had settled in Louisiana since January 1.) 

On Monday, as Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order seeking to block refugees from entering the state, Vitter released an ad claiming that Obama had been "sending refugees to Louisiana" and that Edwards had vowed to work with the president to welcome them. A day later, Vitter introduced federal legislation that would halt incoming refugee admissions for at least 300 days while a review of the screening process takes place. 

An email sent from the Louisiana Republican Party on Tuesday warned supporters about the possibility of "missing" refugees in the state.  

Just yesterday, David Vitter had to notify the Obama Administration that a Syrian refugee who had been living in Baton Rouge has gone missing. What kind of accountability is that? There is an unmonitored Syrian refugee who is walking around freely, and no one knows where he is.

It turns out that the "missing" refugee in Baton Rouge hadn't disappeared at all. A day before the email went out, the New Orleans Advocate reported that Catholic Charities, the organization that aids in refugee resettlement, had helped the Syrian man for a few days before he left the state to meet with family in Washington, DC. Before he left, the man filed relocation paperwork to the federal government.

Vitter's wife, Wendy Vitter, reportedly works as a lawyer for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities. The organization received a flood of phone calls about the supposedly "missing" refugee, according to the Advocate, and a Jefferson Parish Sheriff warned that "somebody's going to get killed" as a result of the misinformation, according to the New Orleans alt-weekly The Gambit.

Vitter, whose campaign has also been mired in reports that he may have had a love child with a prostitute, will find if his last-ditch effort to lure Louisiana voters is successful when the election takes place on Saturday. 

Alleged Planner of Paris Attacks Killed in Saint-Denis Raid

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 8:41 AM EST

Paris' chief prosecutor announced on Thursday that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected architect of the deadly terrorist attacks that killed 129 people, was killed during Wednesday's seven-hour-long standoff in Saint-Denis, during which some 5,000 rounds of ammunition were exchanged between the police and militants.

The Associated Press reported that the Belgian-born terrorist was identified by fingerprint samples.

Early on Wednesday, heavily armed authorities descended on the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis to raid an apartment believed to be hiding a terrorist cell.

The police say they were able to locate the apartment after recovering a cellphone used by one of the terrorists near the Bataclan concert hall where the attackers killed 89 people.

Two people, including Abaaoud, were killed in the raid. Eight others were arrested. On Thursday, officials confirmed that the woman who detonated herself using an explosive vest was Abaaoud's cousin.

When Will Republicans at Last Get Serious About National Security?

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:23 AM EST

Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page sings the praises of French President François Hollande:

French security forces Wednesday conducted hundreds of antiterror raids and placed more than 100 suspects under house arrest....Security forces found a weapons cache in the city of Lyon that included Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket launcher....France has some 11,500 names on government watch lists. Many are likely to be detained under the three-month state of emergency that Mr. Hollande declared after Friday’s attacks.

....Mr. Hollande has been right to declare war on Islamic State and order French bombing raids on its capital in eastern Syria. France is still a militarily capable nation, as it proved when it turned back an al Qaeda offensive in Mali in 2013. It can do significant damage to ISIS if it increases the tempo of its current bombing or deploys its Foreign Legion to liberate the city of Raqqa.

....Until America gets a new Commander in Chief, Mr. Hollande is the best antiterror leader the West has.

Hmmm. It's certainly true that Hollande has been among the most hawkish of European leaders. It's also true that France was one of the first to join the US air campaign against ISIS—though their military efforts so far have been little more than pinpricks. But let's roll the tape back to June 2014, when President Obama was first trying to put together a coalition. He and Hollande issued a joint communique with all the right promises, but as France 24 reported, "Behind that facade of unity, there are significant disagreements between the two countries about how best to respond to the recent bloody territorial surge by ISIS."

Why France is reluctant to act against ISIS in Iraq

On June 18, a meeting was held in the Elysee with the French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs....For the moment, however, no military measures are planned....Moreover, "No one has asked for it”, added the same source. Requests for military assistance from Baghdad have so far been addressed to the international community or Washington, but "not specifically to France", as a foreign affairs spokesman pointed out on June 17.

....The lack of French enthusiasm for an armed intervention in Iraq, whether it be air strikes or sending military advisers to Baghdad, is due partly to fear that any intervention would be ineffective if it were not accompanied by a real commitment by the Iraqi government to act on sectarian tensions.

That's the best anti-terror leader the West has, according to the Journal. Nobody had "specifically" asked France, so Hollande decided to hang tight and see which way the wind was blowing.

This is the kind of thing that makes it so hard to talk about ISIS and terrorism. It's not as if this has been Obama's finest hour, after all, and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But the opposition has generally been much worse. Obama waffled over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but then Congress bungled things further by refusing to approve Obama's call for retaliatory strikes—with both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio joining in. Obama may have been late to recognize the threat from ISIS, but he's still the guy who put together the coalition. France has been a good partner in the fight against ISIS, but that happened only after Obama spent some time cajoling them into action.

And Republicans simply can't be bothered to take any of this seriously. They blather about Obama being weak, but when you ask them for their plans you just get nonsense. They demand "leadership"; they bask in cheap applause lines about a bigger military; they all chime in like puppets to agree on a no-fly zone; they suggest we stop worrying about civilian casualties; they propose more arms for the Kurds; they want to team up with Sunni tribal leaders without saying how they'd accomplish it; and they vaguely imply that we should bomb ISIS differently....or more....or with greater determination....or something.

None of this is remotely serious. A bigger military wouldn't affect ISIS. A no-fly zone wouldn't affect ISIS. Killing civilians would actively help ISIS. The Kurds aren't going to fight ISIS in Sunni territory. Sunni leaders aren't going to be reliable allies until they trust Baghdad to treat them equitably. And sure, we could bomb more, but there's not much point until we have the ground troops to back it up. But Republicans have been unanimously opposed to American troops all along, and Iraqi ground troops flatly aren't yet willing or able to do the job.

I hardly want to be in the position of pretending that Obama's ISIS strategy has been golden. But Republicans make him look like Alexander the Great. They treat the whole subject like a plaything, a useful cudgel during a presidential campaign. Refugees! Kurds! Radical Islam! We need to be tougher!

That isn't leadership. It barely even counts as coherent thought. It's just playground jeering. But right now, that's all we're getting from them.

Jeb Bush Has Missed a Chance to Revitalize His Campaign

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 10:13 PM EST

I'm just noodling around here, but I wonder if Jeb Bush has blown a chance over the past few days. See, I figure his only hope of winning is to let everyone else fight it out for a share of the tea party vote while he gets the lion's share of the other half of the Republican Party. If he's the one guy who appeals to moderate Republicans, he can win.

Now, generally speaking, Jeb has been more moderate than the rest of the field in response to the Paris attacks. But should he have gone further? It wouldn't have been hard. Make a real case for taking in refugees. Propose a serious, conservative plan for dealing with ISIS instead of resorting to jingoism and shibboleths. Criticize the other candidates for fearmongering. Maybe even say that he agrees with President Obama that it's long past time for Congress to act on an authorization for military force against ISIS.

A serious, measured approach like this from a Republican candidate would have been so different, so unexpected, that it could have gotten him some real attention. The press would have swooned. Moderate conservatives would have noticed. Bush would have stood out from the field for the first time. And it would have played to his strengths instead of forcing him into a Trumpesque mold that he's obviously uncomfortable with.

And as an added bonus, it would have been the right thing to do. What's not to like?