Tech

On GMOs & Changing Your Mind…

A few months ago I wrote a post titled What Would it Take? In it, I asked both proponents and opponents of GMOs what it would take to change their minds on their current position. Much to my disappointment only the PRO camp responded—which tells you something there.

Granted, I don’t have the biggest audience in the world, but I know I have Julee K, perhaps the only person whose mind I was instrumental in changing on the dicey issue of GMOs in a piece I did titled The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientistthough, it is probably more fair to say it was Dr. Kevin Foltaand ask her a few questions on how it felt to change her mind on so visceral and emotional an issue, and you can find our back and forth below.


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Hi Julee, before you changed your mind, I’m sure that you had read other pro-GMO pieces from other scientists, yet it was me, a non-journalist, non-scientist conducting a Q&A with plant geneticist Kevin Folta that actually began the unwinding of your philosophy. What was it about this particular interview that instigated such a deep change in your outlook?

I’m going to have to set up my answer to this question with a little backstory so please bare with me.

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Whaddya Know, GMKnow Responds

It happened. It actually happened. The proudly anti-GMO group, GMKnow, responded to the question I posed to them two days ago. If you’ve read my last post, then you’ll know the story so far. If not, read it here (and the twitter conversation here). The summary, if you don’t care to, is this: I asked them why mutagenetic radiation breeding, which blasts seeds coated in Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS), sodium azide (SA), N-nitroso-N-methylurea (NMU) with X-RAYS, Gamma Rays, and fast neutrons inducing thousands of random double-strand chromosomal breaks, safer than GM seeds. The reason I asked is because a multitude of mutagenic seeds today are sold as organic food. Yet, the fierce furore over GMOs is inversely correlated to the silence over the radiation breeding of crops. GM crops tend to have 1-4 added genes, while organic mutagenic-created crops have had their genomes essentially scrambled resulting in changes to hundreds, if not thousands, of genes. It’s truly bizarre. I asked GMKnow three separate times for an answer over Twitter, which they deflected each time, instead, bringing up childish, illogical tropes about “GMO-biotech Ag science” and ad hominens such as “Sir Pesticide.” 

After my post was shared across Facebook and Twitter (I am assuming it found its way over to them), they finally decided to respond. If you tuned into Part one of this charade, I would hope you have not been holding your breath for a logical answer, because one I did not get. Let’s go through them and distill the stupid.

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Guest Post: The Union of Concerned Trolls

On March 27th, the MIT Technology Review—an otherwise great resource on science and technology—published a bizarre diatribe on GMOs: Are GMOs Worth the Trouble by Doug Gurian-Sherman. I encourage you to read it before coming to the meat of this post. I call it bizarre for the many non-sequiturs, misrepresentations, and statements so easily falsifiable that one wonders how it got past the editors; yet it did. As I was considering writing a response to it, Mary Mangan and I exchanged a few puzzled tweets, and I decided the response would be far better received from an actual scientist such as she is, instead of from a two-bit nitwit like myself.

She graciously agreed to my proposal for a reply to the article to be posted here. You’ll find her insightful rebuttal below.


The Union of Concerned Trolls

If you have spent any time around the series of tubes in the last decade, you will have come across many personality types. One of these is the “concern troll.” A definition of this term from Wikitionary offers a glimpse at the behavior of this type of individual:

Someone who posts to an internet forum or newsgroup, claiming to share its goals while deliberately working against those goals, typically, by claiming “concern” about group plans to engage in productive activity, urging members instead to attempt some activity that would damage the group’s credibility, or alternatively to give up on group projects entirely.

In comment threads around the internet, there’s probably not much harm to come from random concern trolls. Unfortunately, though, there is a more insidious variety of concern troll that has wider influence, or a larger megaphone, and these behaviors can then really become barriers to progress. In science and science policy, this can mean undermining support and funding, and for some research areas: losing time on breakthroughs that could provide benefits in many arenas of health and environmental sustainability.

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Google Glass

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.

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What’s it like living in the future?

Why, what, when, and how I am living in the future? Well, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to purchase Google Glass. This won’t be a typical review. For one of those, you can read the Engadget review. Below I instead answer questions that have been asked of me since I’ve received them.

What are they like? Amazing. I feel like I’ve transported five years into the future.

What’s the best feature? Impromptu photos and videos in gatherings of friends. Google’s Auto Awesome feature is a close second.

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The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science eBook

I’d like to announce that my project at which I’ve been working on since April has finally sprouted its wings and made its way into the digital ether. The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science features chapters from the likes of plant geneticists, plant pathologists, molecular biologists, farmers, professors, journalists, renowned authors, a couple of bloggers and even a historian. The subject matter tackles fear-mongering, gene commonality between species, knowledge discrimination, how GMOs reduce farming inputs, the myth-making ability of the human brain, and many more.

Lastly, I haven’t mentioned the best thing about the eBook: It’s FREE. You can download it for Kindle, Nook, iOS, or as PDF here at Smashwords.

I have an upcoming guest post at Genetic Literacy Project which should come online later today. In it, I’ll be discussing the role of the authority in an argument from authority, specifically when it comes to arguments of the scientific type in promotion of The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science. In the meantime, there are two reviews below. And, if you’d like to share the pro-science message, click here to tweet about the eBook.

Get The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science for free


“I enjoyed the synthesis provided by “The Lowdown on GMOs According to Science”. Janabi recombines writings from researchers, farmers, former anti-GMO activists, science writers, and consumers into an operon that expresses a lot of great information about genetically-modified organisms. It’s hard to find this level of quality discussion on this topic around the internet, where murky misinforming fearmongers overwhelm the discussions.

Scientists, farmers and folks who had the drive to learn more about the issues provide a variety of perspectives on GMOs. Their grasp of the historical context, the present directions, and the current and future benefits will help anyone to understand why GMOs are tools that people who have experience with them *want* to use.

The writers here use their own experiences, their years of work, and their own due diligence to assess the issues. They explain the framework of misinformation and how it clouds attempts to see the facts. And it might be a perspective you haven’t heard much before. Overall it is a compelling plea for people to look at the real evidence and decide.”

~ Mary Mangan, PhD (Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology), President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC


“The use of biotechnology in agriculture is a topic you hear  a lot about these days: farmers in distant regions of the world, looking to improve their yields, receive two versions (this will save you/this will poison you); voters in conditions altogether more comfortable than those small holder farmers weighed down by debt, are driving up to vote on whether products should be labeled to let consumers know they were grown using biotechnology. All of this and more is contained in 3 letters GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). But what exactly does this mean? To anyone advocating for food policy issues, the superficiality of information (or, in some cases, complete misinformation) which form the basis of debates on GMO are held is worrisome.  So I am happy to be the bearer of some good news: “The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science” is here and is going to be an excellent source of information for anyone seeking to learn more about this issue.

The book is put together with articles from a range of experts in this domain: molecular biologists, Alan McHughen and Kevin Folta; plant pathologist Steve Savage and plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar, among others. The scientific viewpoint, often so frustratingly opaque to those of us who were relieved to be done with science on high school, is presented here in clear terms and the reader can come to their own conclusions.

Also interesting are the accounts of the journey of those who started out as skeptics but after doing the research became convinced by the actual facts to support the use of biotechnology in agriculture. This is especially useful because it resonates with those of us who may still be educating ourselves but feel intimidated by all the noisemakers into taking up a hasty position. This perspective is a nuance often lost in the noisy and often vicious debates that characterize this topic. It also helps that one of these journeys is that of Mike Bendzela who is a farmer. That farmers’ voices are not heard often enough in the food debate is something I have often blogged about. You may think you know all that is there is to about Monsanto, but after reading Brian Scott’s views on using Monsanto’s products on his farm; you might look at the picture differently. Of particular note is the piece by Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmentalist who recently changed his viewpoint and came out in strong support of GMOs. 

In his own piece, Fourat Janabi replies to the “Nature does it best” argument that the anti-GMO lobby is so fond of, pointing out that nature is full of experiments which created our diverse world; also drawing our attention to the fact that the Big Ag lobby is matched by a robust Organic lobby!. He also takes up the question of how to feed 9 billion people in a time of climate change and it is here that biotechnology is going to prove crucial. The use of biotechnology can increase yields, enable climate resilience and improve health outcomes through biofortification of crops. It is not the only or perhaps even the most important tool but it is a crucial one and throwing it away on the basis of misinformation and fear mongering would be a grave mistake.

The conclusion consists of an impressive list scientific bodies from all over the world that have found that biotechnology is no more risky than any other conventional breeding technology and is safe for human consumption; hopefully this book will convince many people of that point of view.”

~ Arpita Bhattacharjya, Formerly worked in developing Economic Policy for Agricultural and Rural Development


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