Self-doubt and the fine art of solution aversion: my story

I am a self-professed ‘late bloomer’; in the academic sense, anyway.

In the early nineties, I was a single parent trying make ends meet. I worked 2+ part-time jobs to keep my daughter and son fed, clothed, healthy and happy.  My story isn’t much different than many out there. I leaned on the ‘system’ for a while (yes, had to). As an extension of that, I attended an administrative bookkeeping course sponsored through the provincial government’s social assistance program. I even took advantage of a provincial milk program offered for low income families. Believe me, an extra two gallons of milk a week makes a big difference when you have growing kids. I even made the odd trip or two to the local food bank to stock up when the cupboards echoed their food-thin song (usually around the holidays).

Times were tough. But always there was this niggling little voice at the back of my mind saying: “Cami, if you want to get ahead you really need to go back to school. You need to get a degree.”

I knew that getting an education would help me and my family out. So, every year, from 1993 onwards, I filled out an application to the University of Saskatchewan. Every year.  The sad part is that every year that envelope would sit on my dining room table – unmailed.

just not going letter

Change is hard.  Sure, we are pretty good at identifying problems (and we are great at complaining about them). But how good are we at acknowledging and acting on potential solutions?

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago: Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. The solution aversion model – introduced by Duke University scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay – is tested as an explanation for why people are so often divided over (in particular) evidence. The study suggests that “certain solutions associated with problems are more threatening to individuals who hold a strong ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution…” Thus, people will deny the existence of a problem (a user-friendly overview of the study can be found here)


denysolutions

The human is my favourite mammal. 🙂  As problems present themselves, we humans are more likely to ignore solutions and move onto information or into spaces where our core beliefs are validated. Humans are also social animals. We like to seek protection within the ‘herd’; we are conformists. So we are highly influenced by the networks of individuals that surround us (see Dan Kahan’s take on this here). In Psychology Today, David Ropeik talks about perceptions of risk and the human response to the ‘feeling of losing control‘ (a scary pre-cursor to solution aversion):

“The more threatened we feel as individuals, the more we look to our tribe [or network] to provide a sense of power and control.”  

– David Ropeik –

What this means is that solutions to problems that counter our deeply held beliefs will be rejected or ignored in favour of our conveniently-shaped beliefs – no matter how factual, practicable, or moral those solutions are.  Rejecting or avoiding solutions helps us to minimize personal social and psychological dilemmas. In other words, it serves the dominant, primal human instinct to survive.

solution aversion cartoon

Where was I? Oh yes! It was the 1990s and I was busy passing up opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education (AKA, avoiding a potential solution). I steered clear of those opportunities for a long time mostly because of self-doubt and fear. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid that I would have less income (although it was hardly possible at the time). I was afraid of racking up debt. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and I felt that I was just too old to go to school (this latter bit makes me laugh now). At the time, I told myself “Things aren’t that bad, the kids are doing just fine!” or “I like the people I work with!”. For the most part, I believed that it was safer to stick with the status quo; to keep my head down and winnow my way through life working at low-paying, unsatisfying jobs. Friends and family did not really encourage the whole “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.

There was a bright light though; an exception. A favorite aunt. Aunt S was one of my biggest fans. She knew me well (all of the faults, insecurities and possibilities). Aunt S applauded me every year that I filled out an application to the University.  With her encouragement, I actually mailed in my application in 1997.

Tragically, that bright light was suddenly snuffed out. Aunt S died later that year. As fate would have it, a letter of acceptance from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce arrived a few days after her funeral.

It was Aunt S’s words of encouragement and her favorite quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” that prompted me to mail the application form that year. But (sadly) it was her death that was the impetus for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things. I made my way through and got not one but, two degrees. I worked hard, I played hard, I learned, I networked AND I looked after my kids. They were fed, healthy and happy and they got to their various activities: dancing, hockey, music lessons and school plays. In fact, we all survived. Beautifully.

mekids

Me and the kids and Rocky (circa ~ 1996)

Even when a solution is staring you right in the face, it can be hard to take the ‘leap’ and grab the opportunity.  It often takes a crisis before you re-evaluate where you are at, who you are and what you believe that you are capable of doing. I lost someone very important to me. This was a definitive point in my life; one where I had to hold the mirror up to my face, face my fears and decide what I really wanted for me and for my children.

The ‘road less travelled’ presents a bumpy ride.  Acting on opportunities and following through with solutions can represent huge investments in time, energy and resources. But the rewards can be huge. Today, my children are happy, active adults working at what they love and contributing to their communities. When my kids tell me how proud they are of me, of what I have accomplished, that is reward enough for me.

References:

  • Campbell, T.H. and Aaron C. Kay. (2014). “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 107, No. 5. 809-824.
  • Kahan, Dan. (2012). “Why we are poles apart on climate change.” Volume 488. August 16.
  • Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public InterestDecember 2012  13 no. 3106-131. Available online at: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/13/3/106.full.pdf+html?ijkey=FNCpLYuivUOHE&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi

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

Attestation

at•tes•ta•tion (ˌæt ɛˈsteɪ ʃən) n. 1. an act of attesting. 2. an attesting declaration; testimony; evidence. [1540–50; (< Middle French) < Latin attestātiōn- (s. of attestātiō). See attest, -ation]

– – –

I started researching both sides of my family tree when I was doing my doctoral research over a decade ago.  Digging into the past and through ancestry and genealogical websites proved to be a gratifying distraction from the (often) mentally tiresome pursuit of academia.

Over the course of three short years, I amassed hundreds of bits of family history and photos.  Near the end, I slid into some form of ‘genealogical fatigue,’ but – by then – had thoroughly documented seven generations on both sides of my family tree.  

All of this research stimulated an interest in the World Wars for me. In particular, I became fascinated with the Great War – World War I – and with those that we had lost there.  My great great Uncle Augustine “Gus” Fehrenbach was one of those casualties.

gus photo

Augustine John Fehrenbach (circa 1912). This photo shows what I can only imagine to be a pair of snapping blue eyes set above an aquiline nose and sculptured jawline. My grandpa Jack looked a great deal like him.

Gus Fehrenbach entered into service in May of 1916, recruited into the 188th (Saskatchewan) Battalion.  He was 31 years old at the time and a bachelor. Gus lived with and supported his elderly, widowed mother Johanna. After a few months of training, Gus traveled to Liverpool on the SS Olympic (October, 1916) where he was transferred into the 46th Battalion in France. 

attestation paper gus

We know very little about great great Uncle Gus and his experiences in the war other than what has been documented by the Veteran Affairs Canada and through the War Diaries.

Who were his friends in battle?  Did they share moments of easy camaraderie amid the mud, the blood and the blast of gunfire? We will never know.

What we do know is that Private Fehrenbach died on October 26, 1917 on the first day of the Second Battle of Passchendaele.  Battlefield conditions were horrific:

“On the morning of October 26, the battle began…The men, weighed down by wet and mud-caked greatcoats and slipping and falling in the muck, made progress, but at great cost. The 3rd and 4th Divisions suffered more than 2,500 casualties, gaining less than 1,200 metres of territory. Machine-gun fire from the pillboxes was deadly and the slow-moving Canadians were easy targets for the German gunners. The 46th Battalion suffered an appalling 70 per cent casualties in the advance.” – Canada in the Great War

753px-Second_Battle_of_Passchendaele_-_Barbed_wire_and_Mud

Mud and barbwire and the Second Battle of Passchedaele. Source: Wikipedia

Many of the soldiers were killed by ‘friendly’ fire:

“…At 5:30 a.m. of the 26th the Barrage started and remained 8 minutes before the company started to advance.  This barrage was very irregular in fact it was impossible to tell where it was supposed to be resting.  Many casualties were caused by our shells falling short before the 8 minutes were up.”  – War Diaries, October 1917.

war diary Oct 25 26 1917

missing in action missing man

Today, we are left only with military records and the odd photo here and there as evidence of what men like Gus Fehrenbach sacrificed serving our country and the Allies.

The last surviving Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, died in 2010. As time moves on and more generations separate us from these important historical events, will we forget? 

“We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders Fields.” – John McCrae

– – – – –

Good resources:

Veterans Affairs: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/collections/virtualmem

Book of Remembrance: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/collections/books

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.

An Accidental Tourist in Ag Biotech? (1990-1994)

I am an academic. A public sector social scientist. I have worked in agriculture and biotechnology for more than two decades. For the past 10+ years, I have researched and written about the social, legal, ethical and political aspects of biotechnology and genomics research.  Every day I field questions, answer emails, and engage in online dialogues about the science of genetic engineering as it is applied to agriculture.  It can be a politically and emotionally charged environment, but I do my best to be accurate, accountable and authentic. I love my work.  But I didn’t (always) aspire to work in and with science.  It’s been a long and interesting journey, so I am going to break it down into consumable bits. Here is Part I:

My foray into this science-based world was completely unexpected. It was a whole lot of serendipity combined with (eventually) some key strategic planning. So if you think that I was one of those brilliant geek-types that went directly from high school biology into a science degree program and then onto graduate studies, you would be wrong.

I spent my formative years in Nipawn, a small prairie town in Saskatchewan. You know the kind: where you can’t ‘swing a cat’ without hitting a farmer and where 2/3 of the desks at school were empty during seeding and harvest? It was a great town to grow up in. I graduated from high school in 1983 and entered the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon, Canada, on a *tiny* entrance scholarship.  I promptly dropped out six weeks later. Let’s just say that my early adult years were not my most productive ones. From there on, I awkwardly stumbled through an assembly line of jobs – some quirky, others entirely uninspiring (retail, commercial and personal insurance, banking, modeling (yes, I did say modeling), and acting (yes, I did say acting)). Despite this series of erratic segues on and off the career-building map, my interests from an early age were pretty clear: I liked political sciences, loved the arts and imagined myself to one day be a great writer (note: no science).  Eclectic, I admit. But in my head, it made sense.

Tanya, me and Hayden

Tanya, me and Hayden

They say that necessity is the motherhood of invention. By 1990 (and without going into the sordid details), I found myself on my own (scared) and a single parent. I knew that had to re-invent myself.  I had to secure gainful, stable employment and let’s face it – the kids had to be fed. I qualified for a government-sponsored educational program for low-income single parents where I took both office administration and bookkeeping courses. I then built upon those skills and took some graphic arts courses (tapping into some of my ‘arts’ interests) and began to do freelance work in Saskatoon.  I created signs and logos as well as posters and other promotional materials for fashion and other retail businesses as well as some not-for-profit organizations. I illustrated a couple of books and helped design some teaching materials for parenting manuals. Needless to say, it was hard to make ends meet. So, to keep the wolves at bay, I took on some part-time work with my uncle.

Uncle “C” had (for all intents and purposes) an ‘organic’ garden (this was long before organic standards had been introduced in Canada). I helped Uncle “C” to harvest those vegetables and even helped him sell them at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.  It just so happened that Uncle “C” was also developing a U-Pick fruit and berry orchard on a property located south west of Saskatoon (near where Moon Lake Golf presently sits).

At the time, the company that sold high quality fruit seedlings was Prairie Plant Systems Inc (PPS) in Saskatoon.  This is where my uncle sourced the trees for his orchard.  These cultivars were cloned via tissue culture biotechnology and were early-maturing, higher yielding with better tasting, bigger fruit.  Uncle “C” carved out 2+ acres of land (a corner bit outside of a crop irrigation circle on his land) to accommodate these new trees.  I was there to help prepare the ground, haul the wee trees and plant them in an effort to get that fledgling orchard started.  I was also fortunate enough to meet Brent Zettl (president and CEO of PPS) who just happened to be looking for administrative help. He offered me a job.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc. – at the time – was a very small company. It was started in 1988 by two young entrepreneurs (one of them was Zettl), both of whom admitted to being ‘wet behind the ears’ (undergraduates in the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan) and entirely unapologetic that they had started the tissue culture business as a basement operation.

LF Krisjanson Biotech Complex (credit: U of S Archives)

LF Krisjanson Biotech Complex (credit: U of S Archives)

By the time, I joined PPS, the company and its employees had office, lab and greenhouse space in the LF Kristjanson Biotechnology Complex at Innovation Place, Saskatoon. When you work for a small company, you wear many hats.  My primary role at PPS was as office administrator.  I helped develop much of the marketing materials for all the product lines. But I also helped with the books, helped write funding proposals, did payroll and GST, I worked in the greenhouse and in the field.

Flin Flon, MB. (credit: Wikipedia)

Flin Flon, MB. (credit: Wikipedia)

Together with Golder Associates, we negotiated a contract with Cameco to test several woody and grass species’ success rates for survival under different habitat conditions at Key Lake Mines. So I spent a few days during the year in North Central Saskatchewan helping to source indigenous plant material so that we could take it back to the lab, propagate it and re-plant it to designated sites, monitor the growth and collect data.* PPS also had arrangements with Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company (HBMS) in Flin Flon, Manitoba, where we had several different plants growing in a copper/zinc mine drift 1000+ feet below the surface of the earth (very film noire)! We grew roses, fruit trees, and peace lilies which were part of our product offerings to our customers as well as fresh herbs which we harvested bi-weekly and sold to local restaurants in Saskatoon.

Brent Zettle prunes roses in underground growth chamber (credit: PPS)

Brent Zettl prunes roses in underground growth chamber (circa early 1990s) (credit: PPS)

And…we even grew a few Pacific Yew Trees (Taxus berevifolia). This endeavour was part of a small contract we had with a west coast pharmaceutical company. An important cancer fighting component found in the bark and needles of the Pacific Yew tree is Taxol and it is used in the treatment of ovarian cancer.  The problem at the time, however, was one of supply.  It takes 30 or more years for these unique trees to reach maturity in the wild.  And we were experiencing tripled growth rates of almost everything we grew in the controlled environment of the mine drift.  So, it just made sense to see what kind of effect the environment in the underground growth chamber would have on the development of those trees.

This was the company’s first foray into pharma.  But it certainly wouldn’t be its last.  PPS – and its CEO, Brent Zettl – has since moved onto other things ‘medicinal.’ By 2001, the company secured a $5.7 million cultivation contract to produce medicinal marijuana for distribution to the public as part of the Canadian government’s Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) program.  PPS and HBMS collaboratively worked together on this.

A few years ago, I invited Brent to address a group a 4th year business students about the evolution of Prairie Plant Systems Inc. in a Biotechnology and Public Policy course I was teaching at the Edwards School of Business at the U of S. What had transpired for PPS in the span of only a decade was mind boggling.  By 2003/04, they had established collaborative ventures with another two mining companies in North America to establish more underground growing operations (names undisclosed due to the sensitive nature of the market and the work).  Think about it… can you name a more secure, controlled place to grow medicinal marijuana than a mine drift? PPS has been the sole provider of pharmaceutical-grade marijuana to Health Canada for the past 13 years.  The company was just awarded the first two licenses to produce medical marijuana under Health Canada’s new Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc.

Prairie Plant Systems Inc.

I left PPS in 1994 (more ag adventures outlined in the next blog post).  I was with the company during the formative years when, as is the way of small business, it struggled the most.  It was a time when you wish you didn’t know what you knew – a time when meeting payroll and other financial obligations were challenging, to say the least.  PPS has survived. In fact, despite a few cannibus-production-quality-low-points, it has thrived.

…And I guess I have, too.

– – –

*Johannesen, D., L. Haji and B. Zettl. (1995) “Progressive Reclamation Work at Cameco-Uranerz Key Lake Operations (1978 – 1995). In Henry T. Epp’s Ecological Reclamation in Canada at Century’s Turn.  Pages 89-103.

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

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

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

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

tommy lee 1

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

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

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

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

bluebloods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

e5a4_bazinga_hoodie

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

Notes:

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

Support your local animal shelters!!!

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action!

No More Food Fights: Growing a productive food and farm conversation by Michele Payn-Knoper

No-More-Food-Fights-Cover-Food-680x1024

Agriculture and food production practices are often misunderstood by the public and maligned in the media.  These days, misinformation regarding farming practice and food quality and safety can circulate like wildfire, fuelled by the tools like Facebook and Twitter. 

“No More Food Fights” is a unique book that navigates the ‘fever swamp’ of propaganda by providing readers with realistic insights into how food makes it to our plate.  Its author, Michele Payn-Knoper, is a professional speaker, farmer, and self-professed foodie. She challenges us to abandon the ‘food fights’ in favor of balanced conversations that are approached with “curiosity, candor and civility.”

knoper quote

Payn-Knoper encourages us to celebrate our choices and to strive to engage in productive dialogue on the science behind agriculture, about what really happens on the farm, consumer perceptions of farming and food and everything in between.

What makes “No More Food Fights” really unique is its design.  Payn-Knoper organizes content around the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) along with one more – common sense.  One side is aimed at the consumer perspective (chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dieticians, etc) while the ‘flip’ side reveals the perspectives of farmers, ranchers and agri-business.

“No More Food Fights” covers the gamut from biotechnology to grain and livestock production practices to animal welfare to stewardship to fertilizers, pests and protecting the environment – all in an effort to highlight the high quality of North America’s food and feed.  It is an approachable book with insights from a variety of people and professionals who have firsthand experience including farmers, dieticians, food processors, physicians, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers and scientists.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action.  It is a call to action for all of us no matter where we sit on the value chain – producer, processor or consumer. We need to approach our dialogues around farming and food with civility.  No negativity, no grandstanding – just good conversation!

From “Eh” to “ZZZZZ….” – and throughout the day – Ag is important!

This was published on the Calgary Stampede Blog and in Huffington Post Alberta.  Are you a teacher? I invite you to use this material in the classroom setting…engage your students in discussions on how important agriculture is to us – EVERY DAY and throughout the day!

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From the time you wake up and your feet hit that hardwood floor until you tuck yourself into those cotton sheets at night, agriculture is a constant in your everyday life. 

What did you have for breakfast this morning?  Eggs? Perhaps a couple pieces of toast?

Between the farmgate and your morning breakfast plate, a lot happens!  The agriculture value chain is always at work bringing food to your table every day.  Eggs are recognized for their outstanding nutritional qualities containing vitamins, iron and protein. Did you know that there are more than 1000 registered egg farms in Canada? On average, flocks are comprised of just over 19,000 chickens that each lay ~300 eggs per year!  From whole wheat to rye to whole grain products, there are a number of healthy bread options. Did you know that Canada is known the world over for its premium wheat varieties?  Wheat is grown throughout Canada but mostly in the Prairies – with Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan being the three major growing provinces. Canadian mills grind over 3.5 million tonnes of wheat, oats and barley every year and export these products to over 30 countries!

r-WHEAT-FIELD-large570 HUFF PO Canada

How did you get to and from work or school?

Whether you drove or used public transportation, biofuels likely provided the fuel that got you from point “A” to point “B”.  There are two forms of biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel.  Ethanol is produced from crops like corn, sorghum, potatoes, wheat, and sugar cane. When ethanol is combined with gasoline, it creates fuel burning efficiencies.  Biodiesel is specifically designed for diesel engines and is derived from natural oils like soybeans. Like ethanol, it is a renewable fuel. Both forms of biofuels have definite advantages over petroleum-based alternatives gasoline – they are way better for the environment!

Photo source: Great Lakes Biodiesel

Photo source: Great Lakes Biodiesel

What’s for Dinner?

Do you fancy a BBQ? Rib steak with a side of quinoa and maybe a fresh garden salad?  There are 80,000 beef cattle ranches currently operating in Canada. In 2009 alone, Canada produced over 3 million pounds of beef.  Canada is the 6th largest beef exporting country in the world and the average Canadian eats approximately 46 pounds of beef per year!  Quinoa is a relatively new crop for Canadian agriculture but several varieties have been adapted to grow on the prairies.  If you have never tried it, quinoa is a great alternative to rice or pasta and has a mild, slightly nutty taste to it.  An excellent source of protein and carbohydrates, both the seeds and the leaves of the Quinoa plant can be eaten. The leaves can even be cooked and served as a side dish, similar to beet greens.  Speaking of green, what about a nice, fresh salad with that BBQ?

Photo Source: Alberta Beef

Photo Source: Alberta Beef

Now that we know what’s ‘on’ the BBQ, let’s talk about what’s in it. Did you know that biomass pellets and briquettes are made from agricultural and forest harvesting residues and are used in BBQs?  And not only in BBQs, but in boilers and furnaces as well! This alternative energy source is cost effective and helps us all to reduce fossil fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Good-night… and Good Ag!

It’s been a long day… how about an evening snack of cereal or a cup of warm milk before you hit the (cotton) sheets?  As you cross that kitchen linoleum floor to the fridge to grab a carton of milk, take note that flax oil is used to manufacture this type of flooring.  It is also used to finish wood and is an important component of the paint that is on your walls.  Most people think that flax is just for use in cereal or as a nutritional supplement.  It’s so much more than that! Flax is used to make linen fabric and is currently being developed as insulation for buildings and as composites in car dashboards, too! Flax is such a flexible crop and Canada is a world leading producer and exporter of flax.

Finally, as that milk simmers on the stove, think about this. The typical dairy cow produces 30 litres of milk from two daily milkings! The dairy industry ranks third in the Canadian agricultural sector following grains and oilseeds, and red meats. Most (80+%) dairy farms are located in Ontario and Quebec and the average dairy operation has about 60 cows.  That means lots of wholesome dairy goodness  – including cheese, yogurt and cream – on your table every day!

Photo source: Rural Living Canada

Photo source: Rural Living Canada

From “Eh” to “Zzzzz….” – and throughout the day – Canadians use hundreds of things that are products of modern agriculture.  From food to fuels; from linoleum to lotions – agriculture plays an important role in our day-to-day lives.

Look around you… what things can you see that come from agriculture?

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Don’t miss Aggie Days April 13 and 14 at the BMO Centre, Stampede Park. Admission is FREE for everyone! And make sure you become a fan and follower of the Aggie Days Facebook and Twitter accounts for all the latest news!

Live TV experience provides fertile ground for learning to talk #GMOs

I was invited to join Kevin Chorney on Calgary NOW this past week to discuss GMOs. I just starting giving public talks about the science of genetic engineering and its application in ag and food production. The topic “GMOs” is a controversial one. And, to be honest, depending upon who is involved and their respective agendas, things can get ugly pretty darn quick.

big bad GMOS

PROGRAM FORMAT: Fortunately, that didn’t happen in this case. Overall, the LIVE TV interview (my first) was a good experience. The folks at Calgary NOW were gracious and hospitable. But I think there were a couple of fundamental problems with the format of this particular program that are worthwhile highlighting:

The first thing is that we covered way too much ground in the time that we had. GMOs is a broad, complex topic that brings up a whole bunch of questions like:

  • What is the science behind genetic engineering?
  • Which crops that are genetically engineered for what traits and why?
  • Where are GE crops grown?
  • Are GMOs regulated? How? By who?
  • What about patents and intellectual property?
  • What about developing nations?
  • How about ‘corporate control’ of seeds and farming?
  • Then there’s a whole other realm of insights into GMOs that can’t be ignored.
  • The tactics of interest groups, all the myths that are perpetuated in the media and, of course, public perceptions around ag and food production as a result.

Whew. Lots. And with only thirty minutes, we should have probably picked only one or two things and focused on those.

The second thing was that there seemed to be a mis-match in the expertise of guests. Brent was the other invited guest. He and his wife own and operate a gluten-free food wholesale company in Calgary. They provide local grocery stores and restaurants with gluten-free fresh food fare. Brent is a very knowledgeable chap with years of experience in the wholesale/retail food industry. I kept waiting for our host, Kevin, to link our expertise together in some way. It never really happened until later in the program when I figured out that they were trying to elude to a causal link between genetically modified foods and Celiac disease / gluten-intolerance.

Please note, currently there is no genetically engineered wheat on the marketFor those of you that were watching and if it wasn’t made clear, I would like to convey this one factual bit (again): There has been no causal link established between genetically engineered food and harms to human healthNone. Mountains of scientific evidence attest to the safety of GE crops and food (eg National Research Council 2004; European Commission 2010).

causal link ge and health

LESSONS LEARNED: My hubby ‘B’ (and #1 Fan) came with me to the Calgary NOW studio that night. He played ‘arm-chair quarterback.’ I like having him along as he always provides me with good, honest feedback. That night was no different:

B: “To the viewer, your presentation of the facts kind of made you look like a Monsanto supporter.”

Me: “What? Really?” […as Cami mentally back-peddles to review what was said]

In my efforts to participate in the dialogue and to share the facts as I know them, I think that I may have missed the mark in ‘good communication’. I am like many academics. We are often so busy mentally working to convey the facts accurately that sometimes we forget to frame and communicate broader more positive messages about the great things that science does for society. When I come off as a flag-waving fan of anything I am demonstrating bias. That was not the intent behind the information that I shared on the program. My intent is always to present the evidence; the facts. When I do that incorrectly, I am doing a disservice to all the good science that continues to be done in agriculture.

missed the mark

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: So, for those of you that actually watched the program, I would just like to clarify a few things:

  • Many of the crop varieties that have been developed to improve ag productivity have been developed by the public sector (universities and public research institutes) and other international not-for-profit organizations. Canada is a leader in the world in these kind of developments. We should be proud of that.
  • 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.
  • Would I like to see more competition in the ag biotechnology industry? Of course! Who wouldn’t? But 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? And just to clarify, the 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.
  • Nobody wants to see monopolistic control of seeds. Farmers have options. There are hundreds of unrestricted, off-patent and non-genetically-modified seeds that can be freely accessed. Farmers often use farm-saved seed (mostly cereals) as part of their crop rotation and risk management strategies. They choose to go with genetically modified varieties if they see it as a benefit to their operation. In fact, here is what Brian Scott, a multi-generational farmer from Indiana, says about it:

“…I look at it right now as division of labour. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and farmers are great at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fibre.”

  • And what about those damn patents? If someone (anyone) invents something, they should be able to protect that invention long enough to make back the investment for providing a valuable product to the market. Our intellectual property system, faults and all, is the only system that we have to protect our inventions for a limited period of time. How can we change that? Well, I’m not sure (definitely not my ‘wheelhouse’).

THE TENUOUS LINE BETWEEN FACT AND FAITH: We live in a world where faith is a part of our social fabric. As a researcher, though, I don’t have the luxury to believe anything. I am obligated to examine the evidence and present the facts. Period. In terms of what we consume and the products we buy, it is important that we distinguish between the facts and faith. A good illustrative example of this is in the development of bridges and buildings where structural efficacy depends on evidence based engineering science and not on faith. Our safety depends on it.

As for ag and food production, I will continue to present my knowledge on science and agriculture using an evidence-based approach. I will continue to convey messages like: if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need 2 billion more hectares available to produce what we produce today. I will remind everyone that we need to raise global agricultural productivity by another 60% in order to meet demands for food in 2050. To meet those demands and other grand challenges (climate change, drought, pests and diseases the world over) in an environmentally friendly way, we need science; good science including genetic engineering techniques.

A RETURN TO CONVERSATION: Back to the Calgary NOW discussion(s). How, in hindsight, could we have changed the format to better suit the expertise that was at the table? Well, in my opinion, it might have been good to just narrow the talk down to the subject of ‘wheat’ – and just wheat. I think that Brent, Kevin and I could have had a great dialogue about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance and about the history, myths and facts around wheat development and production.

There are many of us out there that are trying to communicate the realities of ag and food production and/or science and we are all doing it in different ways. We have to continue to share our respective knowledge by participating in discussions on programs like Calgary NOW, by giving public talks, by sharing our stories and by having conversations. There are gaps in knowledge and many of us just don’t understand the bigger picture of ag and food production.

By the way, I put myself in that latter ‘camp’ too – so much yet to learn.

And I admit it. I might just need a little more media training. ;o)

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Other good sources as it relates to this post:

Want to know more about GM? Check out Emily Anthes’ article in the New York Post  (March 9, 2013) “Don’t be Afraid of Genetic Modification

Steve Savage gives a fantastic overview of the patent system as it relates to plants in his blog “A Defense of Plant and Crop Related Patents

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References:

National Research Council (2004). “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects.”

European Commission (2010). “A Decade of EU Funded GMO Research: 2001 – 2010.