Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

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

verdict

I admit it. Those five words depressed me.

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

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

rasmussen1

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

rasmussen2

Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

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

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

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

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

verdict2

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

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

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

amanda maxham1

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.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/apr/21/gm-crops-benefit-farmers

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/apr/21/gm-crops-benefit-farmers

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.

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2 (of 5)

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

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

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

Factor into this our human cognitive habits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – –

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

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1 (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.1 Why are people worried about GM foods? Are these concerns overhyped?

image1

Safety seems to be the most quoted reason for people’s concerns over GMOs. But, these concerns (and the arguments) are often unscientific and unsubstantiated. So, yes, most of these concerns are overhyped and controversy is created where often none exists.

We live in a (first world) where we have the luxury (most of us, anyway) of not worrying where our next meal comes from. So, we seem to have more time to dwell on things and our relationship to food has evolved from one that was (at one time) wholly ‘functional’ to one that is more ‘aesthetic.’

We are also generationally and geographically removed from the farm.  Only 2% of North America’s population live and work on farms.  That’s a huge (cognitive) divide.  And that’s a huge problem because that 2% is responsible for the food security of the other 98% plus others in the world.  Almost a billion people every day fight to just get 300 calories a day.  We are not only dealing with a urban-rural divide, we are dealing with a north-south divide where we are completely dissociated from what’s happening in less developed parts of the world.

Here’s the deal on GM foods and genetically engineered crops.  The scientific consensus on genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs is overwhelming.  They are as safe or safer than any other food stuffs on the market.  Many, many studies attest to this (see this and this). They have been in our food system for almost twenty years and there are REPUTABLE and INDEPENDENT organizations from all over the world that have made statements that attest to the safety of GMOs and genetically engineered crops. The problem is is that one-off studies often come up that use anecdotes or ascribe causal links between GMOs and disease where there is only correlation, at best.  These studies gain a great deal of traction in the media because they are “scary”… and those kind of headlines sell (check out an editorial piece I wrote in the Western Producer on this). And, make no mistake, they have political agendas driving them. Those that publish these kinds of studies do so to manipulate the media and the public.  I find that unconscionable.

– – – –

GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

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.

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Related posts:

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

bias + misrepresentation = politically motivated propaganda

Outstanding Summary of the Seralini Study by J. Byrne

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

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’.

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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