The dose makes the poison.

This table has received a ton of attention over the years. I appreciate your interest and your requests for pdfs of it. It is, however, tired and outdated and it always lacked the greater story and context around chronic toxicity.

Enter >>> the great work of @MommyPhD and @Thoughtscapism. Together, these smart souls have re-imagined the information on acute and chronic toxicity into colourful, informative tables in high resolution format.  Check out Measures of Toxicity on the Thoughtscapism blog!

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Paracelsus was a 16th century Swiss German physician, alchemist, astrologer who found the discipline of toxicology. He came up with this basic principle of toxicology: The dose makes the poison.

“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”

So many of us misunderstand basic chemistry and what ‘toxic’ really means. I can relate. Chemistry was my WORST subject in high school. Most of what I have learned (and since become interested in) has been cultivated through my PhD studies and in projects since then.

Toxicity is an indicator of how poisonous a substance is to a biological entity. Any chemical can be toxic if absorbed or consumed in large enough amounts. Chemistry is all around us and we are all comprised of chemicals (matter). Some chemicals are man made others occur naturally: in our bodies, manufactured in plants, in our food and in the air we breathe.  In fact, there are more naturally occurring chemicals than man-made ones.  Chemical reactions and interactions in our bodies occur all the time.

Joni Kamiya-Rose posted this status update the other day on Facebook which, in turn, inspired my blog post for today.

joni rose toxic

To Joni’s last point… YES, wouldn’t that be great! I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want safer options.

To (further) clear up misunderstandings and provide some context on toxicity, I crafted this table.  In toxicology, the median lethal dose, LD50 (see column 3) is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population after a specified testing time. The test was developed by J.W. Trevan in 1927. In the table , I outline a variety of familiar (some less familiar) materials and their toxicity levels.  Please note: the LD50 levels outlined in the table below are based on oral ingestions by rats.  Toxicity rankings are based on the EPA’s categorization (I through IV) (Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations).

toxicity table

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

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.

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).

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.

GM-resistant corn rootworm: getting the facts straight

guest blog

by Robert Wager

The segment GM-Resistant Rootworms and the Future of Farming was aired on May 29th on CBC’s The Current. The program reviewed a particular type of genetically modified crop – Bt corn – and how it has performed over time. The program had several guest speakers with differing points of view.  It was an interesting program overall, but there were a few keys facts missing:

  1. GM-resistant corn rootworms have been found in less than 1% of US corn fields so the context/scale of the problem was not made clear on the program (for more on this see the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division (BPPD) IRM team’s review of Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1 resistance monitoring data (EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0922-0037) (2010), Table 2).
  2. Integrated pest management (IPM) can include organic production methods if they are deemed best for a given farming situation. The suggestion that IPM is separate from organic farming is simply not true.
  3. The suggestion that only organic farming practices enhance soil ecology is blatantly false.  The National Academy of Science 2010 report, Impact of GE crops on farm Sustainability in the US stated farmers who have adopted GE crop technology have seen “substantial economic and environmental benefits.”  The organic farmer spokesperson on the program ignores this fact.  A good example is the well documented soil enhancements that are made possible with reduced/no tillage farming that Roundup Ready crops permit.  Tilling for weeds (the organic option) is quite destructive to soil structure.
  4. Organic agriculture is not chemical free. They use a different set of chemicals (coppers, sulfates). The environmental impact quotient (EIQ) for some of the organic alternatives is far higher (more negative impact on the environment) than conventional or biotechnology counterparts.
  5. The significant yield drag for organic agriculture is not mentioned by the organic production advocate.  On average decades of research show a 15-30% yield reduction for organic crop production (see Alex Avery’s book The Truth About Organic Foods (2006)).  This would have a very significant impact on food prices and farmer incomes.
  6. There was no mention that organic agriculture use the same Bt that was the main topic of the show. Organic crop advocates often vilify Bt in GM crops and then use the very same Bt in their own agricultural practices.  Where was that fact in the discussion?

rootworm damage NDSU

Source: North Dakota State U http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/

Having outlined a few shortcomings of the show’s content, I would like to congratulate the panel on the The Current’s program for shedding light on the need for better IPM practices in farming.  No one system of agriculture will solve all of the problems inherent in food production.  The world will need to double food production by 2050 and for that we require many systems of agricultural production in order to address the challenge.

Robert Wager
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo BC
robert.wager@viu.ca

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rob wager 1

Robert Wager has been a faculty member of the Biology Dept at Vancouver Island University for the past 18 years.  He has a BSc. in Microbiology and a Masters in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  Rob has been interested in Genetically Modified (GM) crops and food with emphasis on public education and public policy.  He has written dozens of mainstream articles for the general public that help explain different aspects of the technology.  You can follow Rob on Twitter @RobetWager1 or review his work at: http://web.viu.ca/wager

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

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

1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis

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

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

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

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

2. GM crops do not increase yield potential

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

3. GM crops increase pesticide use

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

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

4. There are better ways to feed the world

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

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

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

5. Other farm technologies are more successful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist

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

10. We can’t trust GM companies

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

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

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

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

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

rant/off

Scientific evidence and policy making

Evidence based information to inform policy

In November of 2012, I organized a PANEL at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Calgary.  We invited experts from Canada, the US and the UK (all with experience navigating the murky waters between science and government) to participate on the panel to discuss the issue:

If non-science factors drive some of the issues, how, if and when is scientific knowledge and expertise accessed to inform evidence-based policy making?

Well, first off, it appears that Canada may be coming up short. This country is a bubbling kettle of political hot water right now. Some argue that the gap between science and government is widening.  There are allegations that the federal government is ‘muzzling its science’. A ‘Death of Evidence’ movement even arose out of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver in 2012.

The relationship between science and government in Canada

It is important to emphasize that Canada has used some models to navigate the space between science and government.  And these models have worked well to varying degrees. Many were modeled after initiatives in the UK.  The problem is that they have long been abandoned.  Canada currently has something called the Science Technology Innovation Council (STIC) which reports to the Junior Minister of Science.  But, apparently, the advice and information that the organization offers up is ‘secret.’

But ‘secret’ just doesn’t ‘cut it’. The Jenkins Report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action, 2011) states that while Canada excels in research it lags behind much of the rest of the developed world in commercializing innovation. One of the contributing factors that the Report alludes to is the lack of a broad, transparent connection between science and government.

innovation deficit

So, what came out of the CSPC 2012 panel discussion?

1) There are gaps:

  • Decision makers need the best, most reliable and timely scientific advice and information (evidence) in order to formulate sound policy
  • Sources of evidence need to be unbiased and independent
  • And scientific literacy in the public must be addressed in some way (to mitigate some of the myths and misinformation that circulates)

2) Good governance required:

  • There appears to be an inherent lack of understanding of cultural gaps between scientific and political spheres – that’s a problem.
  • This leads to questions around the Who? What? How? When? of mobilizing the evidence. It is important to clarify relationships and roles in terms of information exchange.
  • What models should we use? Frameworks?

Which leads one to ask…

Mobilizing Evidence: what has been done to date?

From the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (1975) to present day, there have been a number of models for knowledge/expertise that have been initiated. The extension model is an old but successful model with a reported good return on investment with these kinds of initiatives working well in agricultural based colleges.  They quite often effectively connect researchers and plant breeders to producers. But the problem today is that we are not only dealing with ‘farmer knowledge needs’ here – – – the stakeholder circle has broadened a great deal and this makes things much more complex.

There have been (and are) a number of national and international efforts to summarize, assess and communicate evidence: International Food Safety Network (iFSN), Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC), Nuffield Council on Bioethics, US National Research Council, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) – Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.  Some initiatives are great at compiling knowledge but not as great at interpreting that knowledge, let alone ensuring that the information gets where it needs to go. Others – like those governed by FAO, WHO and the OECD – although good, can be very slowwwww and ponderous.

There are great examples of formal science-government programs currently in place; ones that are designed to actually push the evidence along to where it needs to be.  Programs in the US such as the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships and the Jefferson Science Fellowships appear to be working quite well.  In the UK the government has positions called Chief Scientific Advisors that work to provide evidence to ministers that helps them make reasonable decisions on the basis of real evidence.

All of these are good examples where, at worst, knowledge is gathered and synthesized and where, at best, ‘evidence’ is mobilized into realms where key social and economic decisions are made.  

What models can and should we adapt and use in Canada? Can we do more? Can we do better? – – – – Related posts: Digging into the ‘Death of Evidence’