A Review of Soylent – The Future of Food

I’ve always been a fussy eater (much to the disdain of my mother), a crappy cook, and a lazy person (especially in the kitchen). To top off that list, cooking healthy food, I’ve found, takes far too much time, and, for me personally, is not an enjoyable process. Each and every meal I make, I find myself romanticizing about the things I could be doing instead: writing; reading a book; playing video games; going for a walk and so on. Being inherently lazy, I was delighted to hear over a year ago that a new company had formed to make this odd thing called Soylent. (So named to encourage people to take food less seriously.) It is a food product developed by Rosa Labs, that, In their own words, is “designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort.”

To make it, one simply mixes the contents of a bag of Soylent (see below) with a liter (approx. one quart) of water. The resultant liquid provides 2010 calories made up of 252 grams of carbohydrates, 118 grams of protein, and 59 grams of fat. What I like about Soylent, at first glance, is the “maximum nutrition with minimum effort.”

Continue reading “A Review of Soylent – The Future of Food”

Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Continue reading “Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…”

Why Google Glass Shouldn’t Lose the Camera

Over at Cult of Android, Mike Elgan has made the case that Google Glass should lose the camera due to the some of the public’s discomfort with its big brotherly implications. (Read his post here.) It is obvious from the title of this post that I disagree with him, but let me first summarize his position, starting with what he and I both agree on, followed by what we disagree on, and finally, my conclusion on how to fix it.

We both love Glass. We both love the camera that comes with it. I’ve done things on Glass that, while possible on a mobile phone, make it so simple, so effortless, and so much more fun, both for myself and those around me. Elgan makes the point that all the fuss over the camera is distracting from what Glass really is: “The problem is that the existence of Glass’s camera is distracting everyone, and causing the public to completely miss what this technology is all about.” Yep!

He also correctly points out that glasses with camera functionality have been around for yonks; devices in which mostly the camera is practically invisible—unlike with Glass. Still, Mike’s point is correct: the fact that Glass has a camera coupled with the fact that a person not familiar with Glass will not know when it is recording makes people nervous. But, it is not the camera itself; it is rather that the camera is pointing where ever the wearer is looking, and in almost every case, in that direction will be a person—potentially—unaware.

Continue reading “Why Google Glass Shouldn’t Lose the Camera”

Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs With A Biotech Firm

Greetings and salutations my fellow readers. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride publishing the last two posts on GMOs, so I thought to myself, where should I go next? Dive further into the rabbit hole (making myself ever more unpopular), or switch topics? I have an interview with a scientist, check! With a farmer, check! Biotech firm? Bingo! An opportunity thus presented itself, so down I went further down the rabbit hole.

So, to round out—and conclude—my trifecta (or triumvirate—a much cooler word that makes me sound smarter than I am) of posts about GMO, I have just finished up an email Q&A with the CEO and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), Neal Carter, whose company makes Arctic Apples (apples that don’t brown). In my two previous Q&As— with a scientist here and with a family farmer here—I had commentary and concluding thoughts; this time, I prefer to let their positions stand on its own two feet, as it is more than capable of.

Do note, however. I am not trying to convince anyone to not eat organic food, or to eat GMO food, so don’t get your knickers in a twist.


1) What prompted your company to create a GM nonbrowning apple? Why not, for example, try to do the same with hybridization?

Our motivation for developing biotech apples, and all our other projects under development, is to introduce value-added traits that will benefit the tree-fruit industry. We have chosen to focus specifically on nonbrowning Arctic® apples as our flagship project for a number of reasons. One of the chief ones is that apple consumption has been flat-to-declining for the past two decades and we are confident the nonbrowning apple trait can create a consumption trigger while also reducing food waste throughout the supply chain.Neal Carter

Another key motivation is ever-increasing demand for convenience. Arctic apples are ideally suited for the freshcut market, which is expensive to enter because of the browning issue. We often refer to the consumption trigger that convenient “baby” carrots created – they now make up 2/3rds of all U.S. carrot sales!

As for why we use biotechnology to achieve this, it’s because we knew we could make a comparatively minor change safely, relatively quickly, and precisely. We silence only four genes, specifically, the ones that produce polyphenol oxidase, which is the enzyme that drives the browning process. We do so primarily through the use of other apple genes, and no new proteins are created. If we were to attempt to breed this trait conventionally, we could easily spend decades trying with no guarantee of success.

2) What benefits will the Arctic apple bring to the food market? Are there quantitative studies that can predict how effective it could be?

In addition to addressing stagnant apple consumption and tapping into the underutilized freshcut and foodservice markets, Arctic apples offer plenty of other benefits throughout the supply chain.

For growers and packers, nonbrowning apples can help significantly reduce the huge number of apples that never make it to market because of minor superficial marks such as finger bruising and bin rubs. So much of the food produced today is wasted purely for cosmetic reasons. This extends to retail where the nonbrowning trait can have a big impact on shrinkage and making displays more attractive while also offering exciting new value-added apple products.

Consumers will also benefit from throwing away far less fruit at home – how many apples get bruised up on the way back from the grocery store or in kids’ lunchboxes? Our goal is helping consumers, especially kids, eat healthier and waste less food. Last year, one grade 2 teacher wrote about how excited she is for nonbrowning apples, explaining she sees countless perfectly good apples and apple slices thrown out by her students due to minor browning and bruising. Consumers will also enjoy other tangible benefits like new opportunities for cut apples in many cooking applications.

As for quantifiable evidence showing the value of these benefits, food waste has been a major issue over the past year with recent estimates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggesting around one-third of food produced is wasted. The numbers are even worse for fruit, where around half of what’s produced never ends up getting eaten.

As far as the potential to create a consumption trigger, the produce industry is full of examples of how making fruit more convenient, especially for the foodservice industry, results in huge consumption boosts. We mentioned how baby carrots now make up two-thirds of carrot sales and reports tracking major fruit and vegetable consumption trends frequently emphasize convenience. One example explains one of the most prominent, ongoing trends “is a consumer demand for foods of high and predictable quality that offer convenience and variety.” Arctic apples satisfy all these requirements.

For apples, specifically, there’s lots of attention given to how various chemical treatments can slow browning and plenty of attempts to conventionally breed low browning varieties (though this is quite different from being truly nonbrowning). For instance, a notable 2009 publication from the Journal of Food Engineering discusses how “the market for fresh-cut apples is projected to continue to grow as consumers demand fresh, convenient and nutritious snacks”. Yet it also explains that the “industry is still hampered by-product quality deterioration” because when “the cut surface turns brown; it reduces not only the visual quality but also results in undesirable changes in flavour and loss of nutrients, due to enzymatic browning.” Again, Arctic apples address these issues.

Finally, some of the most convincing evidence that the nonbrowning traits will provide substantial value – both apple producers and consumers have told us so! In 2006/07 we surveyed a number of apple industry executives, 76% of whom told us they were interested in Arctic apples. In focus groups, we have found that over 80% are positively interested in Arctic apples and 100% of participants wanted to try them. Even more encouraging, when we surveyed 1,000 self identified apple eaters in 2011, we found that their likelihood to buy Arctic apples continued to increase the more they learned about the science behind them!

3) How many, and how intensive, were the studies performed to show Arctic apples are as safe as other apples? Were the studies peer-reviewed? If so, by whom? (You may wish to discuss what was and/or wasn’t changed.)

Before getting into the specifics, it’s important to put things in perspective to show how rigorous the review truly is; particularly arduous for a small, resource-tight company like ours: (See timeline)

Arctic Apple Timeline

So Arctic apples, our very first project, still haven’t been commercialized 17 years after we were founded and over a decade after we proved the technology and planted them! That means we now have over ten years of real-world evidence that Arctic trees grow, respond to pest and disease pressure, flower, and fruit just as conventional trees do.

Over this time, our apples have likely become one of the most tested fruits in existence. This makes detailing all of the specific tests impossible here, but we encourage anyone interested to view our extensive, 163-page petition on the USDA’s website, which provides full details.

Quickly highlighting some of the key ones:

These tests were performed by a variety of reputable groups and individuals, some third-party, some in-house. Our field trials were monitored and data was collected by independent horticultural consultants and an Integrated Pest Management specialist.

Of particular importance is the fact that there are no proteins in Arctic fruit that aren’t in all apples. This shows there’s nothing “new” in our apples that will affect consumers. This is expected as we silence the genes that cause browning, rather than introduce new attributes. To give an idea of how sophisticated the tests used to prove this are, they would be able to detect a single penny amongst 100-250 ton coal-sized rail cars! We are confident Arctic apples are safe, and soon, we anticipate FDA’s confirmation of this.

So what has all of this extensive testing taught us? Exactly what we thought it would – Arctic trees and fruits are just the same as their conventional counterparts until you bite, slice or bruise the fruit!

4) Can you name a few of the misconceptions — if any — that people associate your company with, or accuse your company of, when they find out you’re a biotech company? If there are misconceptions, why are they wrong or miss the big picture?

Absolutely – just as there are countless misconceptions about biotech foods in general, there are also plenty of myths about our company and Arctic apples. In fact, one of our most popular blog posts ever is titled “Addressing common misconceptions of Arctic orchards and fruit”.

We invite readers to visit that post and explore our site in general for more details, but the two most common misconceptions about Arctic apples are:

  1. Arctic apples will cross-pollinate with other orchards, causing organic orchards to lose organic certification: No organic crop has ever been decertified from inadvertent pollen gene flow. Even if pollen from an Arctic flower did pollinate an organic or conventional fruit, the resulting fruit is the same as the mother flower….not that of the pollen donor. Additionally, we are implementing numerous stewardship standards to ensure cross-pollination won’t occur, including buffer rows, bee-hive placement, and restricting distance from other orchards.
  2. Because Arctic apples don’t brown, they will disguise old/damaged fruit: The opposite is true! Arctic apples won’t experience enzymatic browning (which occurs when even slightly damaged cells are exposed to air), but the decomposition that comes from fungi, bacteria and/or rotting will be just the same as conventional apples. This means that you will not see superficial damage, but you will see a change in appearance when the true quality is impacted.

Other accusations we hear somewhat frequently from a vocal minority who oppose all biotech foods are “we don’t know what the effects will be down the road” or that we’re “messing with God/Mother Nature”. Regarding the first claim, the science tools we now have are truly amazing and we have an unprecedented level of precision, control and analysis when developing biotech crops. They must be meticulously reviewed before approval and around three trillion meals with biotech ingredients have now been consumed without incident. As to the messing with God/nature charges, biotech-enhanced crops are really just one more advancement in a long history of human-driven food improvements – and even the Amish and the Vatican support these advances!

5) As an insider, you are privy to the goings-on and workings of the biotech industry, what do you envision the future of biotech to be? What new seeds are coming down the line and what potential advantages or disadvantages might they bring?

We foresee biotech continuing to be the most rapidly adopted crop technology ever, as it has been for the past 17 years. We also anticipate already realized benefits from biotech crops to continue, such as those highlighted by a fifteen year study including increased net earnings of $78.4 billion for farmers (mostly from developing nations), a reduction of 438 million kg of pesticide spraying and the equivalent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as removing 8.6 million cars from the road for a year. Two major categories in particular where we’ll see further advancements are in environmental sustainability (reduced pesticide use, carbon emissions, food waste) and higher crop yields under adverse conditions (from pest resistance, drought-tolerance, etc.).

Another major trend you’ll see is the increased presence of biotech foods with direct consumer benefits, particularly nutrition. We will see many new projects following in the footsteps of crops like Golden Rice, which is fortified with beta-carotene; a precursor to Vitamin A. The World Health Organization has identified that around 250 million children under the age of 5 are affected by Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and death. Biotech crops like Golden rice can potentially save millions of lives by helping address this, and efforts are already underway to produce other Vitamin A enhanced crops including bananas and cassava.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as there are many other exciting developments on the way including many other nutrient-enhancements for cassava, numerous drought-resistant crops, blight-resistant potatoes and many more. I actually highlighted some of these crops in a TEDx talk I gave in October 2012 on the value of agricultural biotechnology, which is available to watch online.

6) As a biotech company, do you bear the brunt of the anti-GMO backlash nominally directed at Monsanto and DuPont? If so, how has this affected you? Please be specific.

All companies who develop biotech crops have to deal with a certain level of backlash from the vocal, emotional minority who oppose biotechnology.

We are quite unique because when consumers discuss biotech companies, names like Monsanto and DuPont, as you mention, are the first ones that come to mind, rarely small companies like ours. Using Monsanto as an example, they have approximately 22,000 employees – we have 7. Because most organizations in this industry are pretty massive, they do get the lion’s share of attention. That being said, if we were to create a ratio of media attention to company size; ours would be through the roof!

One key reason we likely get more than our fair share of attention is that we’re dealing with apples. When we’re talking about something as popular and iconic as the apple (e.g., “an apple a day”, “American as apple pie”), it’s going to get people emotionally charged. Genetically, our enhancement is relatively minor compared to the majority of crops out there; yet even so, when our petition was available for public comment along with 9 other biotech crops in the U.S., we received around three times as many comments as all 9 of the other petitions combined!

In terms of how all this attention affects us, we can dictate that to some extent. On one hand, we could simply choose to ignore it. The review process is evidence-based (and rightfully so!), meaning we could keep our heads down and let the science speak for itself and not worry about what people are saying. That’s not how we operate, however, as we believe in the benefits and safety far too much to keep quiet. We want to do our best to make sure accurate, evidence-based information is out there to counter-balance all the myths and misinformation. This may mean that we spend more time and resources on education than others might, but it’s too important of an issue not to.

We’ve made a concerted effort so transparency is the core of our identity. We know we have a safe, beneficial product and we’re happy to explain the truth around previously mentioned misconceptions. We make it a priority, no matter how busy things get, to keep active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, maintain a weekly blog, make timely site updates, respond to every single sincere email we get and invest in delivering presentation such as last year’s TEDx talk. (Embedded below.)

We believe everyone in the science and agricultural industries have a responsibility to help educate the public on the facts of biotechnology. Sometimes that results in more backlash, but it’s worth it.

7) Some scientists state that the anti-GMO backlash has cemented Monsanto’s grip upon the market because only they can afford the regulatory burden, do you find this to be true in your experience? And how does this affect the greater biotechnology field?

Well, we’ve touched on how rigorous the review process is and how much smaller we are than the big industry players, so yes, it is tough for smaller companies to bring a biotech crop to market. It’s challenging to raise funds, produce needed data, spend the resources providing education, and it’s just a much bigger overall risk.

While the regulatory burden is heavier for small biotech companies, I think we’re an example that it’s still possible for the little guys to make it through, but it’s not easy. Not only do you have to successfully develop a fantastic product, but you must be focused, persistent and very patient. There is no rushing the review process, but here we are a decade after first planting Arctic trees and we expect to achieve deregulation in the U.S. later this year.

Even though we’re helping demonstrate it’s possible for small companies to commercialize a biotech crop, the high regulatory burden certainly does affect the industry as a whole. With such an intimidating outlook in terms of high investment, both in time and resources, there will obviously be far less small, entrepreneurial companies than would be ideal. In a field in which innovation should be embraced as much as possible, we are missing out on many potential innovative companies and value-added products because the barriers are so high.

Really, what it comes down to is the regulatory process is (and should be) extremely rigorous, but it is indeed possible for companies that aren’t multinationals to accomplish commercialization. Ideally, once biotech crops add further to their exemplary track record of safety and benefits and the scientific tools continue to improve; these barriers will gradually be lessened.

8) Lastly, what is your relationship to the government and governmental agencies. It has been alleged that agencies like the FDA are in the pocket of big biotech organizations and are willing to look the other way. Do you find any truth in those statements? If not, why not?

If we had to select one word to describe the multiple regulatory bodies we’ve dealt with over the past few years (USDA, APHIS, FDA, CFIA) it would be “thorough”. There’s certainly no looking the other way and nothing casual about the review process. If these government agencies were in the pocket of biotech companies, we wouldn’t still be awaiting deregulation more than ten years after we first developed Arctic apples!

Some people will see that some of the agencies have former members of biotech companies and immediately distrust the whole system; this misses the point. Of course they will have some former industry employees. These companies have thousands and thousands of employees and plenty of them are well-credentialed with first-hand experience in multiple facets of agriculture. In most fields, movement between private and public spheres is common, and most working aged citizens will have at least 10 different jobs before they turn 50. Some overlap is inevitable.

The truth is, you will hear a very wide range of arguments from those who don’t like biotech crops and this is just another one on that list. Luckily, there is more than enough evidence to show that biotech crops are indeed safe and beneficial, including over 600 peer-reviewed studies, around one-third of which are independently funded. The best advice we can give to consumers is to do their own research, but always with a close eye on the credentials and reputability of the sources!

For more information on OSF or Arctic apples, please visit www.arcticapples.com


Neal Carter is the CEO and founder of OSF. Thank you for your time Neal. I am, well, me; a curious fellow trying to make sense of the world (and I just released the 2nd edition of Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World for Kindle). It’s working out so far, and quite fun too.

So, would you eat an Arctic Apple?

Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist

Last year, as those who’ve read the first edition of my book will know, I was anti-GMO. Why? Well, I thought I had the evidence on my ‘side’. But I can now honestly say it was because I had no idea what I was talking about. (Need further proof I’m an idiot?) My knowledge of the subject was inadequate; much of that knowledge I got from biased sources; and I’m sure there was some social conformity bias somewhere in there. (I’m sure there were many more biases; but honestly, listing my own biases is depressing. I’d rather much do it to others. That’s where the fun is at!) I’ve just released a 2nd edition of my book, Random Rationality, and that stance has been rectified.

In the meantime, I’ve delved into some of the literature and involved myself in a debate with friends on the nature of GMO on the safety issue. In doing that, I also reached out to Dr. Kevin Folta last week (his profile and academic history here, and check out his highly informative blog here) to confirm what I had learned, and find out why GMO’s are so misunderstood. Dr. Folta is a plant geneticist who works at the University of Florida. He’s a scientist who specializes in plant molecular biology and he was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on his area of expertise. Our exchange is below, you’ll find it brief, but extremely informative. I’ve bolded some of his statements, those that I consider important.


The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist

Fourat (Me) – What is the main thing (or is it general) about GMO’s that the public routinely confuse, or get wrong, when discussing and debating their impact?

Kevin Folta –  There are so many misconceptions. The first is a fundamental one, that being that there is a debate at all.  There is no debate among scientists in the discipline of plant molecular biology and crop science. Sure you can find someone here and there that disagrees, but there is no active debate in the literature driven by data. There are no hard reproducible data that indicate that transgenics are dangerous or more potentially dangerous than traditionally bred plant products.

If I had to nail down the most annoying misconceptions they would include that all scientists are just dupes of big multinational ag companies. Anyone that presents the consensus of scientific interpretation of the literature is immediately discounted as some corporate pawn. There’s nothing further from the truth. Most of us are hanging on by a thread in the days of dwinding federal, state and local support for research. The attacks on the credibility of good scientists hurts our chances to stay in academic labs and consider the cushy salaries and job security with the big ag corporate monstrosities we chose not to work for when we took jobs working for the public good. That’s pretty sad.

There is this allegation that we hide data or don’t publish work that is inconsistent with corporate desires. They need to get one thing straight. We’re not in the public sector because we are excited about listening to some corporate mandates. No thanks.  We’re here for scientific freedom and to discover the exceptions to the rules and define new paradigms.

If my lab had a slight hint that GMOs were dangerous, I’d do my best to repeat that study, get a collaborator to repeat it independently, and then publish the data on the covers of Science, Nature and every news outlet that would take it. It would rock the world. Showing that 70-some percent of our food was poisonous? That would be a HUGE story — we’re talking Nobel Prize and free Amy’s Organic Pot Pies for life! Finding the rule breakers is what we’re in it for, but to break rules takes massive, rigorous data. So far, we don’t even have a good thread of evidence to start with.

The other huge misconception is that you can “prove something is safe”. Nothing can be proven safe. We can only test a hypothesis and show no evidence of harm. You can’t test all variables — nobody could. We can ask if there is a plausible mechanism for harm. If there is, we can test it. If there isn’t, we can do broad survey studies. A scientist can search for evidence of harm — a scientist can never prove something is safe.

2 –  In what ways might GMO’s be most beneficial to our biosphere, and why might organic’s not be as good as to get us there?

Kevin Folta – There is no doubt that transgenic plants can be designed to limit pest damage with lower pesticide applications. That is well documented by the National Academies of Science, the best unbiased brains in our nation. Most data is for cotton and maize, and show substantial reductions (like 60%). Transgenic potatoes were amazingly successful in Romania until they joined the EU and had to go back to insecticide-intensive agriculture.  Even glyphosate resistance traits, for all of their drawbacks in creating new resistant weeds, replace toxic alternatives.

Conventional farming takes fuel, labor, fungicides, pesticides, nematicides and many other inputs. Water and fertilizer are in there too.  There are genes out there in the literature that address most of these issues. Scientists in academic labs discover these genes and define their function in lab-based GMOs that never are used outside the lab. The regulatory hoops are too difficult and expensive. Only the big companies can play in that space. Even little companies like Okanagan Specialty Fruits have to deal with the nonsense from those that hate the technology. Opposition to the science keeps the big guys in business, because nobody else can compete.

Who loses? The farmer, the consumer, the environment, the academic scientist and most of all the people around the world that don’t get enough food and nutrition. Who gains? Big ag.

3 – What do you consider the most important aspect of differentiating the good from the bad when it comes to considering science? i.e., what is the first thing you look for after reading a study

Kevin Folta – In the short-term I consider the system studied.  Was it an animal system or cells in a dish? Most of the anti-GMO work is done on cells, especially cell lines that sound scary (like ovary, testis or fetal cells) but have little relevance to the complexities of animal systems. If done in animals, was the experiment properly controlled? Do the researchers SHOW the controls (like they conveniently omitted from Seralini’s 2012 rat-cancer work in Figure 3). Many studies that look good compare a GMO to an unrelated plant type. It is just not a valid comparison. Plants produce toxins and allergens, so you need to test the same exact plant without the added gene. If they do the rest of this properly then they need to run sufficient numbers and use good, common statistics. If they do all of this the work is publishable after peer review and should go into a decent journal, not some low-impact journal that publishes incomplete work or work that oversteps the data.

A lot of junk escapes peer review. Reviewers and editors are overstressed and overburdened these days. We do the work as service for the field. Occasionally a paper slips by in a lower-impact journal. You’ll find most of the anti-GMO papers there.

Another important attribute of good work is demonstrating a mechanism. For instance, just don’t tell me that you found some evidence of GMO harming cells. Tell me how. How does it happen? If the phenomenon is real the mechanism should be dissected out in a year’s time.  Omics tools are incredibly sensitive and we can detect small differences in gene expression and metabolic profiles. If GMO harm was real, the authors would define that mechanism, then collect their Nobel Prize and Amy’s Pot Pies.

The ultimate test is reproducibility. You’ll see that the best “evidence” for harm from GMOs comes from obscure journals, aging references that were published and heavily refuted by the scientific community (Puztasi, Seralini, etc), and work that was never repeated by outside labs. These are flash-in-the-pan works that never are expanded beyond the seminal study. The best sign of real science, good science, in an edgy area is that it grows. You see more scientists pile on, more research, more funding and bigger ideas. Models expand, mechanisms grow.

That just does not happen in the anti-GMO literature. The same authors publish a paper and then it goes on the anti-GMO websites and gains attention — while it dies in the scientific literature with no follow-up.

4 – Is there any split in the scientific community as to the safety of GMOs? If so, where does the split lay?

Kevin Folta – There are splits in the scientific community like there are splits for climate change and evolution. You have scientists like NIH Director Francis Collins that support creationist leanings. You have a small set of meteorologists and atmosphere scientists that claim that climate change is not real. There’s always room for a dissenting opinion out there, but they usually don’t have good evidence, just belief.

The same is true in biology and plant science.  There are a few out there that let philosophy rule over evidence, but they are not at the edge of research. In the circles I work with there is consensus about the safety and efficacy of the technology. Even those that study organic and other low-input production systems support biotech as a way to do their jobs even better. That’s a strange relationship many don’t expect. You’ll not see anti-GMO writing from too many tenure-track scientists at leading universities.

There is confusion on this. The Union of Concerned Scientists is frequently used as evidence that scientists are against this technology. When you read who they are and what they do, they are activists. They don’t do research or publish in the area of biotech. There are also others that claim to be experts or exploit some tenuous university affiliation to gain credibility. They should be looked at as deceitful, but they are accepted and believed with great credibility. People like Mercola, Smith and others sure sound like they know what they are talking about but they are not experts. Even Benbrook, a guy with a great career and a wonderful CV, goes off the deep end on the topic.

Readers need to apply all of the filters we discussed here today.  What the data really say, who did the work, and if it was reproduced independently are the most important criteria in separating reality from fiction in the GMO topic.


If you stand for scientific integrity, and going where the facts take you, then please share this Q&A so it may reach a wider audience. Almost every factoid from the Anti-GMO crowd has been thoroughly refuted, debunked, and repudiated by the scientific community. Millions of lives depend on the future of our food production, that means they depend on scientific experimentation and information untainted by ideology. The science is settled, and has been for some time. And as Dr. Folta above, and others, have elucidated, the intense opposition to the GMO technology has only intensified Monsanto’s grip upon the market. Facebook it, tweet it, re-blog it, or Google Plus it. Give my blog credit, don’t give it credit; I don’t really care. Good science matters more than pageviews (though pageviews are still nice), and more scientists like Dr. Folta should have their voices heard instead of the fear-based, fake-facts groups out there shouting from the rooftops who don’t know the first thing about genomics, evolution, or reality. (If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my last one on science in general, read it here.)

Ready. Set. Share!

[UPDATE: Part 2 and 3 in this series; Lowdown on GMOs with a Family Farmer and Lowdown on GMOs with a Biotech Firm can be found here and here.]

Mind-Reader

Neuroscience is one of the sciences most feeling the exponential progress of technology. With the invention of the fMRI machine, we can peer into the brains of people (and presumably animals). Each year, the tools and techniques we use to probe into the brain are doubling in their precision, finesse, and resolution (i.e., we can resolve more and more detail in less and less time), until eventually, some say between 2030-2040, we will be able to see all 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion intra-neuronal connections firing in real-time in the human brain. As these technologies, and several others, increase our quantitive understanding of the brain, we have other technologies increasing our qualitative understanding, i.e., learning to decipher the organized chaos of the mind.

Scientists can mind-read words that a patient reads silently (note: this cannot be used yet to read what you’re thinking but only match up what your reading). And scientists have figured out a way to reconstruct movie clips that people were watching from their mind; as well as reconstruct the voices in other subjects heads. Laying the groundwork for mind-reading far in the future. (Though I do hope that Moore’s Law doesn’t allow those devices to become portable, though conceivably, even if they do, technology will be invented to keep out eavesdroppers–Norton BrainSafe? On special for only $999.99. In fact, just yesterday, an app named Silent Circle became available for iPhone and iPad that creates uncrackable peer-to-peer networks to call, message, and send files. [The app must still pass an independent security test which it will do soon, so grain of salt])

But I don’t want to get bogged down in technical jargon and scientific details. If you want to go in-depth on such subjects; chapter-four of Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity Is Near’ is a well-to-do primer. (I imagine his new book, How To Create A Mind, will explore chapter four in even greater detail, but I haven’t read it yet.)

What I do want to explore are the things we might do with such technology once it becomes cheaper and more capable in the coming years. (We won’t have to wait until 2030 to fully take advantage of it, but it will take that long perhaps for the advancements of the brain-deciphering mentioned above.) I’d love to see this tech trained on animals. Just think of what we’d learn. We know that dolphins have a language; they have syntax and grammar, have been known to outsmart humans, and even introduce themselves to newly met dolphins. In reading Carl Sagan’s (amazing) book, Pale Blue Dot, he mentions that in flying to space, we discovered the Earth. It might be said, in talking with the first species, we will have discovered our humanity.

What will we learn talking to a chimp? Or an ape? Or our dogs and cats? Who wouldn’t want to know the width and breadth of their thoughts? How they think, why they think; do they have a capacity of choice, and if so (a safe assumption to make), how much capacity?

The story of civilisation is that of our increasing circle of compassion. That is, as our technology advanced, we became likely to view others as sub-human, and began viewing them –  properly no less – as equal, thereby laying the groundwork for new moral truths, and thus, more moral societies. We are moving beyond our evolutionarily endowed tribal mentality. (Though we are not yet out of the woods but we are, oh so close.) It only seems logical to extrapolate that this circle of compassion will expand, and indeed has already, to the denizens of the entire animal kingdom. Perhaps, on that day, resistance to the theory of evolution will stop? (Though that may be wishful thinking on my part.)

What animal would you want to talk to first? And why? I’m all for the dolphin, but let me know in the comments below.