Tag Archives: food

Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 3, Statistical significance

We need to talk a little bit about statistical significance and what it is.

In science, when an experiment is done, there is always a chance that any given result was the result of coincidence, poorly thought out methodology, or human error. These false results can only really be compensated for in one meaningful way: quantity. You have to do the experiment over and over, and, in the case of biology, you need to look at dozens of individuals before you can claim the data has any statistical significance. Remember: Significant data is not definitive data! For sets of data to be definitive you don’t need dozens of individuals, you need dozens of experiments, and that often means thousands of individuals.

In modern physics, experiments are run millions of times before they are deemed definitive. Unfortunately, biologists aren’t always able test an experiment millions of times, and, as such, rarely have the level of certainty as physicists have. That said, we are taking about degrees of certainty, and scientists have methods for relating these levels of certainty. In a experiment, the main two factor which determine the likelihood of false results are the number of things being tested and their complexity. As the number of testing factors increases so does your need for test subjects, almost exponentially.

In an experiment, for each factor you’re testing you need a control, and, ideally, you’ll be testing the factor in a number of ways. Let me stop here to define some terms and give some proper examples, otherwise those unfamiliar with scientific experimentation will have a difficult time understanding what’s really going on. A control, or control group, is a group which closely resembles the treatment group in an experiment, they are chosen to act as a comparison group so meaningful analysis can be done. Controls are always necessary due to them being the comparison, without a control group you have no way of knowing if a particular treatment had any affect. For example; if you’re experimenting with the toxicity levels of a given compound, the control group would be treated, raised, and administered to exactly (or as closely as possible) the same as the test subjects, except that they will be given a placebo treatment in place of the potential toxin. If the control group and the test group fail to show enough difference in their health factors, then you cannot make any conclusions one way or the other. These health factors vary from test to test, it could be in life span, % of fatalities in a given time period, weight, fur sheen, presence of cancer, and basically any other sort of test you could imagine. As long as a test is relevant and gives reliable results, then it’s fair game.

What it means to be testable, as I mean it here, is that something is only testable if you’re able to effectively quantify it in a largely unbiased manner. For example, if you’re going to measure something, you must measure each group the same way. Say your measuring pea plants, it would not be correct to measure the control group by pulling up the plant and measuring from the root tip to the tallest tip of the plant, and then measure the tested group from where the stem meets the soil to the tallest tip of the plant. That lack of consistency introduces bias into an experiment. No matter what happens in the experiment above, the control group will seem on paper to be taller compared to the tested group than they actually are. The best methods are those that account for any and all factors that might affect the results, other than those besting tested for.

To keep using the pea plants as an example, if your testing a fertilizer, you need to keep the untested factors the same, so light exposure, water, soil composition, number of individuals per pot, lack or existence of pests damaging the plant, air humidity… I’m sure I’m missing something. And it will depend on the experiment and area you’re able to work in. It’s also important to inform readers if or how methodological problems may have skewed your results.

Another important term I will talk briefly about is double blind trials/experiments. These are experiments where the experimenters do their best to remove any bias in the administering of a treatment, and they don’t even know which test subject will get what treatment, or the tester doesn’t know enough to subconsciously give hints to the test subject. This is accomplished by having two or more groups of experimenters, one which sets up the experiments, in the case of a blind drug trial, they would put the drug in cups for the treatment group and an identical looking placebo in cups for the control group, only labeling names, not which drug is which. The second group would then administer the drug without having any knowledge of which is which. This way both the test subjects and the experimenters who are administering the treatment are unaware of who is getting what. That way no subtle factors like a patient’s knowing that they are on the real drug, or on the placebo, can influence the results (Search placebo effect and Double Blind trails for more).

Begin tangent: Here’s a popular example of bad research from a few years ago. Let’s be careful: I’m not blaming a child for the fear-mongering of adults, just that her experiment could use some work. Here is a link that contains the original experiment and a critique. http://www.snopes.com/science/microwave/plants.asp. Note: neither of these experiments are at all definitive. Just a useful critique of a real scare that still get brought up occasionally by some folks concerned by or outright scared of microwaves. I failed to find a good peer-reviewed source on this, but, since microwaves don’t normally produce ionizing radiation (radiation with the ability to actually change molecules), any potential harm is minimal, and shared with all cooking methods that involving heating your food. End tangent.

I’m doubtless missing many, perhaps hundreds of, important points. Scientific methodology is not something you can effectively cover in a single post, and neither is the sister discipline describing how to look at, interpreted, and draw conclusions from experimental data. It take years to learn these skills and I’ll likely be creating more posts about scientific methods beyond this series. If you have a specific question, I’ll do my best to answer it, and will likely compile them into a more elegant post later on.

Next time I’ll finally get to talk about the G.E. Séralini “affair.”


Tackling the GMO Problem: Part 2, The Organic Push

Clarification: It is not the fault of scientists (Or even many journalist, since it’s really a systemic problem) that science in sensationalized in the news. It’s a byproduct of how news is distributed and produced, or the idea that news has to be flashy or no one will read/watch it.

Last time I tried to validate and begin to disperse the fears people might have about GMO foods. This time I will address some very problematic myths surrounding organic food as well as some of the good.

Now, organic foods are pretty nifty sounding, and when I first heard about them I didn’t have any issue with them. I thought what many pro-organic consumers out there think: that organic food uses little to no pesticide and herbicides, and that they have higher nutritional content. However, to my great displeasure I came to learn that this is not true.

Organic food can be grown using pesticides and fertilizer, and has no significant difference in nutritional content compared to non-organic foods. Though the specifics surrounding pesticide and fertilizer use is highly dependent on the area that you live in.

That’s right, organic foods have pesticides used on them and are fertilized, they are irradiated just like conventional crops. I pulled this off of the Canadian Organic Growers website, so you’ll have to check your local standards for what is and isn’t allowed, but don’t worry about irradiation: it just kills bugs and bacteria in the food, it doesn’t leave anything radioactive in the food. There is some indication that organic food now contain a percentage of GMO crop genes, though there is no research on the topic, so take this with a grain of salt.

I will now send you off once again to Healthcare Triage, who did another excellent video, this one on organic foods where they get into the data. I’d suggest watching this video, since they do an awesome job looking at the research while also staying easy to follow and listen to. Plus it saves me the trouble of having to write all the same stuff here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl5GXArC134

Welcome back. So I hope that video convinces you that there is no significant difference between the health benefits of organic foods. If you want good healthy food, grow your own or find someone nearby who does and buy some from them. A home grown tomato or carrot is immensely better tasting than something you by at the store, so it will be much easier to convince yourself to eat healthier. Though nutrient levels probably still don’t differ much.

Now there is another problem with organic foods and it’s this: they are just not sustainable or expandable to a massive scale. We need modern fertilizers and pesticides to get the yields we need to feed the billions of mouths that live today, and are yet to be born. Most organic foods use manure as fertilizer, but there just isn’t any way to produce enough from animals (since animals take crops to raise in the first place) to meet that kind of demand. Further more, many organic crops need to use more pesticides that conventional crops because they have not been modified to produce their own, and because some places limit the use of modern pesticides and force the farmers to use old technology. In Canada, for example, some synthetic pesticides are allowed while others are not.

According to one review (a scientific review is a research paper which looks at a large number of other research papers in order to draw a more conclusive conclusion), organics produce 80% of the yield of conventional crops, though the particular crop and field can vary from as much as 59% yield to 101% of a comparable conventional crop. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X1100182X

From this meta-data, it looks like organic yields are a great deal less certain than conventional yields, some times far exceeding conventional yields and others having yields lower than 50% of that brought by conventional techniques.

To end on a positive note, there are some notable positives to organic farming, though they are not limited to organic farming, just more prevalent within organic farming. Organic farmers are more likely to avoid monoculture (growing only one type of crop per field), and they are more likely to practice no till growing (not tilling the soil all the time causing soil erosion and soil compactions and nutrient lost). By using mulch and other soil covers they can reduce moister lost and reduce the need for irrigation.

All the above methods can and should be integrated at some level into the conventional farming methods, and, if anything good should be said about organic farming, it is that they have allowed for experimentation into better farming techniques, which is desperately needed in much of the world as resources are stretched further out among more people. Further more, many local farmers in your area are probably practicing sustainable farming while still falling under conventional farming methods.

My take always from looking at organics is, if you want better food go fresh food first, not organic. If you want to support organics, do it because local organic farmers in your area are pushing for better farming techniques and better treatment of workers, not because they don’t use GMO’s, or because it’s healthier (because it’s not). Get to know the regulation is your area before you make any decisions, and support your local farmers, especially those who are doing good for themselves, the community, and the world at large.

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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