Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

Biology Fortified just launched a series that digs into and critically examines the claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they realistically offer up in terms of economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits.  The first of the series entitled “The Promise of GMOs: nutrition” is penned by Anastasia Bodnar. She tackles the claims about GMOs and enhanced nutrition profiles, allergens, and crop oil content. Her diagnosis?

verdict

I admit it. Those five words depressed me.

But maybe not for the reasons you might think.  My initial thought was how will the GMO naysayers like Vandana Shiva, Gilles Eric Séralini and Jeffrey Smith use these words as a vehicle to add yet another layer of grim, gray paint over the possibilities of genetic engineering and GMOs?

I’m a bit of a history junkie.  I came across this article by Wayne D. Rasmussen -> “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture” published in The Journal of Economic History in 1962. In it, Rasmussen explores the transition from animal power to mechanical power between the early 19th century and into the mid 20th century.  Rasmussen characterizes the evolution (and revolutions) in agriculture over time and backs up his work with data. His data, shown here in graph form, highlights just how far agriculture advanced over more than 150 years in terms of overall production (wheat, corn and cotton) and in the reduction of man hours to produce those crops.

rasmussen1

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

rasmussen2

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

The introduction of mechanized innovations and other inputs into agriculture practices not only increased production but they also reduced man hours to production ratios.  The time it took to produce a bushel of grain dropped from an average of 440 man hours per bushel in 1800 to only 38 by 1960.

Now, this did take more than 150 years.  Some innovations were adopted more quickly than others and under different economic circumstances or social pressures. As Rasmussen (1962: 579) states, “rate of adoption…is dependent upon the strength and variations in demand for farm products.”

Today, we are dealing with different kinds of innovations in agriculture: genetically engineered crops.  At one extreme, these crops are held up as a revolutionary technology that will meet the demands for a growing world population while at the other end of things they are unfairly demonized as harbingers of evil. And maybe the truth (and value) lies somewhere in the middle.

An FAO study conducted in 2011 reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force in developing countries was comprised of women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was weeding.  In South Africa, new varieties of genetically engineered have been introduced that cut down that weeding time. Not revolutionary by any means but good news, right?

verdict2

There’s still loads of opportunity ahead.  But there are barriers.  It is hard to get past the constant drumbeat of propaganda that is misleading, drives public opinion and can impact formation of sound public policy.

Even if the value of genetically engineered crops and GMOs winds up to be something that is less economic or nutritional and more ‘social’ (like, reduced weeding times) who are these people to stand in the way of that ‘promise’?

Dr. Amanda Maxham in her #GMOMonday post at Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights says “GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises.”  I agree with her. I also echo her closing statement:

amanda maxham1

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 3 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.3 What is the Canadian attitude towards GM foods like? In farmers? The agriculture industry? The federal government? Environmentalists? The average consumer?

Whoa. Lots of questions there.

First, it’s really hard to measure opinions and perceptions of GM foods. It is evident, however, that public understanding of biotechnology and genetic engineering and crops is very low.  Consumer preferences of GM food play out in different ways under different survey conditions which speak to “wildly differing results” of studies. Results are a function of questions asked, under what conditions and in what context.  And there always seems to be a marked difference in ‘stated’ preferences (under survey conditions) and actual ‘revealed’ preferences (buying behaviour). This latter sentence probably speaks to your question of how the average consumer perceives and acts with respect to GMO foods.

Farmers? Well, it would seem that farmers like them.  At least those that are not organic (organic growers cannot use GM crops according to the Canadian Organics Standards). Canada now ranks fourth in the world in terms of acres planted to genetically modified crops, up from fifth the year before with Canadian farmers in 2012 planting nearly 29 million acres of GM crops (ref).  Out of a total of almost 89 million acres of farmland in the country, that represents a lot (By the way, farmers that use GE crops also use other crops produced through traditional methods of plant breeding and hybrids, etc.  They have to as it is important to “rotate” crops to manage weeds and to maintain the soil health of the farmland). Other crops grown would be those produced through conventional means (traditional breeding techniques, hybrids, etc).  Currently, ~ 1.7 million acres are attributed to organic production in Canada.

Canada’s economy is primary industry based: mining, oil and gas, agriculture.  In 2012, agriculture directly provided one in eight jobs, employing 2 million people and accounting for 8.1% of the GDP.  In that same year, Canada was the fifth largest exporter and sixth largest importer of ag and agrifood productions in the world.  Ag is important.  And so is any kind of crop variety that can lower inputs and enable producers to manage the land in an environmentally sustainable way.

image3

Source: http://postalpicture.blogspot.ca/2010/06/harvesting.html

How about government? Different jurisdictions in the world regulate food and agriculture slightly differently.  Unlike the European Union, Canada’s regulations have and continue to be based (mainly) on science.  The Canadian regulatory system is overseen by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada.  The regulations here focus on product novelty, not the process used to create the product. Hazard is determined by the ‘trait’ of the product not the way in which it was produced. So a conventional product may be just as likely to be deemed hazardous as anything developed through genetic engineering techniques. Products produced through conventional means have different standards applied to them. Regulatory oversight is much simpler for conventional products because scientists have no idea what the exact genetic changes are in them, unlike in the case of a GMO with a similar novel trait.  In practice, Canada’s regulations are very stringent for GMOs. On average, it takes 13 years and a 140M$ to develop and bring a new GM crop variety through the regulatory system. Over the past two decades, the time it takes to navigate the regulatory process has almost tripled due, for the most part, on the political actions of anti-GM interest groups (see parts 1 and 2).[1]

Environmentalists? Well, I think that we know where the emotive, destructive and politically motivated ones stand on this topic.  Until their attention shifts to the ‘next big donation-generator,’ genetically engineered anything is up for grabs.  I foresee a shift though as we develop crop varieties that have more consumer benefits (nutritional value (like Golden Rice) or reduced transfats or maybe a peanut developed with the allergen knocked out of it… you get where I’m going here). Also, I think that people have to open their eyes up to what is going on in developing countries.  Many of the challenges that those people face in terms of food production can be addressed with pest-resistant, virus-resistant, drought-resistant varieties. Genetic engineering techniques are precise and varieties can be developed quickly without waiting for successive generations as we have to with varieties produced through traditional breeding techniques.

I think that we have to start looking more ‘holistically’ at ag and food production.  The whole thing is so deeply divided right now.  You are either perceived to be pro-GM and bought wholly by industry or you are anti-GM and are the usual ‘activist suspect’ and wholly anti-GM.  I think that when you get past the politics and propaganda and dig down into the evidence (and the good science) you see that things are not so black and white.  Do we need to judiciously regulate products of biotech? Yes! Absolutely! Do we? YES.  Does it always have to be one or the other? GM or organic? No, I’d say that is short-sighted.

What about developing a genetically engineered crops and plants that can be managed through organic methods and practices? Plausible, no?  All ag is good ag in my opinion.  Whether it is organic, conventional or GM.  I do take issue with how agriculture production and practice is vilified in the media.  The rhetoric just distracts us from the real problems that we need to tackle like waste, storage, hunger, disease, pests, drought, the environment, etc.


[1] And here’s the irony:  Critics often hammer the seed companies about being ‘monopolistic’ (it’s an oligopoly, by the way – 6 big actors).  But guess what? Even with the extension of the regulatory process, the system is no more robust than it ever was. AND because it is so costly and time intensive, the only companies prepared to take on these costs is big ag. Small and medium business can’t engage even if they wanted to.  Can’t afford it.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2 (of 5)

I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.

Q.2 How do anti-GM movements (e.g. Greenpeace vs Golden Rice) gain momentum? Is there any legitimacy to them?

image2The whole ‘momentum’ thing is multi-faceted. Did you know that almost 72% of North American adults have mobile technology and tap into online networks? This is significant when we consider the whole notion of “information” and the “information age.” We look to the Internet and our social media networks to ask our questions, get information.  And there is a lot of misinformation out there.  Especially about farming, technology and food production. The anti-GM movements are really adept at using our networks to circulate misinformation and to feed into our fears.

Factor into this our human cognitive habits:

1)      Humans are conspiratorial thinkers: Public Policy Polling (2013) conducted a survey earlier this year where (among other things) it found that 29% believe aliens exist; 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism; and another 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot. Conspiracy theories are a way humans react to uncertainty and powerlessness in our society.  Our brains jump into analytical overdrive … so that we can create a story that we can understand around something that defies understanding.

2)      People are conformists: As human beings, once we glom onto a belief or ideology, it can be difficult for us to move from that path. Our loyalties to these ideologies are communicated and reinforced by people that are closest to us; by those that influence us. The trouble with this is that if we are faced with scientific facts that quite literally shake the ground beneath our fictional ‘sacred cows’ we are more likely to ignore them and move onto the information that validates our beliefs (this is also known as ‘confirmation bias’).

3)      People are pattern seekers:  We humans like to ‘connect the dots’ …from A to B and everything in between. In fact, all animals do this.  This is referred to as ‘associational learning’ or ‘patternicity’.  It is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. This is why we can easily see the man in the moon. Anecdotal association is a form of patternicity. We hear anecdotes everywhere. For instance, “My cousin tried this herb and he was cured of his diabetes.”  But anecdotes are not evidence. And while science and its methods and protocols are only a few hundred years old – superstition and magical beliefs are an age-old part of the human condition. So, anecdotal thinking comes more naturally for people.

4)      Finally, people think in ‘pictures’ as a way to visually organize and process information using parts of the brain that pulls together the emotional and creative. Unlike words that will go in one ear and out the other, Images go directly into long-term memory where they are forever etched. This is why the term ‘Frankenfood’ is so incredibly powerful and visually provocative and why it is so widely used in memes and in anti-GMO narratives.

This is why the anti-GM movement has been so successful.  Actors in the movement understand the human condition, they know how to use the Internet, they recruit celebrities and they leverage mass media to push their agendas. Think about it. Activists can recruit the ‘citizen journalist’ (anyone) and they can get them to circulate the propaganda AT NO COST AT ALL.  It’s a good business model.  Although, I don’t think that most people consider organizations like Greenpeace or PETA as corporations.  But they are highly corporate (bottom line motivated for memberships, donations and they have to compete for those dollars with other NGOs).  These organizations can get away with more (than what we think of as traditional corporations; eg, Monsanto, Cargill, Dow, Bayer, BASF, etc) because they play by a whole different set of market rules.  Gross misrepresentation of facts and fear-mongering are key tactical strategies of any activist movement.  Sadly, NGOs and interest groups can carry out these activities knowing full well that there will be no legal repercussions.  No accountability means no ethical boundaries. On the road to a fictitious town called Altruism, ethics are quickly thrown under the wheels of the Activist bus.  And passengers (the public) are often none the wiser. There have been some real costs to all this (see: https://www.google.ca/#q=counting+the+cost+of+the+anti-gm+movement).

Now, the upside of activism is that it allows the public to voice their concerns and to legitimately lobby for change.  These actions make corporations and government accountable for their actions and activities.  And that can be a good thing and is an important part of democracy and democratic engagement.  But sometimes activities are destructive (GR in the Philippines, GM wheat at CSIRO in Australia, etc) and manipulative (scary memes, bad science trussed up as good science (Seralini study, Seneff study, etc)) and wholly misrepresents things. It’s difficult for most people to distinguish between good and bad science – – – between good, balanced reporting and rhetoric in the media.

We live in a messy social media world where, to me, the democratic model plays out like it’s on steroids.  The truth is that good, reputable science – whether it’s medical, agriculture, or engineering – is not scary or sexy.  It doesn’t resound off walls like a marching band.  And it doesn’t come with press conferences or book and movie releases.  This means that good science doesn’t always make for good headlines or good stories.

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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Meme-ufactured.

I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.

starvation

quote source: @Toby_Bruce

The meme had an image.  It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.

I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook.  The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”

“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”

Others, however, were shocked and offended:

“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”

“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”

“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.” 

Others were:

“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”

“It is shocking, sad and evocative.  In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”

memeufactured

Click on image to view Twitter dialogue

Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans.  Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet.  We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.

I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:

  1. These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
  2. Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
  3. Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
  4. That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
  5. If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.

Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?

Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.  Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.

In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs.  But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:

“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”

Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:

“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:

“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”

Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:

“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”

Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ‘boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?

Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses.  And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. 
 
For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.

There’s no room in science for provocateurs

How many times do we have to deal with the folly and fall-out of sub-standard science?  In her letter titled “Future of Meat” dated October 24, 2013, J. MacPherson references the same ol’, same ol’ ill-reputed studies to challenge something that is no longer an issue: the safety of genetically engineered crops and food.

After eating three trillion servings of genetically modified foods, not so much as a tummy ache has been reported by anyone.   Over 750 studies conducted over a span of 25+ years affirm the safety of genetically engineered foods and crops. Many of these are conducted by independent, public-sector scientists.  We call this ‘scientific consensus.’

The Séralini, Carman and Krueger studies are each guilty of three or more of the following: 1) a poorly executed methodology (where correlation is used to imply causation, among other things); 2) weak statistical analyses; 3) poor use of controls; 4) inappropriate sample sizes; 5) spelling and grammar errors; 6) and the authors refuse to release data or methods so that other scientists can replicate the work.  These missing or weak elements violate the basic tenets of ‘good science’ and standardized protocols that have been established for centuries.

But why do these same ol’, same ol’ studies keep getting regurgitated in the media and continue to pop up on the Internet complete with hype and ugly photos?  The answer is two-part: 1) human cognitive habits’ and 2) our attachment to mobile technology and social media.

We are Internet junkies – referred to as ‘just in time’ users.  Almost 70% of North Americans consult Google or social media platforms for information or to get answers to their questions.  We are tapped in. Further complicating matters are our human cognitive habits. We are conspiratorial thinkers. If you think that the omniscient presence of mobile technology and access to cameras 24/7 would have conclusively settled questions about flying saucers, lake monsters, Bigfoot and ghosts, think again. We are also conformists and we always seek out our personal networks to ask questions and seek information that validates our beliefs or our ‘world views.’  We like to think in pictures and we have a habit of finding meaningful patterns in meaningless information. That’s why we see the ‘man in the moon’ and the Virgin Mary on pieces of toast.  Finally, humans love a good (sometimes horrific) story.  Storytelling is an important part of our social fabric. Think about it, before we could write, we have been telling stories as a way to illustrate simple moral lessons or to teach and learn. The only difference is that we don’t do it on cave walls anymore.  We do it on the fast moving social media trains of Facebook, Twitter and LinkdIn.

send a curse

In combination, our networking behaviour and our human cognitive habits leave us open to all kinds of misinformation.  Science isn’t easy to understand and science certainly isn’t sexy.  So, when studies conducted by the likes of Séralini, Carman and Krueger magically make it through the peer-review process, most of us that understand what ‘good science’ is are left scratching our heads in frustration.  Make no mistake, these so-called ‘studies’ have political agendas driving them.  They are designed, promoted and circulated in such a way that its feeds into our fears and our biases.  The studies (and their authors) are highly provocative – nothing more. And, quite simply, there is no room in objective, evidence-based science for provocateurs.

Speaking of provocative – – – Did you know that the publication of the Séralini study in September of 2012 was neatly bundled with a well-promoted press conference, a book launch as well as a movie – all in the same week?  This is ‘unheard of’ in reputable science circles.  This suggests that Séralini had set out to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something (in ‘good science’, scientists pose a hypothesis and set out to disprove it). In advance of the publication, Séralini also asked journalists to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement  (NDA).  This meant that journalists’ could not consult with any third party experts in order to report on the study in a responsible and balanced way.  No self-respecting academic scientist would require an NDA.  (Please note: health and food safety organizations the world over have discredited the Séralini study).

But let’s dig look at the peer-review process a bit closer. PubMed is a database of scientific studies (medical and other) that the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) maintains and operates. Publications and journals listed in that database meet important scientific criteria regarding research quality. The Carman study was published in the Journal of Organic Systems, which is not even recognized under PubMed (Mark Lynas talks about this on his blog).  While the journal that published the Krueger study, on the other hand, operates under the umbrella of OMICS publishing group based out of India.  The validity of the peer review process used by OMICS family of journals – since it was established in 2008 – has been questioned by many academics worldwide as well as the US government.  The NIH no longer accepts OMICS publications for listing in PubMed.

These are all really important ‘red flags’ when we try to assess the validity of scientific studies.  If these studies represented anything ground-breaking – something that legitimately challenged the ‘scientific consensus that exists out there – they would have been snapped up by higher calibre PubMed journals such as Science or Nature. Plain and simple.

fail

If this is where we hold our expectations of science – like the quality of work produced in studies conducted by the Séralinis, Carmans and Kruegers of the world – then we are in serious trouble.  I want fact and evidence-based information and ‘good’ science to inform policy – not someone’s agenda-motivated, fictionalized version of the science. If safety and value-add is the goal for our foodstuffs then, as a society, we should demand better than what Séralini, Carman and Kruger have to offer.

We cannot hold progressive and innovative science to such weak standards.

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Related posts:

From ‘I Smell a Rat’ to ‘When Pigs Fly’ – bad science makes it rounds

bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

Outstanding Summary of the Seralini Study by J. Byrne

Other things of interest: Myles Power on the Pig Study (Carman etal).

“10 ‘reasoned’ responses” to “10 reasons we don’t need #GMOs”

You may have run across this article “10 Reasons We Don’t Need GM Foods” on the FoodConsumer website.  It’s been making its rounds on social media (Facebook and Twitter). I would like to address some of the inaccuracies in this article – point by point:

1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis

Well, surprisingly enough, I agree with this one.  Or at least with the statement: GM foods ALONE won’t solve the food crisis. GM foods and genetically engineered (GE) crops aren’t a silver bullet in resolving problems with food security.  I refer to Mark Lynas (former Greenpeace activist and author) who said in a recent talk he gave at Cornell University:

“[GE/GM] cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs, and which have greater yield resilience in drought years are least worth a try?” Mark Lynas (April 2013)

Hey, I’d say so.  It is important to note that the introduction of GE crops (in particular) has enabled wider adoption of “no-till” farming (see a farmer’s perspective on this).  No-till is a system which conserves soil moisture, prevents erosion, dramatically reduces nutrient and pesticide movement to streams and rivers, and reduces fuel use.  All good, in my opinion.

Did you know that if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need millions (maybe even billions) more hectares available to produce what we produce today? Advances in plant breeding techniques, introduction of no-till practices, integrated pest management and adoption of genetically engineered crop varieties account for this rise in production.  This translates into higher productivity on less land.  We all win.   

2. GM crops do not increase yield potential

Seriously?! Hmmm.  Well, research suggests differently. The results of meta-analysis (that means a study that analyzed the results from MANY MANY other studies) published in a peer reviewed science journal in 2012 found that organic yields of individual crops were on average 25% percent lower than that of conventional yields.   Productivity in GM crops are purported to be anywhere from 7 – 20% higher than conventional varieties.  And, of course, context matters.  Different soil conditions in different parts of the world may be more or less conducive to a variety of production methods. Again, GE technology and GM crops are not a silver bullet by any means. But genetically engineered crops are an important technology in the food production toolbox. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, OK?

3. GM crops increase pesticide use

If that’s the case, then how do you explain this interesting fact? Cotton farmers in India spray heavily to control for pests that damage production. Did you know that the application of pesticides to cotton in India is done by hand? With farmers walking through their small cotton fields using backpack sprayers? The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. It is estimated that more than 2 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis which saves the Indian government US$14 million (Smyth 2013, Herring 2009).

Want a first world perspective on the whole GM and pesticide use issue? Check out Applied Mythology‘s “The Muddled Debate on Pesticides and GM Crops.” Pesticide use is lower. Combine that with other economic and environmental benefits (refer to #1 and #2)… it’s a good thing.

4. There are better ways to feed the world

Let’s re-phrase this so that it’s a bit more accurate: “There are “many” ways to feed the world”

Absolutely.  A million of them.  Food security is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach in resolving the political and economic issues that come with feeding a growing world population.  Again, GE and GM crops are very important technologies in the food production toolbox…

I mentioned the “baby” and the “bathwater” already, didn’t I?

5. Other farm technologies are more successful

Farming is complex. I don’t know ANY farmer who is not up against making a hundred decisions in a given day.  Just ask a producer (grain, livestock, organic, conventional): Ryan Goodman, Brian Scott, Emily Zweber, Carrie Mess… Again, this is not an all or nothing scenario. Many factors go into the strategic management at the farm level.  And its never as simple as saying that GMO is ‘bad’ and organic is ‘good’ or vice versa. It’s more than just picking a production method.

6. GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat

I hear this a lot and I have to remind everyone that nothing is 100% safe. Nothing. NO food. You can test organic, conventional and GM for the next 500 years and there will never ever be “absolute proof” that a food produced a certain way is 100% safe. That’s not how things roll here in the ‘real world’. The food value chain is long and involves lots of actors.  Lots can happen. Take for example the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis in 2008 (23 confirmed deaths). Then there was the XL Foods e.coli incident in 2012 where 18+ people were taken ill when they ingested tainted meat. And the anti-GM folks get a bit hot under the collar when I mention this one:  almost 4000 people were affected and 53 died from a rare strain of e.coli in sprouts that were produced on an organic farm in Germany in 2011.

There have been some food-related tragedies.  But there is no documented evidence of harm to human health or deaths from consumption of GM foods since they were introduced to the market two decades ago. None. Here are TWO studies (US and EU – and there are more) that attest to the safety of GM foods (NRC 2004, EC 2010, more here (scroll down)). GE crops or GMOs have been the most heavily tested food products in the history of our regulatory system.

7. People don’t want GM foods – so they’re hidden in animal feed

I wonder who thought this little gem up.  GM foods aren’t “hidden.” And they are certainly not “hidden” in animal feed.  Livestock producers use corn and soybean as a base for animal feed, all over the world (including the the European Union where GE soybeans are exported from the US and Brazil for animal consumption). As of 2012, there has been a 100-fold increase in the planting of biotech crops since 1996.  In the US alone, between 67% and 94% of all acreage attributed to corn, soybean, cotton and canola are genetically engineered. Nothing is “hidden” here… genetically engineered crops are ‘front and centre’ in world agriculture production.  Biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture (James 2012).

8. GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers

Wow. That sounds scary.  Yes, GM seed prices are higher than that of conventional seeds.  But farmers that utilize the technology do so because they get higher yields and extract higher margins.  Just ask Brian Scott: “I can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow to be used as seed by other farmers next year.” If you ask Brian, he is neither “dependent” on the technology nor is he a “slave to ‘big ag'”.   Rather he (and other producers like him) are making economic decisions at the farm level based on input costs and projected market outcomes.  And don’t kid yourself. These folks don’t make these decisions at the expense of the land.  They *care* about the environment (environmental benefits: see #1).  They are not about to willfully destroy land that has been farmed by them and their ancestors – and potentially their children and children’s children – for generations.

9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist

There’s that word again – – – “contamination”.  It’s an ugly word with ugly connotations.  Did you know that we already operate in a segregated agriculture and food system?  If you want, you can choose to eat organic.  It’s all labeled in your grocery store.  Organics standards were adopted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2009 in Canada.  These standards are enforced by organic inspectors through accredited certification bodies all over the country. Contamination? Organic farm and crop certification is based on the production methods used, NOT on the purity of the end product. So, nothing would happen to an organic grower or his produce if (in the highly unlikely event that) trace amounts of some other variety were found (BTW – there is no testing in organic crops). Organic growers will never lose their organic certification (unless, of course, they are shown to be intentionally growing ‘non-organic’ produce or crops and sending them to market as ‘organic’).

10. We can’t trust GM companies

Don’t believe everything you read. Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market. Did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years (13 years and $140 million US)? And just to clarify, the regulatory system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.

The whole “David and Goliath” thing (small defenseless farmer vs big ag company) gets wayyyy overblown in the anti-GM rhetoric.  Like I said before, don’t believe everything you read.  Like ’em or not, ‘big ag’ companies are the only ones that can take these technologies to the marketplace where society can extract value from them.  Who else? Universities and public research institutes? I don’t think so.  At least, that’s not where I want *my* tax dollar going. These multinational ag businesses invest the dollars in the research and product development and they have a right to protect that investment for a limited period of time. It’s how our patent system works – for EVERYONE.

Want to know more about patents and plants? Check here.

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We live in a privileged world; one where food is plentiful and varied and one that affords us this seemingly ‘aesthetic’ relationship with what and how we consume. We have turned our backs on the functionality of food and entered into this realm of ‘food snobbery’ where the ‘food police or elites‘ (as Jayson Lusk refers to them) seem to rule the world.

On a final note: For every 10 reasons cited suggesting that we don’t need GMOs, I can list 100 or more of why we *do* need genetically engineered crops and GM food.

rant/off

Tommy Lee and his friends at PETA – wayyyy off-track. Pun intended.

Disclaimer: These words are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stampede or its affiliates.

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Why am I not surprised? It looks like Tommy Lee took a page out of his ex-wife’s ‘play book’ on how to stay relevant in the eyes of one’s fans – – – become a celebrity endorser for PETA.  [*head shake*]

tommy lee 1

Today, Mötley Crüe rocker Tommy Lee submitted a letter to Premier Redford asking for the Calgary Stampede’s chuckwagon races be cancelled, “…horses [are] killed year after year,” he says. Hmmm… I wonder where Tommy gets his info from? Did he pick a random factoid from the “PETA hat of nonsense”, perhaps? Tommy, only 50 horses have died out of an estimated 75,000 that have participated in Stampedes over the past three decades. This number represents ‘a percentage of a percentage of a percentage’ based upon total race starts.

You might recall that last year I took PETA and Pamela Anderson to task over the same kind of drivel. It really burns my britches when celebrities adopt a cause, push a political agenda (amplified by ego or other personal motivations) and see fit to misrepresent or malign good people and good practices (I see it in agriculture all the time). Flanking her friends at PETA and another Stampede-critic Bob Barker, Pamela Anderson hit the headlines after the tragic accident on the track last year and petitioned the Premier of Alberta to ban the sport (check out my Dear Pam letter, July 2012).

PETA (and its celebrity sidekicks) have absolutely NO clue as to what goes on in the chuckwagon world.  I had the opportunity to visit the chuckwagon barns at the Stampede last year and witnessed first-hand how well these magnificent horses are cared for. Chuckwagon drivers spend hours every day with their horses – feeding, grooming, washing and caring for them. The sport of chuckwagon racing has an extensive history (with the Stampede and beyond) and there are incredibly strong familial links in the chuckwagon community. These people work together, play together and have developed working and sporting protocols that are dedicated to maintaining high standards in the sport and in animal care. And these protocols and standards are constantly improving and evolving. Horses are a chuckwagon driver’s life. I don’t know any cowboy (or cowgirl, for that matter) whose thoughts don’t often return to their horse(s) throughout the day. These people love their horses. They, like all people that bring their animals to the Stampede, care deeply about animal welfare and well-being.

I have been studying PETA – as an organization – for several years. Their business and organizational mandates have changed considerably over the past two decades.

bluebloods

Where once the organization really did some terrific things, PETA is now focused more on building its arsenal of celebrity endorsers and less on caring for the animals. This might explain PETA’s 90%+ euthanization rates (they got themselves into some (criminal) hot water back in 2005).

PETA supporters often respond to comments regarding its euthanization rates by saying that those animals were so sick from neglect or so badly beaten that they *had* to be euthanized. Ok…I get that. But if that’s the case, why isn’t PETA using its massive resources (reported revenues of US$42 million in 2011) to go after *those* nasty buggers that *do* abuse animals? There is NO evidence whatsoever that the organization dedicates any funding to ensuring that these abusers are brought to justice. Sure, PETA tries to sell itself as an animal welfare organization. But it spends less than one percent of its multi-million dollar budget actually helping animals. PETA is a lobbying organization – plain and simple **(see note below).  It’s in the business of creating publicity stunts. In other words, creating controversy where none exists. 

Statistics show that risks to an animal in the sport of chuckwagon racing are minuscule relative to the values that are extracted by the equine athletes themselves. According to a friend of mine, thoroughbreds are the “unruly teenagers” of the horse world. They are high energy animals, they are athletes and they are always ready to run. That’s what they are born and bred for. They have a great quality of life in the sport of chuckwagons.

So, PETA (and Tommy Lee), you need to do your homework!  These horses are very well cared for and the Calgary Stampede adheres to the highest of standards when it comes to animal care and welfare.  By the way, Premier Redford is in no position to even *think* about cancelling the chuckwagons.  That would be political suicide for her in this part of the world. But it doesn’t really matter anyway, does it PETA, because we all know that this is just another publicity stunt, right?!

Pam and Tommy aren’t the first celebrity PETA endorsers and they won’t be the last.  It doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that…

1)      PETA is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘corporation’ with a bottom-line goal to maximize donor dollars in order to fund publicity stunts.  Statistics don’t matter to PETA (nor does the health and welfare of animals if their euthanization rates are any indication). Optics are what matters to PETA.

2)      Celebrities, like Pam and Tommy Lee, also have bottom-line motivated ‘political’ agendas.  Celebrities are always looking for ways to remain relevant in the eyes of the fans.  They write books, they might change their image as a way re-invent their career and sometimes – YES – sometimes they become spokespersons for organizations like PETA (they do get paid for this work, by the way).

If you get a chance to, read this great blog by dairy farmer, Carrie Mess.  PETA and Ryan Gosling together think that they know something about de-horning in dairy cattle.  Carrie thinks otherwise:

“So, in the meantime [Ryan Gosling] how about you stick to making movies that I probably won’t watch and I will keep taking care of my cows. No hard feelings. I’m sure your agent thought this whole PETA thing sounded like a great idea but you might want to let your agent know that PETA has the same amount of respect out here in the real world as the National Enquirer has in your world.” – Carrie Mess

e5a4_bazinga_hoodie

On final note – as you are sitting in the grandstands at the Calgary Stampede this July, cheering on our chuckwagons, supporting our community and our western lifestyle, remember this – – – PETA is somewhere close by, hanging in the ‘wings’, rubbing its collective palms together just waiting for an accident to happen. That is, after all, what will help PETA to achieve its mandate. Sad, isn’t it?

Notes:

**PETA does not have charitable tax status in Canada because of its business activities so it operates under TIDES Canada Foundation.  TIDES was accused of money laundering by EthicalOil.org in August of last year. I am unsure of what the status of that is at this point.

Support your local animal shelters!!!

War on seeds or war on weeds? The answer lies in ‘quality of life’

Have you ever weeded a garden? I have. Many times. I recall as a child helping my grandmother weed her garden. Sometimes she used it as a form of punishment (yes, I had my moments). The garden wasn’t large but the task was onerous. Especially for a leggy, curious and impatient girl who’d rather be climbing trees, squashing pennies on the railway tracks or playing in the creek.

mom48

Grandma and me (Mother’s Day 1971)

Whether you live in the city or the country, weeding is one of those little tasks that becomes part of the summer routine. If you want your backyard garden to thrive, you need to get rid of the competitive, unwanted plant material before it sucks the life out of a good crop of lettuce or beets.

But these are first world problems.  Let’s move a bit further south. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries or emerging economies was comprised of women. Although time put toward ag-related activities by women varies by crop, production cycle, age, region and ethnic group – most activities appear to revolve around the task of weeding. In a recent AWB-hosted blog, Stuart Smyth (researcher with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan) stated that conventional maize requires in excess of 250 hours of hand weeding per hectare

Wow.

Here’s the good news. Smallholder maize farmers in South Africa that adopted GM maize reduced their manual weeding (and other labour activities) by as much as 50%! (see Smyth 2013)  Saving on field labour enables these hard-working women to spend more time on other activities (caring for their children, securing off-farm jobs to increase family income, maybe pursue educational opportunities, etc).  These (direct and indirect) benefits of GM technologies are often overlooked, especially by those of us in the first world.  

quality of life

While women in developing countries are tackling weeds and taking care of their families, first world activists are declaring war on seeds. In June 2003, experimental research materials at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk UK were uprooted and destroyed by activists. More recently, in July 2011, Greenpeace protesters scaled a fence of the CSIRO experimental station at Canberra and destroyed approximately a half a hectare crop of genetically modified wheat.

steve savage anti gm

As Professor Wayne Parrot says, these activists need to live for one day as impoverished peasants so they can experience first-hand what impact their actions are having on the lives of these people; what they are denying them in terms of technology.

In my opinion, it is so much easier (and cowardly) to pull full plants out of publicly-funded field trials than it is to hand-weed a hectare of corn. Perhaps a little weeding is in order?

I think that my grandmother would agree. :O)

 

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More information on Solving Africa’s Weeding Problem

Here is a great post by Andrew Kniss on weed control in ‘first world’ agriculture: “Social Benefits of Biotech Crops”  Excerpt: “Before you rail against the technology, or denounce the evil corporations for creating them. Before you argue on twitter or Facebook about how good or bad the technology is for society. Before you write your next post for the New York Times or Grist. Ask a farmer who uses the technology. And then think about what they say.

Interest groups turn Supreme Court case into ‘save the seeds’ myth

The Bowman vs Monsanto Supreme Court hearing is big news in the United States and we are seeing ripple effects of it up here in Canada.  Although some headlines sparked by interest groups that oppose modern agricultural production methods, including use of genetically modified (GM) crops, might suggest otherwise, this case is not about farm-saved seed.  This case is an attempt to make an exception in well-established patent law for products of agricultural biotechnology, thereby granting the purchaser of GM seeds the right to copies of that innovative technology.

soybean field

Biotech soybean field in the United States. (USDA-ARS)

Bowman (the plaintiff and an Indiana farmer) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Save Our Seeds (SOS) want the Supreme Court to reverse lower court decisions upholding Monsanto’s patent rights and conveyance of limited-use rights to farmers.  Such a reversal would have great applicability to other industries and would devastate innovation in biotechnology and other technologies that are based on inventions that are readily copied.  What incentive would inventors in the public and private sectors have to invest in research and development if they had virtually no protection from others copying their inventions? Bowman argues in the case of Monsanto’s patented soybeans, the company’s rights were terminated after the first sale and those rights should not extend to progeny with Monsanto’s patented technology.

So who is the real villain in this drama?  Is it Monsanto, who invested 10+ years and $100+ million in development of improved soybeans widely adopted by farmers globally because of their benefits; or is it Bowman and interest groups that have rolled this recent case into a ‘save the seeds’ campaign?  In one of her most recent articles, Debbie Barker (international director for CFS and project director for SOS) stated: “The Supreme Court ought to rule in favour of Bowman so that instead of farmers becoming modern-day serfs of agrichemical companies, they can regain traditional seed rights.” 

But Barker is out of touch with the practices of today’s farmers. In Canada alone, farmers have been using certified seed as part of their operations for over 100 years.  This is nothing new. Very few farmers, if any, breed seed these days. In his opinion piece in CNN’s Eatocracy, Indiana farmer Brian Scott states: “If we wanted to breed our own varieties I’m sure we could, but I look at it right now as division of labor. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and farmers are great at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fiber.”

Years of public and private research costing millions and millions of dollars have gone into producing modern seeds that perform better than previous generations.  Farmers want to plant the best, locally adapted and productive package of genetics available.  Patented soybeans are grown by more than 90% of the 275,000 soybean farms in the United States.  For the record, nobody forces a farmer to agree to the terms of a seed purchase.  If a farmer wishes to forgo the advantages of a superior variety, he or she can simply use older, unrestricted crop varieties.  But as this case documents, farmers want to plant improved varieties and they want GM technology – the vast majority are willing to pay a premium for the benefits, and a few, like Bowman want it all and for free.

if there are not IPRs

Why are patents important?  Patents are a provision of exclusive rights granted to an inventor for a limited period of time.  Rhetoric might suggest that patents are ‘bad’ but they drive investment in invention and innovation in the public and private sectors.  Intellectual property rights (IPRs) exist for a reason.  If there are no property rights, there is no protection.  If there is no protection, there is no return on investment. If there is no return on investment, there is no innovation. And if that happens, we all lose.

When Bowman purchased the commodity seed from the grain elevator, he knew exactly what he was buying.  By planting those seeds, Bowman was using copies of the company’s technology for personal gain, just as if he had copied music or software and sold it for a profit; he didn’t have that right and he knew it. Reports coming out of the hearing on the 19th suggest that the Supreme Court is leaning in favour of Monsanto.  The alternative would be unthinkable. Not only would there be huge implications for modern agriculture, but for self-replicating technologies in a range of industries that rely on IPRs to protect their investments (software, vaccines, cell lines).  Without access to new and innovative crop varieties, we are hard-pressed to meet the challenges of a growing world population, shrinking arable land base, environmental issues, disease, pests and drought.

Versions of this blog have been posted in: The Winnipeg Free Press (February 23, 2013) and the Huffington Post Alberta Ag Blog (Feburary 25, 2013).  

Brian John vs @Mark_Lynas. It’s Mark for the ‘conversational’ win.

It never ceases to amaze me how low people will go in order to push a political agenda.  Brian John, of GM-Free Cymru, did just that in his open letter to Mark Lynas dated February 10, 2013.  You may recall Mark Lynas’ powerful address to the Oxford Farming Conference in early January where he apologized for assisting in the demonization of GM, a technology that can be used to benefit the environment. It is a technology that Lynas now defends:

“What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.” M. Lynas

As a social scientist, much of my work revolves around the qualitative analysis of interview data and text-based analysis.  Words and language and how they are used to communicate are revealing about people, their circumstances or their position on a given social issue.

Out of curiosity, I took the liberty of using “Wordle” to generate some word clouds to contrast and compare the text in Mark Lynas’ speech (January 3, 2013) with the text of John’s ‘open letter’ to Lynas (posted February 10th). Here are the results:

Wordle ‘word cloud’ of the text of Mark Lynas’ lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference:

Bjohn vs Lynas 2

text of Mark Lynas’ lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference – Jan 3, 2013

Wordle ‘word cloud’ of the text of Brian John’s open letter to Mark Lynas: “Beware the Rise of the Science Stalinist”:

bJohn vs Lynas

Text of B. John’s open letter to Mark Lynas, Feb 10, 2013

Mark’s speech starts with “I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops.”

John’s letter to Mark begins with the ‘Stalinist’ reference and then goes to… “I want to address just one issue arising from your recent high-profile conversion into a GM evangelist.” (From there on, John ‘ties’ into the collective effort of independent reputable scientists to ask for the retraction of a poorly executed study by Séralini and his team; a study that has since been discredited by several food safety organizations worldwide (including but not limited to: Health Canada, European Food Safety Authority, French National Institute for Agriculture Research, CNRS, Inserm, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, National Centre for Scientific Review… check out my previous blog entry)).

So, how about those terms of reference? In his address, Mark uses words like: hope, world, growth, innovation, farmers, think, better.  B. John uses words like (well, once you get past the lists of ‘villains’ and ‘victims’): attacks, zealots, beware, vilification, witches, burning, Rottweilers.

What a marked difference.

Words are powerful.  They are a form of action; they can influence change. As we try to elevate the discourse around the GM debate, the kind of language we use matters. It is a reflection of our intent and our willingness to engage in a thought-provoking and proactive manner. Brian John’s text not only inaccurately represents the facts, but the tone and his choice of words suggest that he is less interested in engaging in constructive dialogue and more interested in purveying rhetoric.

We need to use better words; we need to find a better way.