Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.

fastinfonation1

Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.

snowball1

Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.

badstuff

 

‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:

  • “C” Credibility:
    • What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
    • Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
    • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
    • Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
  • “A” Accuracy:
    • Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
    • Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
  • “R” Reliability:
    • Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
    • Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
    • Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
  • “S” Support:
    • Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
    • Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:

 

Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6

Retraction reaction…

The recent retraction of the Séralini study by the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology journal (more at Retraction Watch) has been a hot topic over the past few weeks.  The editors of the journal wrote a letter (Letter_AWHayes_GES (1)) to Seralini on November 19, 2013, inviting him to voluntarily withdraw the article.  In the event that Séralini chose not to do so, the editors informed him that they would retract the article.  Apparently, Séralini opted not to withdraw and the article was retracted by the editors in late November.

Image credit: http://www.scienceweek.net.au/extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence/

Image credit: http://www.scienceweek.net.au/extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence/

The Séralini study should never have been published in the first place. There were fundamental problems with the study (even grammar errors) which makes me question the quality of peer review — not to mention the low number of rats used and lack of controls.

Sample size and controls, in this case, represent huge red flags. There are well articulated Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) guidelines about numbers of rats required for experimental purposes in studies of this nature. And for Séralini to draw such broad sweeping conclusions based on a shoddy study results is inappropriate. We can’t forget that Séralini also violated science based rules regarding the ethical treatment of rats. Those rats suffered needlessly. See the European Food Safety Authority’s review of the study and a more simplified overview of the “Séralini Affair” on Wikipedia.

Soon after the study was published, it was discredited by independent scientists and food and feed safety authorities all over the world (orgs that discredit seralini study). Sadly, it appears that the European Commission is going to invest big bucks to replicate the study.  Fortunately, the work will be done by independent scientists.  And if they use the proper protocols and controls, they will likely reach conclusions that we can hang a ‘good science hat’ on although I’d be awfully surprised if the results will vary at all from current scientific consensus.  So what a colossal waste of money, especially when research money is so scarce! (See Kevin Folta’s rant (er…post) on this: Throwing Euros Down a Rat Hole).

seralini blog

Séralini probably spent in excess of 3 M Euros on his study (2012). An enormous amount of money. And he made such FUNDAMENTAL mistakes in developing and executing the methodology. Any funder Séralini had for this study should be less than satisfied with how things were managed and how experimental protocols were executed. Unless, of course, they were just interested in the PR and political shenanigans that came with it. Then the outcomes would be exactly what they would want. Which means that other agenda(s) were involved and there was no real interest in having the subject matter objectively investigated.

We can’t hold progressive and innovative science to such low standards as was demonstrated by the Séralini study. Society deserves better than that. It will be interesting to see what happens from here on in. Rumour has it that Séralini has hired a US law firm to take legal action against the journal for the retraction. More PR genius. And more to come, I’d wager.

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.

– – –

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).

From ‘I smell a rat’ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science makes its rounds

pigs flyFrom ‘I smell a rat‘ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science has been making the rounds of late. The multi-authored article A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet” reports that pigs fed a diet of only genetically modified grain show a markedly higher incidence of stomach inflammation than pigs that ate conventional feed.

This paper is fresh off the press and ready for ravenous consumption by anti-GMO enthusiasts. However, it seems that – post-publication – the paper and its evidence fail the independent peer-review process on many fronts:

The Evidence: David Tribe reviews the paper here: He says, “It’s what some call a fishing expedition in search of a finding, and a known pitfall of animal feeding trials on whole foods…” Tribe points out (among other things) that some of the study’s observations might be attributed to compositional differences in the variety of soybeans or corn fed to the pigs “..there is relatively little information in the paper about nutritional formulation, methods used for producing the pig diets, storage time for the grain and which particular varieties of grain were used in the diets.”

Update – June 14th – – – Anastasia Bodnar expands upon this further in her post in Biofortified Lack of care when choosing grains invalidates pig feeding study: “The authors aimed to do a real world study, with pig feed that can be found in real life. It intuitively seems right to just go get some grain from some farms. After all, that is what pigs eat, right? Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple…To hone in on any differences that may be caused by the GM traits, they would have to use feed with one or more GM traits and feed that doesn’t have the GM traits but that is otherwise as similar as possible. If the feeds aren’t very similar, then we can’t know if any differences in the animals is due to the GM traits or due to something else.”

Update June 14th – – – Dr. Robert Friendship (via Terry Daynard) – swine expert from the University of Guelph – points to methodological problems with “visual scoring” and assessment of ‘inflammation’: “…it was incorrect for the researchers to conclude that one group had more stomach inflammation than the other group because the researchers did not examine stomach inflammation. They did a visual scoring of the colour of the lining of the stomach of pigs at the abattoir and misinterpreted redness to indicate evidence of inflammation. It does not. They would have had to take a tissue sample and prepare histological slides and examine these samples for evidence of inflammatory response such as white blood cell infiltration and other changes to determine if there was inflammation.”

Andrew Kniss clearly demonstrates the failings of the statistical analysis, poking holes in the study’s evidence. He states, “If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.”

Another matter worth mentioning: in the experiment, half of the pigs died of pneumonia. [update: 50% of the pigs did NOT die but, rather, were ‘sick’ with pneumonia – my error] This is an indication of bad stewardship. In events such as this, it is only appropriate to throw away the results – maybe a ‘do-over’ (next time using a better methodological approach (and take better care of the pigs)).

Credibility: This was the first time I had ever heard of The Journal of Organic Systems. As Mark Lynas observes (in GMO pigs study: more junk science), “The journal does not appear in PubMed, suggesting it is not taken very seriously in the scientific community.” In the world of science, publishing a good, sound piece of science in a good journal is an indicator of quality and credibility. I mean, think about it… if this study was a ground-breaking piece of ‘all that,’ wouldn’t it have been published by Nature or Science? At the very least, the paper would have been picked up by a journal within the study’s subject area.

Bias: You only need glance at the acknowledgement list at the end of the paper to see that it is a ‘who’s who’ of the anti-GMO world.  This kind of makes the statement “The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest” pretty much ‘moot.’  One author – Howard Vlieger – is the President of Verity Farms, Iowa, an organization that markets itself as non-GM.  Judy Carman (lead author) is widely known as a long-time anti-biotech campaigner. She even has a website called ‘GMOJudyCarman‘ (launched in late May – timely, no?)

gmojudy

http://gmojudycarman.org/about-us/

Other interesting bits? In an April 2008 interview, Dr. Carman stated that her work received funding from Jeffrey Smith and the Institute for Responsible Technology. Jon Fagan, listed in the acknowledgements, is the head of Genetic-ID. Genetic-ID is the company that conducted the DNA analysis for the study confirming that the GM corn used contained a combination of NK603, MON863 and MON810 genes (page 40). Genetic-ID is based in Fairfield, Iowa and has satellites the world over. Genetic-ID is a GMO testing company and part of a convoluted network of actors with vested anti-GM interests, weird politics and Vedic-scienc-y stuff, and a long list of celebrities (see here).

It would seem that Carman et al have taken some pages from Seralini’s ‘playbook’ – but there are no ‘silver linings’ here.  This is just another exercise to “prove” that GMOs are dangerous rather than to objectively investigate them. Given the conflict of interests of the authors and affiliates involved, what other conclusion could they come to? The science, however, doesn’t pass the sniff-test. It’s a case of faulty methodology and poorly interpreted data magically making it through the peer review process.  Throw in some colorful (scary) pictures of pig uteri for good measure, add to that a bit of bias and credibility issues and you have the makings for some really ‘shoddy science’.

– – –

  • Check out Fourat Janabi’s post @Fouratj: “Pigs, GMOs and Bullshit Fourat provides a point by point critique of the Carman et al article – Easy-to-consume with none of the BS. :O)
  • Then there is this post from Julee @sleuth4health who quips, “At this point, anybody who’s ever judged a High School Science Fair has got to be thinking “F.”” 
  • Catalyzing Illinois writes Something Smells and its not the Pigs“We are not dealing with “disinterested and objective science” here.”
  • Contrary to Popular Belief: Latest anti-GMO study: more bullshit

“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.

– – – –

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.

– – – –

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*]

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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

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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!!!

Mythbusting 101: “Don’t say it – spray it”

In my bio, I claim to be a ‘mythbuster’ of sorts.  I like to clear up misconceptions about agriculture and food production. It amazes me what kind of nonsensical information gets circulated and how readily some people believe it.

Today is the first in my series entitled “Mythbusting 101.” I was inspired by a discussion on Facebook that centred around one particular photo.  Brian Scott (The Farmer’s Life) circulated the photo with the comment: “I hate out-of-context garbage like this. Especially when I see how many people *like* and *share* these things. There is absolutely no context given as to what is going on here.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Mythbusting 101: When you see pictures and words combined like this, channel your inner skeptic. This photo is grossly misleading (and this is just one example of many that are out there).

Although we can’t find the original source of the photo (it was posted on FB through Anti-Media), we are certain that this guy is not spraying water. He is spraying a pesticide. Labels on pesticides provide instructions on how to SAFELY apply these products (including ORGANIC approved pesticide products as they are toxic too). This ‘gear’ is standard protocol when administering any pesticides to crops (organic or otherwise). And… this photo has NOTHING to do with GMO foods, or labeling for that matter. In fact, this man appears to be spraying flowers or nursery stock of some kind.

A photo with the accompanying text like this is an example of what I call ‘misinformation in action’. Someone (a ‘myth-monger’ as I refer to them) is intentionally (sometimes unintentionally) misleading people.

We need to think critically about how food makes it from the field to our plate. Food is a very personal thing. That means that we need to also think critically about what we see and read about ag and food production. We should ensure that we are interpreting the information correctly and that the information *we* share with others is accurate.

If you are not sure, ask someone. Ask a farmer. Ask Brian. And make sure to check out the comments below. I was delighted to have others weigh in with their opinions on this matter.  I like to call this ‘crowd-sourced mythbusting.’ :O)

Wheat Belly or belly up?

Cardiologist Dr. William Davis’ book Wheat Belly often comes up in conversation in my social circles.  Most are highly complimentary of Davis’ take on things and most people seem quite willing to fall into the “wheat is evil” trap.  I read Davis’ book when it first came out. I revisited it again when McLean’s interviewed Dr. Davis “On the evils of wheat” (2011).

I, of course, am always skeptical. And I make no apologies for that. As soon as something is labeled “evil” (anything) my eyebrows raise, my mouth purses and my gray matter readies itself to step onto the soapbox.  Fortunately for my friends, I don’t  usually launch into lecture mode. Instead, I satisfy myself with an offhand, dismissive comment and carry on eating snacks and drinking wine (not good ‘agvocacy’ protocol, I know).

Anyway, when I was at the Ag Awareness Summit a few weeks ago, Wheat Belly came up again.  It is one of those popular food/diety resources that people seem to be leaning on these days.  The book has had quite a shelf life and, no doubt, Davis is benefiting from some royalties.

But, for those of you that are interested in a more critical look at this book and Davis’ take on things, I invite you to review a few sources.  Take, for example, Pete Bronski’s evaluation of it. Bronski has a blog entitled No Gluten, No Problem. As he confesses in his post “Wheat Belly Busted“:

“If I had read this book at another time in my life, I likely would have been none the wiser. I would have …peeked at the citations…and been satisfied. [But] I read this book at precisely that moment in my life when I was best equipped with the knowledge I needed to critically evaluate it.”

Pete passes those insights onto you by going through the book’s citations and analyzing Davis’ interpretation of the science he references. And guess what? Davis gets a lot of it wrong. According to Bronski:

“Those of us in the gluten-free community want to agree with Wheat Belly because Davis’ message resonates with us. But it’s an overly simplified message, at times built on tenuous claims.” (By the way, Pete Bronski and his wife Kelli have published a couple of gluten-free cookbooks and Pete has a co-authored a guide on gluten-free nutrition and training)

Melissa McEwen (who has a degree in agriculture) comes at Wheat Belly from a slightly different (yet, just as critical) perspective in her blog entry.   I like, in particular, how she challenges Davis’ theories on the “unique evils of modern Dwarf wheat” and society’s romanticism of ‘old’ wheat varieties:

“God forbid we criticize the wheat of the old days, the wheat of the Bible, the wheat are our ancestors supposedly “thrived on.” Sorry folks, I’ve seen skeletons from “thriving” ancestors, peasants from 1600 Swedish or farmers from 1500 Britain and I’m here to say that these toothless pock-marked stunted people were not exactly thriving.”

McEwen’s analysis is detailed, well-written and she takes Davis to task on some of his anecdotal theories.  She challenges us to “…hold ourselves to a higher standard and not embrace every book that comes out that tarnishes a food we don’t like or espouses a low-carb diet.”  

This skeptical mind couldn’t agree more. So what does the evidence say?

“…a study published in the July 1, 2012, edition of the Journal of Nutrition examined 45 other studies and 21 randomized-controlled trials and reported that individuals who regularly consumed whole grains, versus those who never or rarely consumed whole grains, had a 26 percent lower risk of Type II diabetes, a 21 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and consistently had less weight gain during an eight to 13 year period” (link).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that enriched grains, not vitamin supplements, are the number one source of folic acid for women of child bearing age and named this achievement in May 2011 as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the last decade” (link).

So, our takeaway for today’s blog? If you are celiac or gluten-sensitive, of course you are going to avoid wheat.  But there are lots of health benefits from consuming whole grains, if you can tolerate them. Folic acid, vitamins, and other nutrients provided through enriched, whole grains are good for the body! Most importantly, eat a healthy, well-balanced diet including lots of vegetables.  

Hmmmm…oddly, this sounds like something our grandmothers / mothers used to tell us to do.  

Other resources:

Dr. Ravi Chibbar, Professor & Canada Research Chair in Crop Quality in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Saskatchewan, talks Dwarf wheat varieties, explaining their development and benefits. AgWest Bio Blog (February 2013)

Heather Mangieri, a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides insights on the topics in this Scientific American online article “Most people shouldn’t eat gluten-free” (March 11, 2013)

Jian Ghomeshi of “Q” hosted a show where Dr. Davis and U of A researcher, Dr. Tim Caulfield were on-air to discuss Wheat Belly (February 2013).  Check out the podcast.

A VERY detailed (and evidence-based) response to Davis’ book and his points here by Julie Jones, PhD, St. Catherinen’s University, St. Paul, MN.

A review of Davis’ book by Weighty Matters: Musing of an Obesity Doc here.

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.

bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

An op-ed, by Rob Wager and me, in the Western Producer (November 22, 2012) You can eat your bugs — and toxins, too was written in response to Alex Atamanenko’s opinion piece “I’d rather eat bugs” from a couple of issues earlier.  Atamanenko heavily leverages the Séralini study which he views as “damning evidence” that “…call[s] into question not only the safety of genetically modified food but the stringency of government regulations and assessments.” Rob Wager and I take Atamanenko to task on his bias and gross misrepresentation of science:

EXCERPTS:

Séralini’s sketchy version of ‘science’:

Séralini’s study was more an exercise in media manipulation than an example of rigorous scientific work. Using a well-constructed public relations strategy and backed by anti-GM organizations, Séralini pushed this study into the media spotlight along with his personal agenda. It’s no coincidence that he launched an anti-GM book and a movie that same week. It appears as if the goal of the study was to “prove” something rather than to objectively “investigate” something.

And what about regulatory oversight?:

Industry manages trials and testing of new crop varieties based on guidelines developed by Environment Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It must adhere to strict science-based protocols. It’s important to note that industry doesn’t pay for “approvals” but bears the cost of all trials and tests.

Final thoughts:

Atamanenko takes a biased position here, misrepresenting good science and promoting poor science. It’s just politically motivated propaganda. We think that Canadian farmers and consumers deserve to know the facts.

Related posts:

I smell a rat” (September 20, 2012)

Outstanding summary of Séralini study by Jay Byrne