Marketing sometimes involves the science of making you believe something that is not true, with the specific goal of selling you something (a product, service, or even ideology). The organic lobby, for example, has done a great job of creating a health halo and environmentally friendly halo for organic produce, while simultaneously demonizing their competition (recently focusing on GMOs).
These claims are all demonstrably wrong, however. Organic food is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional food. Further, GMO technology is safe and there are no health concerns with the GMO products currently on the market.
There is an even more stark difference, however, between beliefs about the effects of organic farming on the environment and reality. In fact organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming in terms of the impact vs the amount of food produced.
First, organic farming may use pesticides. They just have to be “natural” pesticides, which means the ones they use are not chosen based upon their properties. Ideally choice of pesticide and the strategy in using them would be evidence-based and optimized for best effect, minimal impact on health and the environment, cost effectiveness, and convenience. Organic farming, however, does not make evidence-based outcome choices. Their primary criterion is that the pesticides must be “natural”, even if they are worse in every material aspect. This represents ideology trumping evidence. It is based on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, an unwarranted assumption that something “natural” will be magically better than anything manufactured.
In fact my main complaint against the organic label is that it represents an ideological false dichotomy. Each farming practice should be judged on its own merits, rather than having a bunch of practices ideologically lumped under one brand. I don’t care if a practice is considered organic or not, all that matters is the outcome.
Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup) is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that are known to compete with commercial crops grown around the world. It has several advantages over many herbicides in that it breaks down in the soil into non-toxic organic molecules, reducing or eliminating contamination of groundwater and lower soils.
Monsanto has developed genetically modified (GMO) grains that are resistant to glyphosate, so that agriculture can apply the herbicide to kill the competitive weeds while not harming the crop. This allows farmers to suppress the weeds while allowing better production out of the grain crop.
Whatever the benefits of glyphosate, GMOs and the herbicide are tied together in many minds. And there has been an ongoing effort by many people to claim that glyphosate causes cancer. But let’s look at the science, because maybe we’ll get some information.
What’s this about cancer?
The famous (or is that infamous?) study from Séralini, which claimed that glyphosate and GMO corn caused cancer in rats, is quite popular with the anti-GMO forces. For many reasons, including bad statistics, improper experimental design, and bad conclusions, the article was retracted by the journal.
Because that article was retracted, it doesn’t actually count because it really doesn’t exist (but to be fair, it was eventually, re-published in a very low ranked journal). This story is frighteningly similar to the story of that cunning fraud, Mr. Andy Wakefield, who wrote a fraudulent, and ultimately retracted, article about vaccines and autism. I guess Séralini is the Wakefield of the GMO world.
There are better studies out there–maybe.
Later this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture may approve the Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden, the first genetically modified apples to hit the market. Although it will probably be another two years before the non-browning fruits appears in stores, at least one producer is already scrambling to label its apples GMO-free.
The looming apple campaign is just the latest salvo in the ongoing war over genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—one that’s grown increasingly contentious.
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But the truth is, GMOs have been studied intensively, and they look a lot more prosaic than the hype contends.
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So what, exactly, do consumers have to fear? To find out, Popular Science chose 10 of the most common claims about GMOs and interviewed nearly a dozen scientists. Their collective answer: not much at all.
Continue reading: the 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked
Here we go again. A pseudoscience pushing website (which occasionally tosses in stories about real science) is trumpeting a primary research study (published 6 months ago) that may, or may not, indicate that plant DNA may survive intact in the digestive tract and show up in the bloodstream. You just know what they’re going to say next.
This will now be all about genetically modified foods.
In case you’ve ignored this area of pseudoscience, genetically modified crops are foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs); of course, all types of agricultural breeding induces genetic modification, but in general, GMO usually implies actual manipulation of the genes. Based on some of the worst science available, anti-GMO cultists have condemned GMO foods as being dangerous. Of course, there is actually no science supporting the anti-GMO claim, and the vast scientific consensus says that GMO foods are safe to humans, animals and the environment.
A paper published in the online journal, PLoS One, seems to indicate that possible DNA fragments pass from the digestive tract into the blood. The authors, Spisak et al., concluded:
…based on the analysis of over 1000 human samples from four independent studies, we report evidence that meal-derived DNA fragments which are large enough to carry complete genes can avoid degradation and through an unknown mechanism enter the human circulation system.
Based on our knowledge of the digestive process, fats, DNA, carbohydrates, and proteins are broken down into their simplest components, and specialized transport systems move these simple components across the barrier between the digestive tract and blood. They have evolved to not transport full size molecules, partially because the blood is incapable of carrying large foreign molecules (and could induce an immune response). Moreover, small constituent molecules, like amino acids instead of the whole protein, or glucose instead of a long-chain carbohydrate, are more easily transported to locations in the body to be then used as fuel or building blocks for new proteins and DNA. We just have not seen a mechanism in the digestive tract that can move large molecules, like gene-length DNA fragments, into the bloodstream.
In fact, the authors admit that the mechanism is unknown . . .
If you care about what is in your food, you have no greater sympathetic intellect than me.
But if you are an anti-science activist, you may not understand the distinction between what is in your food and what it simply is – and there we part company. A genetic modification (GMO) is your food, for example, it is no different than any other food from a health perspective. Cataloging the numerous ways agriculture has genetically engineered food for as long as food has been grown is outside the scope of this piece, but GMOs don’t bother me and that science shouldn’t bother you either. (1)
Pesticides do bother me, and you have a reason to be concerned about those. If you think you don’t need to wash organic food before you eat it, I think you need a sanity test. An organic pesticide is not superior to a synthetic one nor is eating animal feces on vegetables any smarter than eating man-made fertilizer.
That is where anti-science activists miss the mark. Caring about one thing we know is harmless while pretending something we know is harmful is not, if it carries an organic label, is a real mistake for their credibility. I care about food but putting a label on every food that has a GMO (yet exempting mutagenesis, which is all the rage in Europe now, precisely because it is genetic optimization, but not the legally vilified kind) and not putting a label on pesticide-laden organic food would be silly.(2)
The Anti-GMO movements and Anti-vaccination movements are probably two of the biggest and most well known pseudoscience movements out there, with millions of people that adhere to their claims.
Besides the fact that both groups do have millions of proponents world wide and promote pseudoscience, both groups are a lot alike in other ways as well. Infact I’ve come up with about ten different reasons why they are so much alike, starting with the fact that…
• Proponents of both get very emotional when you criticize and/or debunk them.
Ever get into an online discussion with someone whom either promotes Anti-vaccination or Anti-GMO nonsense, and you start to tell them what they claim is BS, and tell them why what they are claiming is BS? If you’ve answered yes then you know what usually ends up happening, and that is that they tend to go off the deep end and use all of these made up “facts” and logical fallacies and conspiracy theories, and in the end threats and accusations of being a shill are often made.
• A proponent of one tends to be a proponent of the other.
It shouldn’t be to surprising, but usually if someone is an Anti-GMO proponent, they usually tend to be an Anti-vaccination proponent as well, and vice-verse.
While this isn’t necessarily true many websites that promote Anti-vaccination nonsense also tend to promote Anti-GMO nonsense as well. Infact some websites that claim to be “natural health” websites promote both equally instead of one overshadowing the other. Also, another thing about proponents of both are…
• They tend to promote alternative medicine.
It shouldn’t be to surprising that people in the Anti-vaccination movement are big proponents of alternative medicine, but it shouldn’t also be to surprising that people in the Anti-GMO movement are also big proponents of alternative medicine as well.
Infact many people in the Anti-GMO movement will, besides just promote the usual alternative medicine nonsense, claim that organic foods can heal you of just about anything and everything as well (including stuff that doesn’t even exist).
• The only papers they’ve ever had published in creditable scientific journals have been debunked and retracted.
There are lots of studies that have been published over the years about the “dangers” of vaccines and GMO foods, and while the number of papers published may look impressive to some the reality is that it isn’t, especially when you consider the fact almost all of these papers are published in “scientific journals” that a person pays to be published in.
Infact the only Anti-vaccination and Anti-GMO papers that I know of that have ever been published in credible scientific journals are the Wakefield study (published in the Lancet) and the Séralini study (published in Food and Chemical Toxicology) both of which have been formally retracted by the respective journals that they were published in after it was found that both studies data was founded off of both unethical experiments and fraudulent data, and they were only retracted long after both studies had been thoroughly debunked.
• They both claim the same things about the products in terms of health effects.
Both the Anti-GMO and Anti-vaccination movements not only claim that both GMO foods and vaccines are bad for you and cause a large amount of health problems (all of which have been proven to be untrue), but they also claim that they cause the same health problems!
Both most notably are claimed to cause autism, but both are also claimed to cause the spreading of diseases, and increases in infant mortality, and sterility, and cancer, and who knows what else. It almost seems like Anti-GMO and Anti-vaccination movements are claiming that GMO foods and vaccines causes something new every week.
One of the tactics of the GMO (genetically modified organisms, usually crops–some people use the term GM instead) refusers is that “there’s no proof that GMO’s are safe.” Typically, in a debate, the side making the assertion (those that say GMO’s are unsafe) are responsible for the evidence that supports their contention. But, the anti-GMO gang relies upon the Argument from Ignorance, trying to force the argument to “if you can’t prove that they’re safe, they must be unsafe.”
Even though I don’t necessarily like arguing with logical fallacies, I did provide an exhaustive list of high-quality peer-reviewed articles that clearly stated that genetically modified crops are safe. But that’s never enough.
Updated 12 November 2013.
In the world of scientific research, the absolute highest quality evidence are meta reviews, which are methods to contrast and combine results from a wide swath of peer-reviewed studies which may be useful in identifying patterns, sources of disagreement and other relationships. Since meta reviews combine the results from a larger number of studies, they can be more statistically significant. So, if there only was a high quality, peer-reviewed meta review about the safety of GMO foods!?!?
Well, there is one. In a meta-review recently published in a peer-reviewed, high impact factor journal, Critical Review of Biotechnology, where the authors collected and evaluated 1,783 research papers, reviews, relevant opinions, and reports published between 2002 and 2012, a comprehensive process that took over 12 months to complete. The review covered all aspects of GM crop safety, from how the crops interact with the environment to how they could potentially affect the humans and animals who consume them.
And their conclusion?
The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.
According to an interview with the lead author, Alessandro Nicolia, an applied biologist at the University of Perugia in Italy, ”Our goal was to create a single document where interested people of all levels of expertise can get an overview on what has been done by scientists regarding GE crop safety. We tried to give a balanced view informing about what has been debated, the conclusions reached so far, and emerging issues.”
The article provided other important results:
- Massive Review Reveals Consensus on GMO Safety (realclearscience.com)
Are they indeed as terrible as some people say?
- Whole Foods, others to shun genetically modified seafood (reuters.com)
- Growing concerns: Rise of modified plants raise questions (poststar.com)
- Poll Shows What Americans Think Of GMOs (huffingtonpost.com)
- A founder of the anti-GM food movement on how he got it wrong (macleans.ca)