FarmTech poll summary: the ag and food conversation

I had the opportunity to speak to a large and engaging group of farmers and industry people at this year’s FarmTech in Edmonton. It was my first FarmTech and it was a great experience!

The title of the presentation was The Art and Science of the Ag and Food Conversation. It combined some mythbusting with a bit of ‘landscape analysis’ of our often convoluted conversational spaces around ag and food. Human cognitive habits figured in there heavily (see my blog post on this). I conducted a live poll (via Poll Everywhere) during both sessions and folks were kind enough to participate.  Here is a summary of the combined results from both sessions.

Almost everyone (95%+) in the audience(s) participates in ag and food conversations and quite often (not surprising, given the audience). Eighty-five percent (85%) of voters said that they have had an experience where things got “ugly” in an ag and food conversation.  This speaks to the ‘complex conversational terrain’ (as I refer to it) that agvocates have to deal with and, of course, to the growing ag industry image problem.

how often chat

And… it turns out that Twitter is KING  (according to @MichealWipf) in terms of preferred social media platforms (see graph below). Tweet on!!!

twitter is king Wipf

what social media platform

I often bring up another related issue: common misconceptions about who the experts really are out there.  In the polling results, ‘false experts / celebrities’ came out as #1 with 63% of the votes as primary sources of misinformation. There are many examples of psuedo-experts out there: Dr. Oz, Joseph Mercola, Pam Anderson (the “large animal expert”).  For the record, quite a few people commented that an “all of the above” option on the poll would have been useful. My bad.  That’s the hazards of developing surveys ‘on the fly’ sans peer review.  Anyway, had I included it I suspect that most, if not all, responses would have wound up in that category.

primary source of misinfo

Some of the most difficult conversations I have ever had about ag and food has been with close friends and family.  When things are personal, it can get difficult for some of us.  According to the poll results of our audience(s) at FarmTech, votes were split across ‘family/friends’, ‘acquaintances’, and ‘online people.’

most difficult

One of the biggest struggles that most people have is (quickly) finding reliable information to clarify or confirm information and to find sources in response to questions. Having followed ‘contentious ag issues’ for some time, I find that there are MORE than enough good sources out there (I’ve inventoried some links to good sources here and here).  The problem is that these sources are so widely distributed across different platforms (internet and social media) and organizations and not always easy to find through a Google search. In my opinion, we need an online searchable platform that allows users to search according to different parameters (eg. terms, contents, videos, themes, etc); a platform that can link to the best, most credible sources out there without getting ‘muddied’ by the all the other ‘junk information.’

When I am stuck and not sure where to find information from good sources, I turn to my colleagues in agriculture and/or science.  And it appears that many of the folks at FarmTech do too.

seek out info

As we move forward with our conversations, we need to stay informed.  We need to do research and we need to choose our words wisely.  What we say is not near as important as how we say it.  We need to claim the conversational space in a way that makes sense for us as individuals (online, at church, at the hockey rink, around a bonfire or at the dinner table).  And we need to connect with people’s values and meet them on common ground.  This is important in developing new narratives around ag and food. No matter what our individual expertise or knowledge is, or how or in what way we contribute to the conversation…

Picture4

Narratives in Action: reliable, compelling information about agriculture, food production and health

video_clip_artTED/TEDx TALKS:

UC Davis Professor, Dr. Pam Ronald, shares her thoughts on this Ted Talk: “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food

Will agriculture be allowed to feed 9 billion?: Rob Saik, CEO of The Agri-Trend Group of Companies is a Professional Agrologist and a Certified Agricultural Consultant. Rob is also the producer of the forthcoming documentary Know GMO: an uplifting discussion about food

Can a GMO be natural?: Jimmy Botella, is the Professor of Plant Biotechnology, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland. He founded the Plant Genetic Engineering Laboratory specialising in the fields of tropical and subtropical agricultural biotechnology. Jimmy has eleven international patents in the field of Plant Biotechnology and is a founding member of two biotechnology companies (Coridon Ltd. and Origo Biotech) a TEDx Talk

Waiter, there is a gene in my soup!: another one by Jimmy Botella. TEDxUQ 

GMO controversies- science vs public fear: – Borut Bohanec is the Chair of the Department of Agronomy, head of the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology at the Biotechnical faculty, University of Ljubljana, TEDxLjubljana

Biotech and the Hungry Planet: Neal Carter, is president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits™ (OSF), a biotechnology company specializing in the creation of novel tree fruit varieties. Carter’s goal is to develop safe, high-quality tree fruit cultivars that provide growers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, food service and consumers with improvements in quality and productivity. TEDxPenticton 

Organic or Not: Jayson Lusk is an agricultural economist and a professor at Oklahoma State University.  He is also the author of The Food Police, at TEDxOStateU

Marco and Justin have complied a list of video resources here on Facebook.

SHORT AND SWEET:

There is a five part series on GMOs on Best Food Facts’ YouTube channel (scroll down, but there’s other great stuff in there as well).

Check out Brian Dunning’s “InFact” ‘short’ on GMOs

Here’s a link to Kevin Folta’s interview on HuffPost online program Talk Nerdy to Mehttp://www.biofortified.org/2012/08/gmos-on-the-huffington-post/

MARK LYNAS

If you are willing to sit a bit longer, here are some other videos with Mark Lynas where he highlights his perspective on GMOs, particularly on the value they have for subsistence farmers in developing nations:

Changing Crops for a Changing Climate – What can Biotechnology Contribute?”, Mark Lynas at Cornell University, April, 2013

Using the Tools of Biotechnology to Advance Borlaug’s Legacy”, Mark’s Keynote lecture at BGRI (with intro from Mr. Mann) — New Delhi, India August, 2013

AND here is another interesting one… bit longer, as well:

Jimmy’s Food Fight: Jimmy Doherty, pig farmer, is one-time scientist and poster-boy for sustainable food production is on a mission to find out if GM crops really can feed the world.

HOW TO LOOK SMART ON THE INTERNET

Steve Novella on “The Google University Effect” on NeuroLogica Blog is fantastic! 

Additionally, GMO Skepti-Forum has an amazing list of resources outlined including some great narratives… check out 500 words!
Nodes of Science has what I refer to as “A Guide for Intellectual Honesty”… how to identify B.S., how to assess the credibility of authors and articles, how to access good research, and how to ask for help.
“Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist.” – Steven Pinker

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 5 (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.5 What are the benefits to GM foods? (see a related blog entry on this):

Most would argue that the benefits of GM food accrue further up the value chain (seed companies and  producers).  But we cannot under-estimate or under-value what these gains mean downstream for consumers.

Studies have been conducted that demonstrate (on average) that GM crops out-produce organics by as much as 30%.  Now, this varies depending on location and soil conditions (and other factors) of course.  But overall, there are productivity gains for genetically engineered crops. GE crop technology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. As of 2012, 170 million hectares worldwide had been planted to biotechnology.  Fastest adopters of late? Third world countries.

Also, we are running out of land and we have a growing world population.  We cannot afford to use any more land base than we already do.  If GE crops can allow us to produce MORE on less land, then having biotech crops in our ag toolbox is important for that fact alone.

And here is something else that I find compelling. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force was women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was in weeding. Ugh. New varieties of GE corn introduced to South Africa has cut down weeding time substantially.  This means that women have more time (options?) to pursue off-farm work, spend time with children, pursue educational opportunities??? Isn’t that a good thing?  Then there is GM cotton in India.  Most pesticides are applied by the farmer (no mechanical means).  Besides productivity gains, the introduction of GM cotton in the country has meant fewer passes of pesticides resulting in millions of dollars saved in the country’s health care system.  Here is an article that looks at the benefits of GM crops in India for women.

We are also contending with things like global warming, disease, pests, etc.  We need to develop crop varieties that are adaptable to new environments so that people have options for eating and for production.  Take, for example, the development of flax varieties for northern parts of Canada.  Flax is an important crop for rotation purposes in farm management (plus there are markets for this crop).  Crop rotation is an important part of integrated pest management strategies at the farm-level. Having access to a crop variety for on-farm management rotational practices is important for productivity and for the environment.

Also, the introduction of herbicide tolerant crops has allowed farmers to adopt min or no til practices which is better for the environment (and it helps lower costs for the farmer as well – less time in the field and less money spent on weed control). These herbicide tolerant crops require a lot less product – and fewer passes – to control weeds.

There are many different kinds of genetically engineered crop varieties out there in the product pipeline that have consumer benefits.  For example, there is a low linoleate soy bean that has been modified for no transfats (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/business/in-a-bean-a-boon-to-biotech.html?_r=1&).

In the end, the benefits of GM crop adoption and improvements are in quality of life[1], both from a farmer’s perspective and from a consumer’s perspective.  Thus, it is important that we continue to judiciously regulate these crop varieties and ensure that they in the toolbox of options for farmers and as value-add ingredients for our food (consumers).

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 4 (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.4 Should labeling GM foods be mandatory in Canada? There is a private member bill that has been introduced to label GMOs in Canada plus 24+ legislative (municipal and state level) initiatives currently on ‘the books’ in the US.  This whole issue of labeling is not going away anytime soon.  The problem is that the issue is often oversimplified in the media.  It’s not as simple as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day. image4 Mandatory labeling invokes traceability within the food system.  And no matter what the headlines say, that means costs.  When people think GMOs and labeling, they most often think big seed companies[1] (like Monsanto) and big retailers (like Walmart). The ag and food production value chain is long and complex, comprised of many different actors including producers/farmers, elevator managers, grain distributors, seed companies, food processors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, etc. If governments were to enact mandatory labeling [2], costs would be incurred throughout that value chain (all actors). And those costs would be passed onto the consumer. In addition to increased food costs, mandatory labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study[3] conducted by MIT professor Juaniuan Zhang, consumers assumes that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply.  So, if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect that there is something wrong with it.  Thus, a GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label. On a related note, our current food labeling system (regulated by the federal government) operates on some fundamental tenets.  First off, labels on food products are reserved for foodstuffs that carry a documented health risk (eg. allergen) or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition.  Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods (see studies mentioned above).  Labeling them for consumers (mandatory) would be misleading.  Labels, by law, cannot be misleading.  The other argument here is that if people wish to avoid GMOs, they can.  There are third party certified labels for “non GMO” (The Non GMO Project) and you can always choose to buy “certified organic” (US and Canada).  So, a GMO label seems a bit redundant. image4a Now, voluntary labeling on the part of the food industry is a whole other issue.  Some argue that industry should have been more proactive long ago and incorporated what is referred to as “positive” labeling strategies for products with GMO ingredients.  It may have mitigated some of the controversy that has gone on for the past 20 years.  This voluntary labeling thing is not out of the realm of possibilities for now either.  But the devil will be in the details. How and what to label is the real question.  It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Here’s two sides to the issue that are very illustrative and from people that I view as evidence-based and ‘reasoned’: Check out Mark Lynas’ take on labels and his argument for ‘transparency’: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/10/why-we-need-to-label-gmos/ Also, I like this post by my colleague Chris MacDonald on “Right to Know What I am Eating” on his blog “Food Ethics”: http://food-ethics.com/2010/09/28/the-right-to-know-what-im-eating/


[1] There are often statements in the media “If you are so proud of your products, Monsanto, why don’t you label them?” This shows that people really don’t have an understanding the ag and food value chain.  These companies (like Bayer, BASF< Dow, Monsanto, etc) market to farmers. Period. And those seeds (if they are genetically engineered) are VERY WELL labeled as such. Now, the reason that these big companies get involved in funding “say no to GMO labels” is because they are supporting and advocating for the interests of downstream industry actors (like food companies).  They are also taking into consideration what impacts labeling would have at the farm, elevator, transport levels too.  Segregation costs (and other administrative and management costs) are big costs.
[2] At the government level, these costs would be incurred by the public purse, of course.
[3] The Zhang study: http://jjzhang.scripts.mit.edu/docs/Zhang_2014_GMO.pdf – – – – GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, 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.

– – –

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?)

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’.

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  • 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

Labels and other ‘Krafty’ Stuff #mythbusting101

I am a huge fan Kraft Mac n’ Cheese (AKA ‘KD’). When I was young, broke and living on my own, it was a food ‘staple’.  As a household, now, we probably consume only about 6 boxes per year. Times change.  But KD doesn’t. I find that it still ‘hits the spot’ sometimes. 

The other day, I saw a photo like this circulating on Pinterest with the headline “WARNING: look at what’s in your Kraft Mac n’ Cheese! 

Source: Food Babe

Source: Food Babe

When I first saw the label, I thought it was total bunk; garbage. My judgement was based not only on the label content but also on what appeared to me to be a rather ‘amateurish’ label design. Hey, it was a fair assumption. I mean, how hard could it be to stop at Staples, pick up a pack of Avery labels and design/print labels with deceptive information? In terms of content, a first clue was that “macaroni” was spelled incorrectly (as “macroni”). The other red flag for me was the label’s “GMO declaration” – “made from genetically modified wheat.” WHAT?!? (I’ll get to the ‘wheat’ thing later).

Fig. 3

photo taken by colleague in London, May 31, 2013

After a bit of social media scanning, I found out that this label was on a package of KD that was imported from the US to the United Kingdom (UK).  As I was not familiar with import and labeling regulations in the UK, I launched into several hours of research – scouring regulatory documents and scanning the websites of UK importers.  Not to mention, I exchanged a flurry of emails with colleagues who are more ‘in the know’ about such things. I even managed to score a photo of another labeled box of KD from a colleague in London (below).

First, I wanted to compare what I knew to be a legitimate label on a package of KD (above, purchased by a trusted colleague) with one that had been circulating on social media. Summary below:

KD labels side by side

Photo of Label 1 sourced from Food Babe

Label 1: As far as I can tell, the photo of this label was introduced to the Internet via the Food Babe website. The date that this particular box of KD was originally purchased is unknown. But Food Babe did publish another photo of a package of KD yesterday that appears to have the same format and content as the one pictured above. The photo also included the May 31, 2013 issue of The Times of London as a ‘time stamp’ (the photo was taken at a Tesco location in North London).  The product importer was Innovative Bites Ltd.

Label 2: Photographed by a colleague on May 31, 2013, this label was on a package of KD that he purchased at a local Tesco retailer in London.  The product importer was PS Foods Limited.

Note the differences. To illustrate these differences, I pulled together a table that outlines what is and isn’t included on the respective labels.

table KD

Allergen Information: Regulatory bodies in many countries in the world have labelling requirements for specific priority allergens (plus gluten sources / added sulphites) in foods (Canada, US, EU). Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both of which are food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder) are known in the EU as Tartrazine (E102), and Sunset Yellow (E110) respectively. In a 2007 study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, hyperactivity in children was linked to artificial colorings and a food preservative. This prompted the European Parliament to pass a law in July 2008 requiring products containing food dyes in Europe to carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” (as shown on Label 1, absent on Label 2).

GMOs: The EU (including the UK) has a very different political and regulatory approach to genetically engineered crops and GMOs than we do in North America. While mandatory labelling of GMOs isn’t required here in Canada (or the US), the European Commission requires that pre-packaged products consisting of or containing GMOs have labels that indicate so. As much as 70% of food in our grocery stores in North America is made with genetically modified ingredients (soy, canola, corn). Therefore an importer of a prepackaged product from the US (as in this case) may include “may contain GMOs” on the label for no other reason than to cover their butts.

But here’s the real kicker about Label 1.  Label 1 states – definitively – that the product is “made from genetically modified wheat.” There has never been a genetically engineered wheat on the market.  Never. Not anywhere in the world. So, even if Kraft wanted to make its product(s) with GE wheat, it couldn’t. The information on Label 1 is inaccurate and grossly misleading.

Ingredients: I couldn’t find a (credible, regulatory) document that outlined protocols for labeling imported prepackaged food in the UK. So, I will pose some possible reasons for why one of these labels had ingredients and the other didn’t.

Maybe it depends on the placement of the label.  Label 2 was placed on the upper part of the side of the box.  The (US) factory printed ingredient list was near the bottom so it wasn’t obscured. Maybe that’s why the ingredient list didn’t need to be repeated on the label.  As for the other product (Label 1), it wasn’t photographed in full so I don’t really know where the label was placed.  One thing that would justify a list of ingredients beyond the factory printed list (as in Label 1) would be a clarification of ingredients.  You will recall earlier that I mentioned that the food dyes in KD’s dry cheese powder are referred to differently in the UK (EU) than they are in North America. Including an edited ingredients list would be useful (and informative) in this case. (Related: see Rob Wallbridge’s post on his blog The Fanning Mill where he talks about interpretation and meaning of (ag-based) words in different parts of the world).

Note: ‘Best Before’ dates are included on Label 1 but not on Label 2.

Is safety an issue? In a word, NO.

Food dyes: Both Yellow 5 (Tartrazine (E102)) and Yellow 6 and (Sunset Yellow (E110)) have safety approval in the US (USDA/FDA), the EU (EFSA) and other jurisdictions in the world. A panel of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) experts met with the center for Science in the Public Interest in 2011 to consider relevant data on the possible association between artificial food colors and hyperactivity in children. Based upon the available evidence, the panel ruled that a causal link between food dyes and ADHD has not been established.  They did, however, suggest that more research needed to be done.  These food dyes (and Kraft) are still under fire. There are lobbying efforts underway to push the company to remove these additives from their product lines.

GM Wheat:  No GE wheat varieties have been approved for commercial production in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Monsanto, however, was authorized to field test glyphosate tolerant wheat in 16 states from 1998 to 2005.  Recently, glyphosate tolerant wheat was discovered in an Oregon field.  APHIS has launched an official investigation (press release here). Check out the post at Biofortified “Get the scoop on GMO wheat in Oregon.” Karl Haro von Mogel provides some great links to resources there.

Needless to say, this recent discovery, in combination with the Kraft label issue, only serves to fuel the fire of controversy and raises questions about the safety of GE wheat. But the FDA reviewed this glyphosate tolerant wheat back in 2004 and determined it that there was no food safety risk associated with the crop variety.

So, what SHOULD we be concerned about? 

MISL LABELS

The EU watchdog must be asleep. It appears that different UK importers (in this case, Innovative Bites Ltd (UK) and PS Foods Limited) attach different labels to meet requirements. More problematic, however, are the gross errors in labeling; from simple spelling errors, to omissions, to completely inaccurate information. The lack of consistency in content, format and structure of label information creates uncertainty and confusion. This does little to incite product confidence for the consumer. Another unfortunate by-product of this kind of ‘fuzzy’ labeling is that it provides the perfect opportunity for the ‘food police’ (a la Jayson Lusk) and the anti-GM movement to move in and work their own kind of ‘craft’. They can quickly spin stories (such as here and here) to further sway public opinion through misleading information.

As a consumer I want nutritional and other information about the food that I buy. But I want accurate and meaningful information.  Don’t you?

UPDATES HERE

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“Crowd-sourced Mythbusting” is a great thing! Please weigh in on the topic and share your knowledge, thoughts and opinion!

Cooking up pancakes and talking corn on “In the Kitch” ;o)

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly to Toronto and film a short segment on the cooking show “In the Kitch” with Chef Roger Mooking. Roger is a self professed “third generation food freak”, an author, official Chef for the Marilyn Denis Show, AND a recording artist! Roger has a very diverse set of skills, talents and interests!

Do you know what else is diverse? Corn! And guess what Roger and I were cooking on the show? Corn pancakes!  With my help, Roger whipped up some yummy buttermilk corn pancakes with whipped maple butter and and I “talked corn” – corn diversity, production, value, and the technologies used to develop this very important crop. Click here to link to Better Living TV and “In the Kitch” to see this episode.

croplife canada

I had such a great time! Thanks to Roger, the crew at Better Living TV, and CropLife Canada for the great experience! Check it out! Share it! Here’s the recipe! It will be aired soon on the Food Network (Sat. July 6th @ 8:30am (EST)/Sun. Aug 25th @ 8:30am).

cooking with corn

“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