Friday, January 31, 2014

GMO Review

This needed to be said.  It does not excuse the way GMO’s are been stealthed into the market place.  There we must have disclosure and full disclosure.

Once again enthusiasts will try to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We need real science.

More pointedly, I want to see new protocols introduced as early as possible on a township or watershed basis.  This allows a number of operators to get first dibs on the benefits while eating the risks of unintended consequences and do this full press over a minimum of five years.

Then if an issue materializes it can be studied with real world data and next door comparables.

We are still taking risk but it is geographically contained risk and likely resolvable at a reasonable cost.  It is also likely to drive the new product into the market sooner because you then have economics as well.

GMO review

Several weeks ago, Nathanael Johnson at Grist reflected on what he had learned after spending half a year dissecting all the major claims and counter-claims that dominated the GMO debate. It was a very thoughtful post with a jarring headline:

What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters

Many smart people nodded along, which blew my mind, but also made me realize just how narrowly this discussion has been framed. (More on that in in a minute.)

In his piece–as he did in his six-month series–Johnson waxed Solomonic about the pros and cons of crop biotechnology, ultimately concluding:

The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

This struck me as astonishing, especially coming from someone who had just spent six months deeply immersed in biotech research and application. My own foray into this world has led me to the opposite conclusion. (The same goes for Amy Harmon.) As I was doodling with a response to Johnson’s “none of it matters” hand wave, several notable rebuttals poured forth. The first was from University of Wyoming’s Andrew Kniss, who made this excellent point:

While activist groups, scientists, and journalists yell past each other in this debate, the people who are actually using and benefiting from the technology are largely ignored. So too are the potential beneficiaries of the future.

Next followed Berkley’s Michael Eisen, who felt that Johnson let GMO opponents off the hook:

What is most disturbing about the GMO debate – and why it matters – is that the anti-GMO movement at almost every turn rejects empiricism as a means of understanding the world and making decisions about it.

This matters because the anti-GMO movement shapes the public discourse. It is their ideology, worldview and claims that set the terms of the debate. The scientists merely play defense, batting back a torrent of misinformation and never-ending urban myths (terminators! Indian farmer suicides!), much in the way that climate scientists are forever rebutting cherry-picked stats and pseudoscience from climate skeptics. What’s truly disconcerting about the GMO debate is that influential thought leaders and public figures have legitimized the anti-empirical voices instead of disavowing them. (This mostly doesn’t happen in public dialogues involving climate change or vaccine safety–where the evidence-defiant fringe are marginalized).

Such mainstreaming–how it plays out– is illustrated in my recent piece in Issues in Science and Technology, which is about how a popular  GMO myth has been credulously accepted, amplified, and disseminated. To a much larger degree, the endorsement and propagation of misleading information and outright falsehoods by influential thought leaders is the elephant in the room that Johnson, Grist and many progressives dance around. They need to own it, not ignore it, because there are consequences when influentials play footsies with the fringe, just as there are consequences when popular talk show hosts give a forum to anecdotal anti-vaccine arguments and phony experts falsely claiming health dangers from GMOs.

Eisen speaks to why the behavior of GMO opponents matters (my emphasis):

The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life. The world faces so many challenges now, and we can only solve them if we believe that the world can be understood by studying it, that we can think up and generate possible solutions to the challenges we face, and that we can make rational decisions about which ones to use or not to use. The anti-GMO movement rejects each piece of this – it rejects decades of research aimed at understanding molecular biology, it rejects technology as a way to solve problems and more than anything it rejects our ability to make rational assessments of risk and value.

Another noteworthy rebuttal to Johnson was penned by Ramez Naam, who argues that GMOs matter very much for the developing world. Indeed, this is an aspect of the debate that is largely ignored. I was thrilled to see Naam use the example of India’s Bt cotton farmers, which really does illustrate the value of biotechnology for smallholders. (This is something I get into in my Issues in Science and Technology piece.)

So why does cotton engineered with the pest-resistant Bt trait matter in the developing world? After all, people don’t eat cotton! And as smart GMO skeptics like to point out, most biotech crops, like soybean, corn, and cotton, are commodity cash crops. They don’t feed people.

Here’s Naam:

There are 7 million cotton farmers in India. Several peer reviewed studies have found that, because Bt cotton increases the amount of crop they have to sell, it raises their farm profits by as much as 50 percent, helps lift them out of poverty and reduces their risk of falling into hunger. By reducing the amount of insecticide used (which, in India, is mostly sprayed by hand) Bt cotton has also massively reduced insecticide poisoning to farm workers there — to the tune of 2.4 million cases per year.

So here we have an example where GMOs help people rise out of poverty. The Indian farmers make more money with genetically modified cotton, which means they have more money to purchase food and clothes and everyday items that anti-GMO westerners take for granted. That’s not a hypothetical benefit of GMOs. It’s real. And it matters.

Now there are some, like the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone, who take issue with what he derides as the “triumphalist narrative” of Bt cotton in India. And there are those who, in response, throw up their hands in exasperation. I’ll get into this quicksand in my next post. (Look for it Monday.) I should also point out that Johnson has just written a follow-up to his “none of it matters” post, where he concedes to overgeneralizing. In his latest, Johnson concludes that the symbol of GMOs has eclipsed the causes it symbolizes. Our urgent needs are to alleviate poverty, improve the environment, and face the fact that many of us no longer trust the people who bring us our food. Right now, our political capital is misspent if we’re only addressing GMOs narrowly without touching those larger issues.

I entirely agree.

Water Confirmed on Ceres

If Ceres does in fact have as much water as the Earth, then we have a natural impactor for Venus able to deliver sufficient water to cool down the hot surface rocks and begin the oxidation processes that makes life viable.  Even better there may be enough water to saturate the crust itself fairly quickly and promote the beginnings of plate tectonics.

I do not think though that we would have to wait for geological time to allow us to use the planet.  The water would almost immediately absorb the latent heat in the atmosphere and in the process provide the torrential rain needed to strip heat from the surface crocks themselves.  At least everything would fall below water’s boiling point quickly including the upper layers of rock.

Once that has happened, locales near the poles will open up upon which landings can be established and a base built.  Ongoing steaming will continue to dump heat back into the atmosphere continuously for a long time and that heat will then be dumped into space or possibly absorbed chemically as well.  The oceans will be long lasting hot pots for a long time.

We are at least going to know for sure in early 2015.

Water Detected on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Jan. 22, 2014:  Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, dwarf planet Ceres.

"This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere," said Michael K├╝ppers of ESA in Spain, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature.

Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions. Data from the infrared observatory suggest that plumes of water vapor shoot up from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly.

The results come at the right time for NASA's Dawn mission, which is on its way to Ceres now after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, where it will take the closest look ever at its surface.

"We've got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don't have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself," said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity."

For the last century, Ceres was known as the largest asteroid in our solar system. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union, the governing organization responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet because of its large size. It is roughly 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. When it first was spotted in 1801, astronomers thought it was a planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Later, other cosmic bodies with similar orbits were found, marking the discovery of our solar system's main belt of asteroids.

Scientists believe Ceres contains rock in its interior with a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is present on all of Earth. The materials making up Ceres likely date from the first few million years of our solar system's existence and accumulated before the planets formed.

This graph shows variability in the intensity of the water absorption signal detected at Ceres.
Until now, ice had been theorized to exist on Ceres but had not been detected conclusively. It took Herschel's far-infrared vision to see, finally, a clear spectral signature of the water vapor. But Herschel did not see water vapor every time it looked. While the telescope spied water vapor four different times, on one occasion there was no signature.

Here is what scientists think is happening: when Ceres swings through the part of its orbit that is closer to the sun, a portion of its icy surface becomes warm enough to cause water vapor to escape in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second. When Ceres is in the colder part of its orbit, no water escapes.

The strength of the signal also varied over hours, weeks and months, because of the water vapor plumes rotating in and out of Herschel's views as the object spun on its axis. This enabled the scientists to localize the source of water to two darker spots on the surface of Ceres, previously seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The dark spots might be more likely to outgas because dark material warms faster than light material. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres, it will be able to investigate these features.

Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More information:

This research is part of the Measurements of 11 Asteroids and Comets Using Herschel (MACH-11) program, which used Herschel to look at small bodies that have been or will be visited by spacecraft, including the targets of NASA's previous Deep Impact mission and upcoming Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex). Laurence O' Rourke of the European Space Agency is the principal investigator of the MACH-11 program.

Herschel is a European Space Agency mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. While the observatory stopped making science observations in April 2013, after running out of liquid coolant, as expected, scientists continue to analyze its data. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the U.S. astronomical community.

Dawn's mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about Herschel is online at:
More information about NASA's role in Herschel is available at:
For more information about NASA's Dawn mission, visit:

Dwarf Planet Ceres – 'A Game Changer in the Solar System'

In March of 2015, NASA's Dawn mission will arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres, the first
of the smaller class of planets to be discovered and the closest to Earth. Ceres, which orbits the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is a unique body in the Solar System, bearing many similarities to Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, both considered to be potential sources for harboring life. 

On Thursday, August 15, Britney Schmidt, science team liaison for the Dawn Mission, and Julie Castillo-Rogez, planetary scientist from JPL, spoke in an 
Google PlusHangout titled 'Ceres: Icy World Revealed?' about the growing excitement related to the innermost icy body. 

"I think of Ceres actually as a game changer in the Solar System," Schmidt said. "Ceres is arguably the only one of its kind." 

The innermost icy body

Ceres was discovered in 1801, astronomers first classified it as a planet. The massive body traveled between Mars and Jupiter, where scientists had mathematically predicted a planet should lie. Further observations revealed that a number of small bodies littered the region, and Ceres was downgraded to just another asteroid within the asteroid belt. It wasn't until Pluto was classified as a dwarf planet in 2006 that Ceres was upgraded to the same level. 

Ceres is the most massive body in the asteroid belt, and larger than some of the icy moons scientists consider ideal for hosting life. It is twice the size of Enceladus, Saturn's 
geyser-spouting moon that may hide liquid water beneath its surface. 

Unlike other asteroids, the Texas-sized Ceres has a perfectly rounded shape that hints toward its origins. 

"The fact that Ceres is so round tells us that it almost certainly had to form in the early solar system," Schmidt said. She explained that a later formation would have created a less rounded shape. 

The shape of the dwarf planet, combined with its size and total mass, reveal a body of incredibly low density. 

"Underneath this dusty, dirty, clay-type surface, we think that Ceres might be icy," Schmidt said. "It could potentially have had an ocean at one point in its history."

"The difference between Ceres and other icy bodies [in the Solar System] is that it's the closest to the Sun," Castillo-Rogez said. 

Less than three times as far as Earth from the Sun, Ceres is close enough to feel the warmth of the star, allowing ice to melt and reform. 

Investigating the interior of the dwarf planet could provide insight into the early solar system, especially locations where water and other volatiles might have existed. 

"Ceres is like the gatekeeper to the history of water in the middle solar system," Schmidt said. 

Studying the surface 

As large as Ceres is, its distance has made it a challenge to study from Earth. Images taken by the space-based Hubble Space Telescope provided some insight to its surface, but to be sighted, features could be no larger than 25 kilometers in diameter. Several round circular spots mar the terrain, features which Schmidt said could be any one of a number of geologic terrains, including potentially impact basins or chaos terrains similar to those found on Europa. The largest of these, named Piazzi in honor of the dwarf planet's discoverer, has a diameter of about 250 kilometers. If this feature is an impact basin, it would have been formed by an object approximately 25 km in size. 

But for Schmidt, this is another possible indication about the dwarf planet's surface. 

"It doesn't mean that Ceres hasn't been hit by something bigger than 25 kilometers," she said."It just means that whatever is going on on Ceres has totally erased [the topographic signature of that event]." 

Ceres may have suffered major impacts, especially during periods of 
heavy bombardment early in the Solar System's history. If the surface contained ice, however, those features may have been erased

Telescopes on Earth have also been able to study the light reflecting from the planet and read its spectra. 

"The spectrum is telling you that water has been involved in the creation of materials on the surface," Schmidt said. 

The spectrum indicates that water is bound up in the material on the surface of Ceres, forming a clay. Schmidt compared it to the recent 
talk of minerals found by NASA's Curiosity on the surface of Mars. 

"[Water is] literally bathing the surface of Ceres," she said.

In addition, astronomers have found evidence of carbonates, minerals that form in a process involving water and heat. Carbonates are often produced by living processes. 

The original material formed with Ceres has mixed with impacting material over the last 4.5 billion years, creating what Schmidt calls "this mixture of water-rich materials that we find on 
habitable planets like the Earth and potentially habitable planets like Mars." 

A prime site for life? 

Water is considered a necessary ingredient for the evolution of life as we know it. Planets that may have once contained water, such as Mars, as well as moons that could contain it today, like Enceladus and Europa, are all thought to be ideal for hosting or having once hosted life. 

Because of its size and closeness, Schmidt calls Ceres "arguably more interesting than some of these icy satellites." 

"If it's icy, it had to have an ocean at some point in time," she said.

Castillo-Rogez compared Earth, Europa, and Ceres, and found that the dwarf planet bore many similarities to Earth, perhaps more than Jupiter's icy moon. Both Earth and Ceres use the Sun as a key heat source, while Europa takes its heat from its tidal interaction with Jupiter. In addition, the surface temperature of the dwarf planet averages 130 to 200 degrees Kelvin, compared to Earth's 300 K, while 
Europa is a frosty 50 to 110 K. 

"At least at the equator where the surface is warmer, Ceres could have preserved a liquid of sorts," Castillo-Rogez said. 

Liquid water could exist at other points on the dwarf planet known as cold traps, shadowed areas where frozen water could remain on the surface. Such icy puddles have been found on Earth's moon. 

"The chemistry, thermal activity, the heat source, and the prospect for convection within the ice shell are the key ones that make us think that Ceres could have been 
habitable at least at some point in its history," Castillo-Rogez said. 
The future of Ceres 

As scientists develop more information about Europa and Enceladus, there has been a greater call to investigate the two prime sites for life. But Schmidt and Castillo-Rogez think that Ceres could also be a great boon for astrobiology and space exploration. 

"It's not a difficult environment to investigate," she said."As we think about the future of landed missions for people and rovers, why not go to Ceres?" 

Though it would be more challenging to drill into than Europa, which boasts an icy surface layer, the dwarf planet would make a great site to rove around on. Schmidt also noted that it could make a great launching point when it comes to reaching the outer solar system. Its smaller mass would make it easier to land on—and leave—than Mars, which could make it a good site for 
manned missions

"We have such a big planet bias, we have such a bias for things that look exactly like us," Schmidt said. 

"In this kind of special place in the Solar System, we have a very unique object that might be telling us a lot about what we don't know about building a habitable planet." 

NASA's Dawn mission launched September 27, 2007. It traveled to the asteroid Vesta, where it remained in orbit from July 2011 to July 2012 before heading to Ceres. It is slated to spend five months studying the dwarf planet, though Schmidt expressed hope that the craft would continue working beyond the nominal mission, allowing the team to study the icy body even longer. 

Castillo-Rogez pointed out that not only will Dawn reach Ceres in 2015, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft will be escorting the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko around the Sun that year, while NASA's New Horizons mission will be reaching Pluto and its moon Charon. 

"'15 is going to be a great year for icy bodies," Castillo-Rogez said. 

"I think when we get to Ceres, it's just going to be an absolute game changer, a new window into the Solar System that we wouldn't have without going there," Schmidt said

Photosynthesis and Quantum Entanglement

This sounds like the atom inside the molecule vibrates establishing a variable absorption option able to capture incoming photons across a broad spectrum.  This is sufficient to produce a useful chemical effect.  Simplistic but a starting point.

It is also a hint that we need to pursue in our efforts to harness light energy with solar cells.  Free atoms inside a crystalline structure may surprise us.

This is all good and does not have anything to do with quantum entanglement that I can see but plenty to do with quantum.

New evidence that plants get their energy using quantum entanglement

A recent article in Scientific American suggested that plants use quantum entanglement in photosynthesis. What can this mean? The answer is more (and …Read…

Biophysicists theorize that plants tap into the eerie world of quantum entanglement during photosynthesis. But the evidence to date has been purely circumstantial. Now, scientists have discovered a feature of plants that cannot be explained by classical physics alone — but which quantum mechanics answers quite nicely.

The fact that biological systems can exploit quantum effects is quite astounding. In a way, they're like mini-quantum computers capable of scanning all possible options in order to choose the most efficient paths or solutions. For plants, this means the ability to make the most of the energy they receive and then deliver that energy from leaves with near perfect efficiency.

Good Vibrations

But for this to work, plants require the capacity to work in harmony with the wild, wacky, and extremely small world of quantum phenomena. The going theory is that plants have light-gathering macromolecules in their cells that can transfer energy via molecular vibrations — vibrations that have no equivalents in classical physics. Most of these light-gathering macromolecules are comprised of chromophores attached to proteins. These macromolecules carry out the first step of photosynthesis by capturing sunlight and efficiently transferring the energy.

Previous inquiries suggested that this energy is transferred in a wave-like manner, but it was a process that could still be explained by classical physics.

In Perfect Quantum Harmony

In the new study, however, UCL researchers identified a specific feature in biological systems that can only be predicted by quantum physics. The team learned that the energy transfer in the light-harvesting macromolecules is facilitated by specific vibrational motions of the chromophores.

"We found that the properties of some of the chromophore vibrations that assist energy transfer during photosynthesis can never be described with classical laws, and moreover, this non-classical behaviour enhances the efficiency of the energy transfer," noted supervisor and co-author Alexandra Olaya-Castro in a statement.

The vibrations in question are periodic motions of the atoms within a molecule. It's similar to how an object moves when it's attached to a spring. Sometimes, the energy of two vibrating chromophores match the energy difference between the electronic transitions of chromophores. The result is a coherent exchange of a single quantum of energy.

"When this happens electronic and vibrational degrees of freedom are jointly and transiently in a superposition of quantum states, a feature that can never be predicted with classical physics," explained study co-author Edward O'Reilly.

In other words, quantum effects improve the efficiency of plant photosynthesis in a way that classical physics cannot allow. Which is pretty wild if you ask me.

Human Trafficking and Immigration Reform

Actually there is nothing much wrong with immigration laws anywhere.  They generally meet needs well enough.  What they do not do is solve poverty.

It is time to stop beating around the bush and understand that the simple resort of managing your currency system can make poverty impossible.  I will not address details here because even doing things right has to be done right.  Watching the abuse applied to micro finance warns us of just how hard this will be in real terms.  It is as if two thirds of the world’s population wants to be paid off to halt their neighbor’s suffering.

Thus is the mentality of the unjustly secure.

Human Trafficking: The Other Good Reason to Reform Immigration


Restrictive immigration policies have long been associated with a variety of economic problems including the diminished availability of foreign business and scientific talent, the inability to fill low-skilled agricultural and service jobs typically scorned by legal residents, and reduced access to the kind of entrepreneurial enthusiasm characteristic of those willing to risk their futures in another country.

Only recently has it become clear how restrictive immigration laws also produce harmful social consequences, particularly when it comes to the age-old scourge of human trafficking—the use of force and fraud to supply cheap labor and sexual services.

To understand these consequences, it is important to appreciate just how lucrative a branch of organized crime the modern slave trade has become.  Efficient transportation, technological advances in both farming and factory work, and advances in communication have all combined to make the use of forced labor very cheap by historical measures.

Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has calculated the return on the cost of an enslaved field worker in 1850s Alabama at just 5 percent, whereas today a trafficked farmhand can yield the owner anywhere from double digits to 800 percent.  Similarly, an imprisoned prostitute shuttled around the boroughs of New York City in a van by a driver scheduling appointments on his cell phone can service as many as 40 customers in a single shift.  As one researcher coldly but accurately put it, “People are a good commodity as they do not easily perish, but they can be transported over long distances and can be re-used and re-sold.”

The result, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is that 2.5 million victims, approximately 80 percent female and 50 percent under the age of 18, are being trafficked around the world at any given time.  In 2005 the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, estimated the annual revenues from this “industry” at $32 billion, or $13,000 per victim.

It would undoubtedly surprise many Americans to learn the extent to which this modern slave trade operates within their own country.  A 2004 study, Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States, by Free the Slaves and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that “tens of thousands” of women and children are trafficked nationwide with the largest numbers coming from China, Mexico, and Vietnam.

According to the study 46 percent are prostitutes, 27 percent are imprisoned household servants, 10 percent work in agriculture, 5 percent are held in sweatshops, and 4 percent serve against their will in restaurants and hotels.  A May 2012 televised report by the BBC identified a single town in Mexico, Tenancingo, where 10 percent of the 10,000 residents are engaged full-time in trafficking teenage girls to work the streets of New York, Chicago, and other major U.S. cities.

The unexpectedly large size and scope of America’s slave economy is hidden from policymakers and the public in part by its criminal nature, but also by a longstanding federal metric that substantially undercounts victims.  The government has traditionally not tallied imprisoned workers identified in crackdowns of border-smuggling operations or in raids of sweatshops and brothels, only the relatively small number who somehow escape their captors and formally apply for assistance.

Debt Bondage  
It is also important to understand the basic mechanism of human enslavement, which is typically referred to as “debt bondage.”  The victim, almost always from a poor, developing, or economically unstable country, agrees to repay the trafficker from future earnings the cost of transport, border-control evasion, and accrued interest in order to land what is believed to be a legitimate job in a more prosperous part of the globe.

By the time a trafficked laborer discovers the real work he or she has been imported to perform, it is too late.  Amid threats of violence, uncertainty as to the help local authorities are willing to provide, possible retribution against loved ones back home, inability to speak the local language well, and a lack of financial resources, the victim has no choice but to accept the captor’s unilateral modification of the contract.

Even when brothels, sex tourism operations, exploitative factories, and farm labor camps are subjected to local law enforcement crackdowns, the trafficker himself is typically insulated from prosecution by having set up some of his victims as onsite managers.  According to the Danish Centre against Human Trafficking (DCAHT), most pimps and forced labor guards rounded up in police raids around the world usually turn out to have been trafficked themselves.

The Business Model
For all the human misery inflicted by the slave trade, there was little hard data on the problem beyond the statistics already cited—until recently, when social scientists in the United States and Germany began to think that a dispassionate economic perspective might be helpful.  Reasoning that an objective analysis of the market could conceivably reveal unexpected vulnerabilities in the typical trafficker’s business plan, they set out to create an unemotional commercial understanding of slavery, framing what most consider an abhorrent activity in terms of standard business concepts such as product demand, asset life, aftermarket, and ordinary expenses.

In 2010, for example, Elizabeth Wheaton, Edward Schauer, and Thomas Galli created a detailed report for the journal International Migration, showing how traffickers calculate the marginal cost of each new person sold into slavery and therefore the optimal size of a given network.  They also described how successful traffickers in mature markets survive competition by cultivating resale customers.
The first thing such research began to make clear is the surprisingly large number of subcontractors a trafficker needs to employ: recruiters on the ground, corrupt officials, smugglers, forgers, pimps and labor camp enforcers at the back end, and even people to compose advertisements to lure naive victims with the false hope of legitimate jobs in distant lands.

What economists then began to see is that a trafficker’s ability to control operating expenses is dependent almost exclusively on migration patterns.  Poor and underdeveloped regions where large numbers of people are anxiously seeking employment in more prosperous countries with closed borders give rise to large, efficient smuggling operations that reduce the trafficker’s transportation expenses.  (A smuggler is not necessarily a trafficker until he is employed by one or branches out into that business himself.)  Economies of scale similarly lower the costs of recruitment and documentation.

The most recent example of how migration alters trafficking patterns involves the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  This may have been a welcome political development, but the resulting chaos in the satellite counties led to waves of migration, which in turn made trafficking from Eastern Europe exceptionally profitable.  Combined with the formation of the European Union, which eliminated border checkpoints across much of the continent, the fall of the Russian empire made it possible to cheaply transport coerced workers from countries like Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and the Ukraine to almost anywhere in the West.

One result is that sex tourism in Spanish border towns like La Jonquera is currently booming.  According to local authorities interviewed for a story by New York Times reporter Suzanne Daley, a disproportionately large percentage of female slaves are lured from Eastern Europe under the control of a network.

Between Poverty and Closed Borders

Weak legislation in the receiving counties, the poor quality of law enforcement, and official corruption—all may exacerbate trafficking, say the Kiel Institute’s Toman Omar Mahmoud and the Free University of Berlin’s Christoph Trebesch in their study The Economics of Human Trafficking and Labour Migration, but “it is first and foremost the wish for a better life abroad that puts millions of people at risk of ending up in exploitative working conditions.”

“In a nutshell,” they write, “trafficking and exploitation are the sad but obvious consequences of migration pressure in a world of closed borders.”

What this conclusion clearly suggests is that that the most effective way to reduce trafficking would be to undercut the barriers to employment migration in more affluent nations.  Noting that the vast majority of victims are trapped between a desperate desire to improve their lives and restrictive immigration policies, Kevin Bales, professor emeritus at Roehampton University in London and the author of Ending Slavery, argues that stemming the illegal flow of slaves means “facing up to the economic demand for people to fill jobs in richer countries.”

Interestingly, this argument dovetails with the commonsense observations of those fighting slavery on the ground in countries like Thailand, which is notorious for child prostitution, labor exploitation, and sexual tourism.  The Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC) notes that the Thai government recognizes only nine of the tribes in the remote highlands.  As a result, the other tribes are disproportionately vulnerable to traffickers because they are treated as if they were foreigners and officially they have no rights.  DEPDC has long argued that the most effective antidote for human slavery in Southeast Asia would involve conferring some kind of legal status on would-be workers who are effectively stateless.

Halfway across the world in the United Kingdom, the Adam Smith Society, a market-oriented think tank, has similarly argued that government efforts to stop the trafficking of bonded labor to meet seasonal demands in the European supermarket business are a largely a waste of time and taxpayer money.  Instead of passing tougher regulations or hiring more police to crack down on illegal migrant workers, the society recommends making employment visas more flexible and easier for foreigners to obtain.

The case for a more lenient immigration policy has long been based on the sound economic argument that an open employment market increases productivity, which in turn raises a country’s overall standard of living.   To that we can now append the opportunity to undermine sex and labor trafficking and thereby begin to end an age-old source of human misery.

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