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.
By Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen via Forbes
Organic certification is process-based. That is, certifying agents attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices which meet the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the [National Organic Program] regulations . . . If all aspects of the organic production or handling process were followed correctly, then the presence of detectable residue from a genetically modified organism alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation. [emphasis added]
Up until the visit with Monsanto scientists, Nye disapproved of the use and creation of GMOs. According to the Washington Post, Nye stated in his 2014 book, “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation” that the foods containing GMO crops are fundamentally problematic. The Post explained that Nye also said that GMOs could possibly have “environmental risks” that cannot be ruled out with any kind of certainty (1).
Yet, somehow one visit to Monsanto some 10+ years after aligning himself against GMOs, and Nye appears to be singing GMO praises. So what exactly happened during that visit? Was it the science as pro-GMO advocates claim that changed Nye’s opinion?
Bill Maher’s Interview with Nye
Backstage after his appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Nye revealed that he’s revising the entire chapter on GMOs in his 2014 book.
I went to Monsanto,” Nye said during the backstage interview, “and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook, and I’m very excited about telling the world. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
It’s not surprising that anti-GMO supporters are astounded by Nye’s change in his stance on GMOs. It begs the questions: Why did Nye decide to visit Monsanto after all these years? What was he shown or told that changed his long-held opinion?
To add more fuel to the conspiracy theories, Nye is being tight-lipped, citing his revised chapter will reveal all. However, Monsanto’s tweets reveal their immense pleasure in winning Nye over to their side.
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.
See if you know how many of these GMO “facts” are right.
by Brian Dunning via skeptoid
No matter how many articles are published detailing how and why genetically engineered crops are safe, misinformation always seems to reign. Anti-biotech activists persist in charging GMO crops (Genetically Modified Organisms) with just about every crime against humanity, ethics, and science. Although Monsanto is the company drawing nearly 100% of the flak from anti-biotech activists and is probably the only genetic engineering company known to most people, it’s actually only one of the six biggest companies that develop GMO crops. The others are DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, and Bayer Cropscience. Beyond the big six, about 20 other smaller companies located all around the world are also in the business. But don’t expect to go down to the local nursery and find seeds branded with these names: like most manufacturers, they all sell under a variety of more customer-friendly brands. Monsanto, the market leader among the big six, sells 15 different brands, each tailored to specific products or regions. What happens to all these brands of seeds that get bought, sown, and reaped? See if you can guess all of these “fact or fiction” choices right, starting with:
Supermarkets are full of GMO foods.
True, but mostly as ingredients in prepared food. About 85% of three major food crops grown in the US — corn, soy, and cotton — are GMO. Most of the produce you buy (corn and soybeans being the only real notable exceptions) are currently not GMO. Another exception is the papaya. Most of the papayas available in the United States come from Hawaii, where the ringspot virus decimated the species in the mid 1990s. But in 1998, a crop scientist found a way to insert a single ringspot gene into the papaya, thus conferring natural immunization; and now the Hawaiian papaya flourish.
But beyond those three examples from the produce aisle, it’s pretty hard to find a prepared food product that contains no corn, soy, or cottonseed products, so the answer is yes. If you live in the Americas, you’ve been eating a lot of GMO food from the supermarket for the past several decades.
GMO leads to monoculture.
False. Supply and demand is what leads to monoculture, and that’s got nothing to do with GMOs. Monoculture is when you plant the same crop over and over again in the same field, without rotating. Rotating crops naturally prevents the most common pathogen and pest antagonists to gain a foothold on any particular crop, and keeps the soil as healthy as practical. Farmers have understood the benefits of crop rotation since at least 6000 BCE. If there was an equal demand for corn, soy, and cotton, farmers would be able to rotate perfectly and everything would be hunky dory.
Sadly that’s not the case. In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of corn; 74 million acres of soybeans, 56 million acres of hay, 46 million acres of wheat, but only 10 million acres of cotton. So many products, both food and industrial, come from these, but the acreage needed from each is so disparate that crop rotation is often problematic. Further complicating it is that each crop grows best in a specific climate zone and soil. It’s really, really hard to find two or more crops that are both in equal demand and that will grow well on any given farm’s ecology.
Three of these top five crops are mostly genetically engineered varieties. But as we can see, this has nothing to do with the problems of monoculture or the farmer’s ability to rotate.
GMO crops contain genes from jellyfish and other animals.
False. There have never been any GMO crops brought to market that contained any animal genes. But it’s not necessarily for lack of trying. In many parts of the world, crops can freeze and get destroyed. So one thing researchers have tried is to give them some genes that confer antifreeze abilities in the winter flounder, a fish that can survive sub-freezing temperature. These genes express a protein (found in many plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria) that binds to small ice crystals, preventing them from becoming larger ice crystals that can damage cells. Although it would be great if we could give fruit and vegetable orchards this same ability, so far it hasn’t worked. This is why genetic engineers are always going to be busy: for every one project that succeeds, a hundred fail.
by David Lambert via Scholars and Rogues
Contrails are the wispy white clouds of frozen water vapor that streak across the sky in the wake of jet engines. But according to 17 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds—my generation—contrails are actually “chemtrails,” poisonous chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons. As the world becomes an increasingly scary and complex place with no simple answers, the temptation to create narratives explaining all of its evil will grow. And here lies the heart of the modern conspiracy theory. Yet when fantasy overtakes reality, progress suffers.
Whenever anything bad happens in the world today, from September 11th to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there is a growing gaggle quick to cry, “wake up sheeple!” Tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing and September 11th are of course “false flag” operations by a sinister cabal—the CIA, New World Order, Neocons, Illuminati, Jews, and Rothchilds are the usual suspects—but so are natural disasters. Twisters in the Midwest: Weather weapons being tested by the Pentagon. The Indian Ocean Tsunami: Caused by a nuclear weapon detonated in a deep ocean trench. Even the Earthquake in Haiti was the result of malicious meddling. As one blogger alerts us, “If you just assume it was a natural disaster, you are probably not current with what technology is capable of.” Omitted were any credentials explaining how the writer is more knowledgeable on technology than the rest of us.
But who cares? Isn’t questioning big government and corporate dominance over our lives a good thing? Sure it is. But losing the ability to distinguish between the reality and paranoia won’t do us any good.
Let’s look at three hot topics on conspiracy websites: vaccines, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and fluoride—or as one website put it, the three biggest human rights tragedies of our time.
Far from a tragedy, vaccines have saved millions of lives. We are currently living in what UNICEF calls the Child Survival Revolution. Children no longer perish from dreadful, agonizing diseases as they have throughout most of history. Vaccinations are a major reason why. But good news is usually no news, which is why headlines such as “Plane Lands Safely” or “Swimmer Not Attacked by Shark” don’t exist, yet their opposites certainly do. As a result, society tends to underappreciate progress. Perhaps this explains why the loud voices behind the anti-vaccine movement . . .
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.
[ . . . ]
But the truth is, GMOs have been studied intensively, and they look a lot more prosaic than the hype contends.
[ . . . ]
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
The use of Genetically Modified Organisms, better known as GMO, is an area of debate among skeptics. GMO is actually a broad term that has a lot of moving parts. Forced labeling for consumer foods containing GMOs in the United States has been a growing issue. In skeptical circles this is a controversial topic. Recently, at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City, there was a GMO discussion panel involving Dr. Steven Novella, Kevin Folta, and Marty Mesh, representing a fair distribution of experts from both sides of the aisle. The discussion panel debated the idea of labeling GMO products for consumers. The organic lobby suggests it as an answer to the questions about the safety of GMO and wants it to be required. The scientific community claims that such labels are deceptive, unnecessary, and there are already safeguards. The GMO proponents say requiring labels would mislead the public about the content and safety of the product.
I have intended to write this blog post since that panel discussion, but it is such a broad subject. Simplifying the issue has been difficult. Here I will limit GMOs to the following definition: food or food-producing organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques . Conventional and organic use selective breeding to tailor organism genetics.
Currently there is advocacy in the United States to require labeling of GMO food. Some EU member states now require labeling of GMO. Is labeling necessary or desirable? Is it a systematic marketing assault on GMO food?
There are good reasons to want GMO in the food supply.
- Creating plants better resistant to weeds, pests, and other diseases.
- Bigger yields to create more efficient use of land, less uses of herbicides and other pesticides.
- Foods with better texture, flavor, and nutritional value.
- Foods with a longer shelf life for easier shipping.
- GM foods can create an essentially sustainable way to feed the world.
From my own observations, most objections to GMO food fall into two categories: corporate fear-mongering and unsubstantiated “fear of the unknown” arguments. The science shows absolutely no dangers in consuming GMO food. There are environmental issues and monocrop issues, but they are not significantly different from conventional crops, including organic crops and animal-farming. Most of the con arguments (we’ll skip the wacky ones) comes from two broad and possibly accurate points:
- Genetic modification is unpredictable. It may have unknown horrible consequences for the consumer, environment, or stability of the food supply. I call this the Frankenstein Argument.
- GMO are corporate attempts to monopolize food consumers as well as restrict producers through manufactured controls. I call this Argumentum Monsanto.
Like all really good ideological arguments they contain a certain amount of truth. Also like all really good ideological arguments they minimize or avoid facts that do not support their argument. Scientific evaluation of GMO shows no significantly different risk from GMO products than from conventional crops. In many cases the product is chemically identical. Sometimes GMO have been shown to be safer products than conventional foods
Science Denial Is Not Exclusive To Right Wing Fundamentalists
By David Jerale via The Libertarian Republic
In a column for Scientific American January of last year, Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, exposed what he calls “The Liberals’ War on Science.” Shermer observes that, while it is true that Republicans are more overwhelmingly opposed to well-established scientific consensus like anthropogenic climate change theory and evolution, the problem of science denial also reaches epidemic proportions on the left.
“Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—,” Shermer writes, “in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.”
Taken only at face value, this seems fairly innocuous– and critics like Chris Mooney were quick to point out, correctly, that science denial is predominantly right-wing.
Fair enough, but I offer this riposte: Rick Santorum and his ilk don’t teach science.
Discovery News, on the other hand, does– and in June, they posted a YouTube video by Laci Green, a popular online social justice advocate, feminist and peer sex educator, about genetically modified organisms. In this video, Laci doesn’t explicitly state her own opinion with regard to whether or not genetically modified foods are safe, choosing instead to present arguments for and against, with a heavy bias against, ending by asking viewers to post their thoughts on the matter in the comments section below the video.
This is a clear example of “false balance,” a tendency for media to overstate controversy in scientific matters. Fox News has been criticized for this because their coverage of climate science greatly over-represents those who disagree with anthropogenic global warming theory while there is a strong consensus among climate scientists that the theory is correct. As it happens, there is a similarly strong scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods, but Laci conveniently ignores it for the sake of manufactured controversy– and she’s not alone.
SciShow, hosted by Hank Green, is a YouTube channel with over 1.5 million subscribers devoted to discussing scientific topics. Last year, Hank posted a video wherein he discusses genetically modified organisms– what they are, why they exist, how they’re made, etcetera– which included some cherry-picked information and outright fabrications about the supposed dangers of genetic modification, in spite of the existing scientific consensus to the contrary. It was later removed, and re-uploaded by another YouTube user– in the comments section there, Hank explains “We dropped it because we cited studies that have since been discredited.”
But Hank and Laci Green are just a couple of online personalities– No real harm, right?
Enter Bill Nye “The Science Guy.” Bill has been, for the most part, strongly against science denial– he has spoken against teaching creationism to children as well as climate change denial, but oddly, he breaks form when the topic is genetically modified organisms.
Let that sink in for a moment– perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive, Bill Nye, trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.
That’s a far cry from some preacher doing the same thing because it conflicts with his religious dogma. It’s science education programming being used to spread pseudoscience, and the consequences could be devastating.
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 . . .
The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO) has intrigued me for some time, and recently I have been reading everything I can on the topic. It is an excellent topic for skeptics – it is mainstream (not a fringe topic), it has real importance for society, there are complex scientific and logical issues to sort through, and the topic is rife with misinformation and motivated reasoning.
I wrote recently about the fact that beliefs concerning GMO tend to be dominated by two opposing narratives: GMO critics despise corporate control and greed, and fear the unnatural, while GMO advocates see this technology as an example of the triumph of human ingenuity and science. I admit that with regard to this issue my bias is toward the latter narrative, however, I can understand caution regarding huge corporations (the tobacco industry comes to mind).
But, as a skeptic I have really tried to follow a critical thinking process and pull back from my initial gut reactions. Here, then, is my overview of the issues regarding GMO.
A Brief History of GMO
GMO advocates are quick to point out that pretty much all the food consumed by humans have already been extensively modified by human activity. Corn, for example, was cultivated from teosinte, which looks nothing like modern corn. In fact, it took some detective work to figure out that they are essentially the same species.
Cultivation is mostly about artificial selection – saving the best plants from one year’s crop to provide the seeds for the following year. Repeat that a few thousand times, and you have the development of agriculture and all the food you recognize today.
Cultivation can also involve cross-pollination, creating a hybrid species in an attempt to get the best traits from closely related species. Using a combination of cross-pollination and artificial selection, breeders have created countless varieties of common plants. The black or purple tomato, for example, of which there are about 50 varieties, is high in flavanoids, which give them their color. Orange carrots were developed by a fortuitous mutation resulting in high levels of beta-carotine. This turned carrots into an important staple crop as a source of vitamin A.
Breeders who are impatient to wait for a fortuitous mutation to occur developed what is called mutation breeding – exposing plants to chemicals or to radiation that increases the mutation rate. Between 1930 and 2007, 2540 mutagenic plant varietals have been released.
Genetic modification is the latest technique for changing organisms to suit our wants and needs. The technology involves various techniques for inserting one or more specific genes directly into a target organism. There are two basic types of GMO – transgenic and cisgenic. Cisgenic involves inserting genes from closely related species, ones that could potentially cross breed with the target species. Transgenic refers to inserting genes from distant species – even from different kingdoms of life, such as putting a gene from a bacterium into a plant.
There are four types of GM plants currently approved for use: herbicide tolerance, pesticide production, altered fatty acid composition (for canola oil), and virus resistance. Many other potential applications are in various stages of development.
GMO advocates are quick to point out that GM technology is nothing new, and that it is simply an extension of the various technologies we have used for thousands of years to alter organisms. This is overstating the case, however – transgenic GMO is not just a new technique, it also opens up new possibilities, like putting a gene from a bacterium into corn. But it is legitimate to put GMO in its proper historical context. It is not entirely new. Contamination of genes from other kingdoms even occurs in nature through horizontal gene transfer.
In any case, the “it’s not natural” argument is fallacious. Meanwhile, GMO should be looked upon as a powerful technology, and such technologies can have both powerfully good and powerfully bad consequences depending on how they are used.