Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Science, well sort of….my dog ate my GMO’s!


OK…Imagine this scenario…there is an issue that is being debated in the public sphere that is heavily informed by science.  But within the scientific community there is little real debate and in fact there is a broad, overwhelming consensus.  All leading scientific organizations, national academies around the world, and international agencies agree.  But there is a small group of folks who question or deny the science….and their influence on the policy debate is disproportionate to their numbers.  They may be at times motivated by economic interest, but almost always by an adherence to ideology over scientific data.  They utilize long debunked but well-worn methods in furthering their cause, such as cherry picking data to skew results, impugning the motivation of the scientists and using fear as a weapon in their fight. They ask science to provide what it cannot, absolute certainty, and cite this failure in their cause. Many are veterans of previous campaigns.

You’d be forgiven if you thought this was a summary of the battle lines in the climate change debate…but that’s not the issue I’m describing here today..... sorry folks…this is about the debate around GMO’s.  I’ve consciously not weighed in on this one to date (ugh, which would have meant reading a whole bunch of sciencey stuff…who has the time these days?), but I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.  And while there are a host of battle lines in this issue as well, today I’m going to focus on the debate around food labeling as embodied in California’s Proposition 37.

I’ll start by saying I’m honestly not trying to sway the opinions of the firmly decided.  Many have staked out their positions on both sides of this debate, and I can appreciate their perspectives.  Nor am I going re-litigate the whole GMO debate in this limited space. It is, however, my objective to share my thought process on how I have come to the conclusion that I will be voting “no” on Prop 37.

First, it claims to be simply a right to know issue, as in “we have a right to know what is in our food.”  What could possibly be wrong with that…well a few things.  Implicit in the argument for the “right” to know is a “need” to know, that this information will somehow benefit or protect the consumer.  Here comes the pesky science… the simple fact is that after decades of both laboratory (experiments to see if this stuff is bad) and real world (billions of people and animals eating billions of tons of GMO’s) results, there has been no data to show this stuff is bad for us. Now, the use of GMO’s may in fact lead to other consequences we might wish to debate, such as the value of large agri-business over local organic farms, the use of pesticides, etc.  But here, too, when we look at the data, we get a mixed bag of results.  While some GMO crops lead to more pesticides, others lead to less.  Many are drought resistant which, in a rapidly changing climate, is a good thing.  And while I love and eat almost exclusively organic foods, I can afford to, and I’m not yet convinced we can feed the world’s population using only organic methods.  So for me, and the folks at the National Academies of Science, the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, the AMA, and the Royal Society of Medicine to name just a few, there is no scientifically based “need” for this labeling.

But wait, you say, all those scientists have been wrong in the past…shouldn’t we play it safe, just in case?  I appreciate how attractive and benign the use of the precautionary principle feels here.  But my concern is that the real intent of this proposition is to slow or completely stop the use of GMO’s.  As I’ve said, I believe the consequences of that are potentially far more detrimental than some minute and as yet unproven risk, so I’m drawing my line in the sand here.

Other problems with Prop 37 for me include that even if we stipulate that the theoretical risk of GMO’s does constitute a “need” for labeling, how is it that the proposition excludes meat and dairy producers, as well as restaurants from labeling? This just makes no sense to me, and leads me to question the judgments of those behind this initiative (…yup, I do that too).

Finally, I feel it is very important for all of us, if we are to win the larger debates around public policy as impacted by science, that we are consistent in our approach to the science underlying those debates.  If by default we pick and choose our “science” based on our ideology, what our friends say or some blog on the internet, how can we effectively stand up to other science denial around issues such as climate change and evolution.  And perhaps most importantly, our kids are watching us…they have finely tuned BS meters that can ferret out our inconsistencies…how do we arm them for their future, and embolden them to think critically,  if we ourselves don’t follow the course we wish for them.

So, what do you believe?

35 comments:

  1. Enjoyed this, via Dan Kahan. As i write on this same area, and even posted on Prop 37, I offer a link to that. http://bigthink.com/risk-reason-and-reality/proposition-37-putting-scary-labels-on-food-might-not-scare-people-as-much-as-youd-think

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    1. Thanks David...nice to hear from you...say hey to Dan.

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  2. I think that David Ropeik's take is quite interesting.

    As a chemist, I am quite aware of past industry resistance to food ingredient labeling and chemical disclosure. They manage to deal with this (albeit in somewhat less than fully open ways). I think that it is quite telling that some of these same players are the same as those funding the fight against California's Proposition 37.

    In my opinion, science thrives in a free and open society. And that in such a society, freedom of and access to information is essential.

    In this era of "Big Data" I believe that we are not far from capabilities to monitor agricultural production from seed, soil, water sources and cultivation practices, through food processors, and onto consumers. Data exists, but is not yet in a format that is readily publicly accessible.

    Food industries develop mechanisms for data collection when it suits them. The issue then, as I see it, is not really that data is too difficult to obtain or too expensive to produce. The issue is who controls such data? Corporations or the people? Disclosure allows citizens to make informed choices. It allows the elected government to have the ability to make effective regulations. In a democracy, ultimately decision making needs to belong with the citizens.

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    1. Thanks for replying Gaythia...but , I've read your post a couple of times, and am not sure of the point you are trying to make...

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    2. I think the point is: Information = Power. The big companies want to keep it, not divulge or share it. The theory underlying David Ropeik's BT article notwithstanding, labelling provides consumers a choice.

      Scientifically, labelling provides independent researchers a means of studying data. The fact that billions of people and animals have been fed GMO food and didn't immediately die off is not evidence that there are no ill effects. There are countless troubling, poorly understood diseases that need further research, and I see no scientific reason to deny it.

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  3. Top 10 Lies Told by Monsanto on GMO Labeling in California
    Posted: 08/22/2012 3:42 pm by: Michele Simon

    I will only post one of the lies.

    Looks to me like politics is the big player here instead of science. My father grew up on his family farm and worked until he was 83 years old producing grass feed beef, hogs and raising cotton, wheat, hay and a massive truck garden every year without the use of pesticides. He used Roundup for several years, but stopped when he noticed the devastating harm to the local wild life and environment. As far as I am concerned (I know I am biased) he was ahead of his time not because of popular ideas, but because of his good intelligence and common sense. We could use some of those qualities in science and politics today.

    This is the copy of the lie.

    5) "FDA says that such labeling would be inherently misleading to consumers."

    Of course FDA refuses to require GMO labeling, thanks to Monsanto's arm-twisting that began more than 20 years ago. Food Democracy Now's Dave Murphy explained the FDA decision in May upon its 20-year anniversary, which came as a result of a broader deregulatory push by the first Bush administration:

    Twenty years ago this week, then-Vice President Dan Quayle announced the FDA's policy on genetically engineered food as part of his "regulatory relief initiative." As Quayle explained in the 1992 press conference, the American biotechnology industry would reap huge profits "as long as we resist the spread of unnecessary regulations."
    Dan Quayle's 1992 policy announcement is premised on the notion that genetically engineered crops are "substantially equivalent" to regular crops and thus do not need to be labeled or safety tested. The policy was crafted by Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lawyer who was hired by the Bush FDA to fill the newly created position of deputy commissioner of policy.

    Five years earlier, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto lab for a photo op with the developers of Roundup Ready crops. According to a video report of the meeting, when Monsanto executives worried about the approval process for their new crops, Bush laughed and told them, "Call me. We're in the dereg businesses. Maybe we can help."

    Call they did. It's typical for corporations to get their policy agenda approved through back-channel lobbying and revolving door appointments and then point to the magical policy outcome as evidence of scientific decision-making.

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    1. thanks for replying...who is Michele Simon?

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    2. She's the conspiracy theorist who said the AAAS is in the pocket of Monsanto. http://grist.org/food/is-a-major-science-group-stumping-for-monsanto/

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  6. Alex,

    For sticking your neck out on this one, I say BRAVO!

    If we truly believe in the power of science, then we should be consistent. If the science suggests that something is not (to a high sigma probability) a likely result, then follow the science. It seems though that the anti-GMO folks use fear to sway opinion. They use the lack of perfect certainty (that is not found in science) to force science in a role as an unwilling supposed advocate. They comingle several subjects in the minds of average folks who don't have the time to sort them out. For example, being green is not the same thing as being anti-GMO. Unfortunately, these techniques come together behind the anti-GMO wave. It is unscientific, and it creates a general fear of GMOs when good science suggests fear is unwarranted.

    There is a hidden other side of such fear mongering. One example: many of the GMOs globally are focused on simple genetic changes to plants such as salt resistance. That means that farmers in Bangladesh can plant crops that will survive the salt water inundation from severe storms that global warming suggest will be more likely. Without salt-resistant plants (GMOs), there are estimates that a half-million people could die from one season with very bad floods. (Pakistan suffered such "80-year" floods in 2010.) People starve to death when the country looses an entire crop. And that event will likely eventually happen. If we pass laws such as Prop 37 in California, the meta-effect globally is that genetic companies will invest less, and the world will not get these salt-resistant plants (and a list of similar products). The longer-term result, driven by economics, is that many people will die unnecessarily. I don't think this is an overstatement. But it is a hidden result of pseudo-scientific arguments. They have consequences.

    Joe

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    1. Thank you Joe...Very glad you agree with my thought process...I have only one suggestion...come out from behind the mask...it's very freeing.

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  7. Hi everybody, I live in Switzerland. Here we have a law, which is rather a moratorium, that forbids to plant GMOs. This was initially meant to give the federal research facilities time to study what exactly happens when you put GMOs into the "wild". The studies were very conclusive: there's no risk either for humans nor the environment.
    But the problems caused by GMOs are of another nature: economical, ethical and for some ecological. Let me explain this superficially:
    1. Economical:
    I take the example from Joe before to make my point. GMO plants usually are designed not to be fertile, so if you take the seed breeded by such plants it just wont germ. This is a measure taken by the seed companies to ensure they can sell the seed over and over every year to the farmers. While in the past seed, at least in Switzerland it's that way, was produced by a government run company, the dependency of the farmers of this company was not a problem, they all worked together to feed the people. In the future the seed for the salt-resistant plants will be provided by a private company to the farmers of Bangladesh. Once they started to use that seed, the ability of the government of Bangladesh and the farmers there to feed their people can only be obtained if they can afford to buy the seed from the company. This is a very dangerous dependency for any state.
    2. Ethical:
    A company will only invest in, again the example from Joe, salt resistant crops if it can obtain a patent for it or at least ensure it can sell the crops long enough to make profit off it. The issue here is the patentability of life. Should an individual or a company have the right to file a patent on an living organism? And if so, what happens to the patent if natural mutation someone breeds a crop with a more or less equal genotype is the patent void? Is the new breed not allowed?
    3. Ecological:
    Pesticide and Herbicide resistant crops have been on the market for more than ten years. First they were considered a blessing because of the elimination of concurring plants the crop developed better and a higher yield could be earned. Unfortunately the herbs and pests started to develop resistances against the used agents. So today the problem is even bigger there are herbicide resistant weeds out there that can not be controlled by classic spraying agents.

    It does not matter if you eat GMOs, they are not at threat to you. So the labeling of such products is merely a (counter-)marketing measure. But GMOs in their own right are something we should be using much more cautiously due to the implied side-effects.

    Chris

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    1. Danke Chris...great points. You got me thinking...would your concerns re number 1 and 2 above be mitigated if the profit motive were taken out of the equation...in other words if a non-profit NGO developed and distributed GMO seeds/crops with the mission of simply feeding people?

      I completely agree with your final point, that labeling is a counter marketing measure...but that's not how it is being presented here in California, which bothers me.

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    2. I'm not sure I understand point 1. What GMO seed is non-germinating? Are you referring to hybrid corn/maize? If that is the case, hybrid corn has been around only slightly fewer years than the first suggestion of genes existence.

      I grew up on a US farm and am actually sitting in my parent's house now having come to help with harvest (which we finished up yesterday!). For the last 15-20 years my Dad's soybean crop has been almost exclusively seed beans for Monsanto and the bulk of those have been Rounup Ready beans. The resulting crop is most certainly fertile and is sold the next year to commercial growers who will sell the seed to end users.

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  8. Alex Zwissler, Did you read the David Ropiek piece? GMO labeling would remain a counter marketing measure only if corporations were unable to convince the public that their product was a desirable or at least negligible thing.

    The corporations funding opposition to California's Proposition 37 are the same sorts of players that have previously opposed food ingredient labeling or chemical disclosures, and in some cases are continuing to do so.

    "Inert Ingredients" on pesticide or herbicide labels for example.

    Information = Power.

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    1. Thanks Gaythia...we'll agree to disagree on this one.

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    2. Actually you got me thinking...what evidence would you accept to support the use of GMO's?

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    3. Who said I didn't support the appropriate use of GMOs? I am an analytical chemist with an interest in water issues.
      Long term, I am very interested in the possibilities of switching to perennial grains, as opposed to annuals. Just because way back, gatherers harvested from the plants with generally larger seeds, hundreds of years later, now we're stuck with corn. Perennials are much more akin to the natural Midwestern prairie, and offer real possibilities of reduced water consumption, less artificial fertilization and of course, reduced plowing. This would take very careful, highly regulated, and long term development. It is like to take not getting the public turned off by short sighted corporations working to maximize or at least lock in, sales of their own preexisting products, such as herbicides (and so short sighted that they failed to support institution of regulations against monocultures, leading to the overcoming of resistance by weeds to their particular herbicide, and an opening for their major competitor).

      I really do believe in democracy, and the concept that science also depends on liberty. And that crucial to both is the freedom of information.

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    4. Thanks for clarifying your position Gaythia

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  9. "the simple fact is that after decades of both laboratory and real world results, there has been no data to show this stuff is bad for us."

    You say that, but then I see this. And I'm not sure what to think.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SzXvBwvhd4

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  10. Thanks Alex for this enlightening post. I've been speaking with friends in the non-science sphere about this proposition. I'll share this with them. I think it is helpful in thinking about this issue.

    There are a few things that I am considering when trying to decide where to weigh in on this. Like you, I am particularly concerned about access to food for people who can't afford or don't have access to fresh organics. I am concerned about our ability to successfully produce enough food for our growing populations. I am concerned that food science is being demonized the way medical science (vaccination) has been. I am also really skeptical when policies are proposed that have exclusions for certain groups. My concerns over the health implications of GMO's has been driven by the media as opposed to the science so thanks for clearing that up for me.

    So, is this proposition about me or is it about a more global issue? A label might make it more convenient for me to make a choice when I have so many food choices. If my choices were drought tolerant rice or no rice I would happily take the GMO's.

    I understand that my vote will not cause the rice trade to halt on November 7th. In the same way that I understand that climate change did not directly cause hurricane Sandy.

    What do I believe? I believe that systematic causation is a real, while somewhat elusive, factor affecting the global food chain and that my decisions have an impact on the choices that are available to others. I believe that Californian's decisions will not stay confined to California. Lastly, I believe that I have the responsibility to let go of some conveniences and to even accept some risks if I believe it will contribute to the well-being of others.

    I am voting no on Proposition 37.

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    1. Wow...thanks so much for taking the time to write this thoughtful post...Cheers

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  11. I don't know as much about this as I do about climate change where the evidence is so clear once you get past some of the misinformation on the web and in the media. However, according to this http://www.responsibletechnology.org/, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) doesn't think GMO are safe. The Academy reported that several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods.

    Are these not reliable sources?

    Rev. Earl Koteen

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    1. Never heard of them Earl...but if you go to their website it looks like a small association of MD's and Osteopaths based in Wichita Kansas, not a research organization. Impressive sounding title, but from what I see, not competent, or perhaps even interested in doing scientific research in this field. Like in Climate, official sounding "Institutes" are often held out as authorities...be careful.

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    2. No, they aren't a reliable source. But they are available to the media a lot. Here's some more about things they claim, from a legitimate source:

      http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/food-allergies-and-food-addiction/

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  12. Hi Alex, My thought as a citizen considering this issue is that I have never been asked if I thought it would be OK with me if GMOs are introduced into my food. I would think the onus of responsibility for such a profound change would be on the people wanting to do it. I would like there to have been a widespread discussion on the safety of GMOs prior to their introduction, not after.

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  13. I get your point Gary...but that discussion would have been a difficult one to resolve. Science cannot prove something will not happen, in this case some risk from GMO's. We have to make judgements on balance of potential risks vs potential rewards. And when it comes to our food and health it is clearly a emotive topic. I fully appreciate the fears and concerns folks have regarding GMO's..and it is my judgement, based on the data we do have, that on balance they offer more potential benefit than risk, and as such, I would oppose efforts such as prop 37 to limit their use.

    Also, frankly as citizens in a democracy, there are many things that we are not given the opportunity to weigh in on...we delegate that responsibility to experts, in this case scientists...imagine a world in which we "voted" on the adoption of new technologies or innovations, asking their inventors to prove their safety or worth before we allowed their deployment...I don't think we would get very far in such a world, as for with every innovation, there is a constituency that stands to lose something from its introduction.

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    1. "How safe is safe enough?" is not really an answerable question. In a representative democracy, the public does not weigh in on each and every detail, but ultimate authority does lie with the public. The easier course of action, and the one most frequently taken, is for technological innovations to front run regulation. This has, actually, had many negative consequences.

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  14. I thought that the scientific way to determine the safety of a new thing such as GMOs would be to run controlled experiments prior to the pronouncement of safety. Was that ever done? Or was the general population the subject of a massive experiment? Can you comment on the seeming large amount of data against GMOs from sources like, http://responsibletechnology.org/docs/145.pdf Can you direct me to a site that could provide a counter argument to this kind of data? I think that some technologies may be important enough to have the inventors prove their safety before allowing their deployment? Don't you?

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  15. Gary,

    The "Responsible Technology" site is linked to the Maharishi cult.
    A previous book from Jeffrey Smith, a scientifically unqualified author associated with them has been analysed here
    http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-content/genetic-roulette/

    Basically every one of 65 claims may by Jeffrey Smith is nonsense, riddled with misinformation.

    Start asking why?

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  16. Cristoph
    The problem with this debate is that the main issues you raise are plagued by mis-statement and misunderstanding.
    1. Economical:
    I take the example from Joe before to make my point. GMO plants usually are designed not to be fertile, so if you take the seed breeded by such plants it just wont germ. This is a measure taken by the seed companies to ensure they can sell the seed over and over every year to the farmers.
    *** this is misinformation repeated over and over by anti-GM activist.

    2. Ethical:
    A company will only invest in, again the example from Joe, salt resistant crops if it can obtain a patent for it or at least ensure it can sell the crops long enough to make profit off it. The issue here is the patentability of life. Should an individual or a company have the right to file a patent on an living organism? And if so, what happens to the patent if natural mutation someone breeds a crop with a more or less equal genotype is the patent void? Is the new breed not allowed?

    *** Not likely at all. The chances of a repeated evolution are infinitesimally small.

    3. Ecological:
    Pesticide and Herbicide resistant crops have been on the market for more than ten years. First they were considered a blessing because of the elimination of concurring plants the crop developed better and a higher yield could be earned. Unfortunately the herbs and pests started to develop resistances against the used agents. So today the problem is even bigger there are herbicide resistant weeds out there that can not be controlled by classic spraying agents.

    ** This is not a problem due to GMOs. It is right to worry about it, and we face it already for instance with non-GM herbicide tolerant crops such as Clearfield canola (a mutant).


    So we need to search for accurate and full information about these issues.

    The anti-GM sources are not where you will generally find it.

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    1. Thanks for jumping in David...Gary, for me a great place to start in trying to ferret out info on issues like this is Wikipedia...to Gaythia's point above, a great use of democracy and crowd sourcing. And while of course it is not perfect, it does point to a lot of primary sources you can explore on your own...warning! It gets real sciency real fast out there, so at the end of the day we are always challenged to make our judgments based on factors that start with science, but then go beyond.

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