Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 1, GMO hysteria and your role.


I tried a couple of times before to tackle this issue and have failed to post, since I couldn’t deal with the breadth of this issue to a level I felt was worthy, so this time I will split it up as a series of posts, each time tackling a major issue around GMO’s. I will be linking to videos and the most informative articles that the average person can read, sadly mostly these are Wikipedia articles, but I have gone through them and the ones I post are accurate to my understanding as an undergraduate who has been studying GMO’s and biology in general for about 3 years. Though my focus has been genetics, plants, and genetic engineering techniques and methods.

First before I go about digging into the science I need to validate fears. There is a ton of fear mongering out on the internet and in the general media. It is not the general populations job to understand the nitty gritty of the science, nor does the general public have the education to understand the raw studies which do not come to clean and easy conclusions, if they come to a conclusion at all!

If you are not a scientist, don’t feel bad. It’s okay to be unsure and have conflicting feelings, in fact, if you’re a scientist you should have conflicting feelings on complex and poorly researched issues. Sadly for the non-scientist, science communication is poor and misinformation is more prevalent then good solid information because good science rarely makes for sensational news. These day science reports tends to sound like this: ‘New research shows a possible cure for liver cancer in the form of a new cancer killing drug!’ When an accurate title would be: ‘Researchers have see some success in killing cancer cells in vitro (in Petri dishes) with a new chemical compound.” See the difference? And this happens all the time. Science reporting almost everywhere, except in well reputed science magazines and news providers, over personalizes new research to the point where they are misleading their readers. This is a strong claim, but the fact is, if a news provider is saying that title one is the same thing as title two, then they clearly don’t understand the very real difference between killing cancer in a Petri dish and killing it in a human body. Worse, articles are often just as bad as their titles: drawing conclusions from the research, which have no basis other then the fancy of the journalist, or they don’t actually say anything about the real research paper so you can’t even fact find if you wanted too.

Though journalism isn’t the only problem: the scientific journals charge an outrageous amount of money for access to scientific papers at the tune of $20-$30 per 10-20 page paper, even though the journals do not do the research themselves. So it’s actually pretty damn hard to get a hold of a research paper unless you work at or go to a university, since they tend to have bulk subscriptions to most academic journals. I’m sure if Journals offered research to be purchased for a less outlandish price, the science communication problem wouldn’t be so grievous.

So I get it, unless you have a science or research background, getting information is hard. And most of what we hear in the media is, to be perfectly honest, some level of misinformation. So someone being scared of GMOs in this light makes sense, since the loudest voices are saying “GMO’s are bad! Bad! Bad!”

So here is the first link to a Healthcare Triage video and I will be re-linking to this again, I’m sure, as it’s an amazingly thorough video for being a measly 12 minutes long. Please watch it no matter what stance you have as they handle the facts very effectively, and very thoroughly. He does not say that GMO’s are bad or good, he just tells you the facts, which is admirable, and it’s good science (and in this case healthcare) journalism. I readily recommended any and all Healthcare Triage video’s for their unbiased approach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKO9s0zLthU

Let it be clear, I am a proponent for GMOs, not because I want them to be safe, but because I understand how they’re created and have studied this in University. However, I hope it is also clear that, for the layperson, it’s very easy to be drawn into the fear mongering surrounding GMOs, because there lacks good sources of information on them. Really and truly finding them is very difficult, and many are geared towards scientists in the fields of Genetic Engineering, which does not make it any easier for the average person.

In the next post I’ll be looking at what Organic food really is and the fear surrounding the word chemicals.

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14 responses to “Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 1, GMO hysteria and your role.

  • ronniesantana

    Generally speaking you’re quite correct. It really is hard to get the right information in the hands of the public. Even people in the agriculture business are getting drowned out by misconception and pseudo-scientific claims.

    From the research we have gathered, the general public responds better to an invitation to join the dialogue and being pointed in a general direction where facts can be discovered. They become more open to hearing the truth when they are treated in such a way where they feel respected and part of the conversation.

    My personal opinion is simply that there are people out there who want to create an entirely new market within the field of agriculture and use scare tactics and misinformation to obtain these results. It’s my personal conclusion that the wide majority of the general public have been simply reached first by these green aggie entrepreneurs who have used very effective scare tactics to be seen as credible sources.

    Do scientists have effective press agents? Do farmers have effective press agents? Do the people who have already established infrastructure within the organics produce sector have a great deal of press agents? It’s pretty simple. When you want to establish a new market, and eliminate the competition you strike first, and set up your competitor to be against the consumer. It’s not really clean marketing but that’s how it started. Target the moms, tell them that the food the chemical companies are using will hurt their kids, and boom goes the dynamite.

    What can we do? Reach out to the mothers and show them the truth by inviting them to join us in looking at the facts. Teaching them the process and answering their questions candidly, firmly, but charitably and patiently. Like I said, they really are concerned for their children and family. It’s what moms do and they really do it well. We have nothing to worry about because we have fact and truth demonstrated consistently.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      An excellent point I hadn’t been thinking of the marketing side, thought I have been aware of it. The issues surrounding GMO’s are both complex and infuriating. Do you have any suggestion on improving the tone of my future posts to draw the general audience in to the conversation, were you speaking in general about science, or both?

      I would really like both sides to be welcome (even if only cautiously) in this short blog series, I do have an obvious bias (which I make clear, but also feel defend) towards the science, but I’m always looking for good sources to give me a clearer information. So dissent doesn’t bother me (I’s rather find out I’m wrong then wallow in my own ignorance) so long as there is an actual argument or point to be had. I have had the displeasure of people telling me I’m wrong repeatedly, but not why or in what way.

      Thanks,

      Withteeth

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  • charles

    Sorry… My first attempt at reblogging. I had no idea that it was going to automatically put my entire “thoughts” in a Comment here. I thought that was part of the point of reblogging, that I woudn’t clutter up your Comment section. Is there some option box I forgot to check?

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  • charles

    I reblogged this, with a long reply, mostly about how to interpret evidence, and also about why understanding evolution is vital to this issue.
    Great post! So glad that people of your skills and commitment to truth are helping feed me!

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  • charles

    Reblogged this on My Journey – Questions & Observations of a Skeptic and commented:
    Was the Video Impartial?
    While the facts are presented, the narrator clearly falls on the “GMOs are safer than you think” side of things. Personally, I didn’t have an opinion about this before watching this video, and I found it quite informative. I’m not sure a GMO opponent would find it convincing, however.

    “Significant” vs. “Meaningful”
    Regarding whether GMOs pose a greater danger to people than conventionally grown crops, at 2:30 the slide said “no evidence” while the narrator said “no evidence at all”. Without having more information, you cannot tell if these are the same thing or not. “No evidence” usually means “not enough evidence to reject the null hypothesis of no difference”, that is, whatever evidence was found was not statistically significant, while “no evidence at all” implies that the observed difference was not meaningful. These may or may not be the same thing. If a study has a small sample size, you could have a large difference between GMOs and conventional crops, but it is not large enough given the sample size for chance to be ruled out. Conversely, in a large study, you could have a very small difference that is statistically significant. It is very important when evaluating a study, and when reading someone else’s report of the evidence, to find out what is meant when someone says “no evidence”.

    The next slide, however, points out that there are a wealth of studies that have the same “no difference” conclusion. That is, GMOs are no worse than conventionally grown crops. Whether either is better or worse than locally grown fresh food is not addressed by these studies.

    At 5:13 the slide says “The Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas ‘has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops; however, the debate is still intense.”
    What does “has not detected any significant hazards” mean? Again, it depends on the sample size involved. If this is referring to one study that was too small to have a good chance to detect a meaningful difference (in statistical terms, this is called “underpowered”), then it is not helpful. If it is referring to a number of studies, none of which found a significant hazard, then that is better. If this is based one or more large studies, that is even better.

    In summary, realize that when someone reports only a statement about “significance”, you are not getting all the information you need to understand the study. You need to know both the statistical significance and also the effect size… How large was the observed hazard? How large was the observed difference between groups? Was it a meaningful difference, and only lacked statistical significance due to a small sample size?

    Why Understanding Evolution is Vital to Proper Crop Management
    Regarding herbicides, resistant strains of pests and bacteria… I’m glad the geneticists understand evolution because what evolution tells us is to expect life to evolve. Given that expectation, we can design pesticide and herbicide strategies that include variation so as to keep any single strain of resistant pest from dominating. I’m not sure I’m expressing this correctly, but you can read more in “Humans as the World’s Greatest Evolutionary Force”, Palumbi, Science, 2001:293(5536), pages 1786-1790.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Thank you Charles, this is an excellent reply, and yes there is some bias in the video towards what the evidence is, so it isn’t perfectly impartial, but what things are, and from a fact perspective, it is not an even issue, so being impartial to the point of giving a false sense of evenness between the two side wouldn’t be accurate. Though from your post I fully expect you understand that so I’m writing this more to express more thoughts.

      As per what significance in science means I’ll be explaining that in the next post (the third that is) and going through one of the keystone research paper that most anti-gmo activists use as a source and why it’s small sample size make it inconclusive and why. I’ll also be looking at the facts surrounding the publishing (and later retraction) of the paper and why it should be looked at with higher scrutiny.

      But defining statistical significance as it’s used in the biological sciences will come first.

      Thank you for posting!

      Withteeth

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  • tulloch1985

    Great post, on youtube there is a chemist called Myles Power who debunks science ( or pseudoscience) papers that push anti-GMO conspiracy theories. I have had the same problem with getting access to papers without having to pay. I recommend “the crockran review”, this is a page that does meta-analysis of such papers.

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  • seeingdeep1

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

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  • johnspenn

    Great post and I’m looking forward to learning more. Like “climate change” this issue is so politically charged it’s hard to wade through the rhetoric to try and get a handle on what’s actually going on.

    I must say I’m pleasantly surprised to find an even-handed treatment of this issue here. Please forgive my unfounded presuppositions about what I thought might be your position on this issue. =)

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  • nicjondon

    Personally I have no qualms with the technology behind the GMOs I take issue with Chemical Engineering Multinationals usurping food supplies, particularity plants. Particularly when said usurping is done by firms who historically, and repeatedly, demonstrate morally reprehensible actions and consciously discount ethical practices for dollars (they are corporations after-all). And Round-Up is akin to “Agent Orange Pt. 2. For America.”

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Thnk Nic,
      Well I’ll need you to be a bit more specific in regard to what you exactly mean by “Chemical Engineering Multinationals usurping food supplies, particularity plants.” Certainty Monsant and similar ilk hae there problems, but from my understanding this lies not in the realm of there practices so much as a massively corrupt government in the US. Monsanto has a monopoly so it’s more cost effective for them to maintain that monopoly, to create an effective product (if it don’t grow better than conventional seeds, then farms will switch back.)

      All also state that round-up is no agent orange the data on it is pretty clear, it isn’t much of a carcinogen, and it biodegrades quite safely. The broken down components of Agent Orange, if I’m correct, can still be found in the soil on affected area and Vietnam today. Luckily for everyone the Herbicides of today, are both tested, and much healthier to the environment. As well Roundup have been heavily tested and shows little to no effect animals. Also it doesn’t run into ground water like many comprable herbicides so ya I don’t like Monsanto, but they do have some good products.

      Also with Agent Orange you do realize they used it as a weapon, not on crops right? I think a lot of people forget this. The American Government and Dow knew perfectly well how nasty Agent Orange was hence why it was used as a weapon. If they where to start using herbicides as weapons again they would us agent orange and it’s derivatives a lot sooner than round up precisely for the reason they don’t biodegrade well and have much more toxic.

      There are issues I am quite concerned about however. Concerning trends which are promoted by the sales practices and research practices of Monsanto and the like (Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, are two more I’m aware of).

      Those are Massive Monoculture, and the lost of genetic diversity in our food populations. It makes sense for a large company, in the medium term, to only grow a few lines of a particular food crop and keep “upgrading” it as new pathogens and pest move into take advantage of the massive food stores afford by monoculture. This sets the stage for huge losses of crops if the major crop companies can’t keep up, and there is a good chance that it will eventually happen again. (It happened to the crop crops of the US back in I believe if was the 70’s, when about 70-80 of the corn crops where a single breed.

      If this happens to the right crop at the right time in the right place or places. Then potentially hundreds of millions of the world most vulnerable could face severe food shortages and starvation. Though this can pretty easily be side step by making sure there are always crop variety and genetic variety within those crop we grow.

      Now my (unpopular) suggestion to this problem is to create sensible regulations on genetically modified crop, not the absolutely insane long and expensive ones that exist which make it impossible for groups other than massive corporations to make genetically modified organisms. Though I’ll be explaining that in a later part of this series.

      Thanks Nic you’ve reminded me of some excellent points I’ll give them a proper going over. I hope you stick around. Also feel free to ask me to cover specific issues, and I’ll either slip them in where they fit or save them up and do a post about.

      Withteeth

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      • nicjondon

        Not sure how that statement could be clarified aside from basic facts: In 1996 Monsanto started to buy up major seed manufacturing companies resulting in total control of half the seed production facilities worldwide. It’s a general rule of thumb that businesses stick with what they know and for 97 years that was chemical engineering for Monsanto. Not seed production. I was sort of being facetious with the Agent Orange Pt. 2 bit, but just barely. I am pretty familiar with Agent Oranges history of which Monsanto was not a part of until the Fed came to them specifically, Monsanto and Dow, to mass produce it. The chemist who actually created it was livid to find out that not only was his creation being used without his knowledge but it was done so in the most duplicitous and nefarious of ways. He actually got the Fed to stop using it and destroy whatever excess remained. One finds this sort of behavior with just a cursory glance of Monsanto’s shady history. There are others besides this but I think this petition may give some pause when thinking glyphosates are perfectly harmless – http://cdn.ewg.org/sites/default/files/testimony/LetterToEPA_Enlist_MedSci_FINAL_06_30_14_0.pdf

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