GMOs: it’s our right to know. But what will you do with the information?

GMO Rice

This is a guest post by Allallt.

He writes prolifically on science and atheism. I’ve always been amazed at the simplicity of his arguments. I once jokingly referred to him as the Steve Jobs of atheist arguments, but I well and truly meant it. He knows how to write about both science and atheism in such a way as to make you slap your head at the obviousness of his arguments in hindsight. He makes his arguments and polemics very simple, and that is the most powerful thing about them, so I challenged him to write a post about GMOs a little while ago in the hope he could likewise make a difficult subject simpler. He dutifully accepted. I’d like to say he succeeded. (There’s another article written by him on organic farming coming in the pipeline.)


Knowledge, generally speaking, is a good thing (so long as it’s true). I’ve poked my head into the world of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) for the sake of food, and people are making the seemingly harmless demand to simply know if the food they’re buying is the result of genetic engineering or not. And, on the face of it, I’m happy with a little green sticker that says “GMO” in the bottom corner of my packaging. It’s about as important to me as the name of the person that sealed the box; whatever, who cares?

Normally the information on a packet helps me make certain decisions and answer certain questions: that’s too many calories; I can’t cook that for my cousin, he’s allergic to nuts; I feel ill if I eat that much salt; I’m trying to see if I feel more mentally focused if I cut aspartame out of my diet; I’m boycotting palm oil because there’s no distinction between orangutan friendly and unfriendly palm oil etc. What do you hope to know by seeing the “GMO” label, or not, on your food? That is the central question I want to discuss, and suggest that people will only be misinformed.

I spoke to a friend about GMOs and she is wildly against them, under the banner of “we don’t know what we’re doing”. She even had a reference for her issue: thalidomide. Now, there’s a word with a legacy. Thalidomide was an anti-nausea pill and sleeping aid, marketed at helping women with morning sickness. But it also induced birth defects in children and a high infant mortality rate. This, according to my friend, is what happens when we mess with nature and we don’t ’now what we’re doing. We have a good reason to fear new things.

My friend sees “GMO” as a thing she doesn’t understand and things she doesn’t understand as potentially being thalidomide. If there were truth in this, would we not know about it already? Thalidomide was on and off the market in the UK in 3 years. GMOs are not some idea that might be introduced and people are protesting. GMOs already happen, and they are widespread. I was learning about their application in terms of case studies when I was doing my GCSEs (when I was 16, 8 years ago). And there is simply no evidence to suggest there is a problem. Despite research.

I may need to digress momentarily to make a note about science, but as I’m guest-posting on Random Rationality I suspect I won’t need to say much. There is a big difference between there being no evidence and there being no evidence despite research. To be clear about the difference (and perhaps a little facetious) “there is no evidence that my sock is under my bed because I haven’t looked” is very different from “I have looked, and there is no evidence my sock is under my bed”. These mean “I haven’t looked” and “it’s not there” respectively. We have looked for health effects from GMOs and we haven’t found them.

“This box was packed by Steven; it will be identical to the boxes packed by Jill” is useless information. Trivia. “This food was produced via genetic engineering; it will be identical to foods not produced by genetic engineering” is an equally useless statement, and so any non-zero effort made to put a label on the box is a disproportionate amount of effort. But the issue is not just that the label is a disproportionate effort, but that it is misinformation.

You may wonder how correct facts can be misinformation. And that paradox is a fair question. So long as GMOs (wrongly) mean ill-health and disease and FrankenFood* and contaminated ingredients to people, the label “GMO” is simply misleading. GMOs are not these things, despite public perception and fear. To me, GMO means feeding the world, pest-resistance, better sustenance, more nutrition, bigger yields, longer shelf-lives. These are profoundly excellent things.

Imagine a child in sub-Saharan Africa who is both starving and malnourished. This means that she is immensely hungry, to the point the body is atrophying away, and what food she has eaten is so nutritionally imbalanced that she has life-threatening deficiencies of certain nutrients. She’s starving because farmers can’t grow enough food in the current drought, and pests and disease attack what is grown, and that which farmers can harvest doesn’t have the shelf-life to make it to her village. And she is malnourished because that is the nature of the food she can scavenge or does reach her village. There is hope, and it’s no mere glimmer. There’s no problem in this paragraph that cannot be eradicated by GMOs. GMOs would transform this poor girl’s life, and the thousands who live like her. They would be her saviour.

BandAid, in 1984, released “Do they know it’s Christmas (feed the world)”. And your one-off donation to buy a cheesy but delightful Christmas song made big differences in Ethiopia. But to feed the world, to have enough food successfully delivered to every remote corner of the planet, will take a lot more than your one-off donation. Feeding the world will take GMOs.

*Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a great metaphor for GMOs. Throughout most of the book, Frankenstein’s monster is a kind, humane, misunderstood and terrified creature. He seeks acceptance and love and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s health or wellbeing. Frankenstein’s monster is a good person. It is the DeLacey family, in their ignorant fear, who started the hatred.

My Interview at GreenState TV

My recent interview with GreenState TV. I actually had a lot of fun talking with Emily and Rick (though you won’t hear or see them); it was more of a conversation about GMOs than an interview about them. A very fun one! I’d do it again anytime.

Source link: GreenState TV.

Guest Post: Why I’m Through with Organic Farming

Why im through with organic farming

Following on from my last guest post, The Insanity of Biotech by biochemist Paul Little, Mike Bendzela is the author of this guest post. These guest posts have been tangentially exploring similar subjects I have in my book, but in different directions; and this post explores organic farming. In S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I lightheartedly tackle the naturalistic fallacy and use some bad (and funny) statistics that purposefully confuse correlation with causation, intending to teach a lesson. As I was writing the book, Mike Bendzela reached out to me with his organic story that sprouts off from that Correlation chapter, and it is a supremely informative read. (A bit long, well worth it, and you’re used to long articles from me anyway.)


Why I’m Through with Organic Farming

by Mike Bendzela of Dow Farm Enterprise

It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you;

you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”

Jesus of Nazareth

For twenty-five years I was a self-styled organic gardener. I say “self-styled” because I didn’t need certification as I wasn’t marketing produce. And by “organic” I mean “too lazy and cheap to buy fertilizers and pesticides.” So I maintained a perennial compost heap and harvested the produce the insects didn’t eat. We ate the leftovers.

Then there was the cheating: The first year that I grew potatoes, I had zero Colorado potato beetles. The second year, I had a jar full. The third year, I had a continent’s worth and had to nuke them with Rotenone dust. I decided to stop growing potatoes for a while.

“But,” the organic people would say, “Rotenone is an organically-approved pesticide.” [Fourat: Fun fact, rotenone is just as toxic as DDT.]

Which leads directly to my point:

The older I get, the more I like food, the more I hate bullshit.

A season in hell

In July of 2010 four of us started Dow Farm, named after the ancestral owners of the land we farm. We would be a small market farm and CSA, the trendy “Community Supported Agriculture,” but we’d just call it a subscription club. Save the Syllables.

I was still working at an organic farm, learning the central pleasures and evils of farming at a scale larger than gardening. Helping to run Dow Farm would mean having to quit this summer job that I really liked and probably taking a significant hit in the wallet for a while.

Would we be certified or not? Certification is a three-year process, the materials are more expensive, and the methods are more labor-intensive. These stresses of organic certification come on top of a central fact of life for Maine farmers: The weather around here is just awful.

The crap we had to endure in 2011 just to get plants into the ground six weeks late meant that if we were going to limit our options to “organically-approved” ones, the reasons had better be good. I decided the best way to research the value of gaining certification was to go to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) website, and read the “fact sheets” and the manual.

I found the philosophy of the organics movement to be a barrel raft covered in loose planks. In trying to justify their beliefs, they pile on the claims (planks), each of which rests on a different assumption (barrel). And when one claim is questioned, they simply jump to another plank on the raft and try to hold it all together. Sadly, for the investigator, dismantling a raft of claims requires a crew of rebuttals.

It took awhile for all those planks to be yanked away from me, one by one, and for the barrels to disperse and sink.

The origins of the “organic” vs. “chemical” false dichotomy

In the early 19th century, “Vitalism” reigned. This was the belief that certain materials could only be produced through a mysterious “vital force” in living organisms; hence, “organic” substances were those derived from organisms and their products. Then a German scientist, Fredrick Wöhler, synthesized urea, a component of urine, in a laboratory without having to pee in a bottle. Goodbye Vitalism.

These “mysterious” materials turned out to be the results not of a vital force but of the properties of good old carbon. So the term “organic” came to describe the chemicals based around the carbon atom.

The organic farmers parted ways with the organic chemists around the turn of the century, with “organic” gaining positive connotations and “chemical” negative ones. This commenced with the German mystic Rudolph Steiner and his “Anthroposophic” movement, which includes “biodynamic” farming, a school that believes the farm should be seen as a “holistic” organism that needs to be balanced with various astrological forces. Some ways of achieving this “balance” include shunning “synthetic chemicals” and burying manure-stuffed cow’s horns to focus cosmic energy into the earth.

Today we have the government-sanctioned term “organic” to describe a veritable Leviticus of “Allowed” and “Prohibited” practices that are put into place to ensure that a farm is, well, organic. The term now conflicts with the scientific, chemical definition in just about every way.

For example: a chemically organic, naturally-occurring pesticide produced in Kenya, pyrethrum, is declared “organic” even though it decimates bees, but a likewise chemically organic pesticide native to the North America, nicotine sulfate, is not “organic.”

A synthetically produced, chemically organic fungicide, Captan, is declared not “organic,” but the synthetically produced, chemically inorganic fungicide copper sulfate is declared “organic.”

Go figure. Nowadays, if someone asks if our food is “organic,” I say, “Sure, it’s carbon-based.”

Mother Nature, Bad Parent

Not only are absurdities uttered with a straight face, contradictions are simply codified as “standards.” A central fault of organics is the Naturalistic Fallacy, the belief that substances derived from nature are better than those created by humans. Well, sometimes, anyway. Maybe not.

The USDA’s National Organics Program, which began with an Act of Congress in 1990, articulates the fallacy this way:

“As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK; and synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK. One can only stand in wonder at how high the manure has been piled in this case, all the way up to the United States Department of Agriculture, in fact.

Allowed Synthetics” are rationalized this way:

(1) The substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes

(2) The substance’s manufacture, use, and disposal do not have adverse effects on the environment and are done in a manner compatible with organic handling….

In other words: Mother Nature doesn’t always provide us the protection we need to farm successfully. In fact, She regularly supplies pestilence, disease and infection. If you’re an orchardist, the fungi are your mortal enemy and you have to spray fungicides or your orchard is doomed. So please just be careful with that copper sulfate, which can accumulate in the soil and cause organ damage if ingested.

How about if all farmers agree to use any substance, natural or synthetic, in a way that minimizes adverse effects on health and the environment? In other words, follow the doggone label.

Teh pesticides!”

Something I read on MOFGA’s website, a “Pesticides Quiz,” really bothered me:

“The EPA performs toxicity tests on pesticides prior to registration.

False: Toxicity tests are performed neither by the EPA nor by independent laboratories contracting with the EPA. Pesticide manufacturers provide the data that the EPA bases its judgments on. There is an inherent conflict of interest between EPA’s need for unbiased data and the manufacturers’ need for data that show their products are not hazardous.”

How does a lay person check out such a claim? I Googled “Pesticides” and “Maine” and got Maine Board of Pesticides Control as the top hit. I called the number there and got Dr. Lebelle Hicks, Toxicologist. Dr. Hicks seems delighted to have a real citizen asking her questions.

Summarizing her reply to the scary MOFGA claim: It is true only as far as it goes. But it’s not the EPA’s job to test the compounds that manufacturers wish to market; that would mean taxpayers paying for the testing of products that the corporations will profit from. It is the EPA’s job to set the tolerances for residues and to review the data submitted by the manufacturers according to strict guidelines. Laboratories contracting with the manufacturers perform such tests.

This conversation came sometime after a discombobulating experience I had while working at the organic farm: I was required to attend a workshop upcountry to be certified . . . as a pesticides handler.

So a group of us drove up to MOFGA’s fairground, where the MBPC’s Gary Fish, Manager of Pesticide Programs, gave us a PowerPoint on how to read pesticide labels and how to follow what’s written on them. Calling this an instance of “cognitive dissonance” is putting it mildly. It’s true:Organic farmers use pesticides and they have to follow the same laws as non-organic farmers. No amount of special pleading (“But they’re natural!”) negates this fact.

At Dr. Hicks’ advice, I eventually studied for and received a private pesticides applicator license in Maine. This year, in spite of the weather, we have had the best apples, ever.

GMOs? OMG!”

From MOFGA’s manual:

Genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) is a synthetic process designed to control nature at the molecular level, with the potential for unforeseen consequences. As such, it is not compatible with the principles of organic agriculture (either production or handling). Genetically engineered/modified organisms (GEO/GMOs) and products produced by or through the use of genetic engineering are prohibited.

This prohibition is articulated by the NOP as well:

A variety of methods to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production.

Question: As one of the partners of Dow Farm daily injects himself with insulin that is produced through recombinant DNA technology, does this mean he can never consider himself an “organic” farmer? (Not that he cares at this point.)

The idea that “the principles of organic agriculture” do not “control nature at the molecular level” and do not have “the potential for unforeseen consequences” is a classic instance of the one who judges the gene splice in another’s eye while not seeing the cloned apple tree lodged in one’s own eye.

The anti-GMO crowd simply cannot separate their loathing for a specific corporation, Monsanto, from the science of recombinant DNA technology. Presumably, because “Monsatan” is Bad, the papaya farmers of Hawaii should cut down their groves of trees engineered to resist ring spot virus, beta-carotene-fortified Golden Rice should continue to be withheld from children who will go blind from Vitamin A deficiency, and GE vaccines should be flushed down the toilet.

Plant pathologist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer R. W. Adamchak, have done an admirable job in their book “Tomorrow’s Table” arguing that the aims of genetic engineering and organic farming are not necessary at odds. They believe the two can coexist.

However, such a prospect brings to mind the words “snowball” and “hell.”

If it quacks, it’s probably organic

In the Fall of 2000, I got to experience a weekend at the Common Ground Fair, MOFGA’s agricultural event, as a helper at some friends’ farmers market booth. People drive in from all over New England to eat organic spelt crepes, experience organic aromatherapy, and buy twenty-dollar-a-pound organic seed garlic.

MOFGA had just moved to their beautiful new digs in Unity, Maine, and it was enjoyable roaming the grounds between shifts to watch fields being plowed with teams of horses; to gawk at produce and price tags; and to hear lectures on how bio-dynamic beekeepers care for the “bee soul.” Hilariously, coffee vendors not permitted on the fairgrounds hang around outside the gates like ticket scalpers. They do a brisk business pre-caffeinating fair goers addicted to this 100% natural substance.

I caught sight of something called The Whole Life Tent. Entering, I was amazed to find myself surrounded by Reflexologists, Naturopathic Doctors, Homeopaths, Reiki practitioners, and other “modalities” by which one may become “moral, united, integrated, and balanced.” I was unsure what any of this had to do with agriculture.

To my dismay, I realized that what the panoply of fried dough, stuffed animals, and monster trucks is to Maine’s largest commercial fair, the Fryeburg Fair, the whole raft of alternative medical scams is to the Common Ground Fair—a necessary evil to get non-agricultural types to attend. Only much later, when I opened the manuals, did I discover that this disorder is not limited to the fair grounds.

Both MOFGA and the NOP make it clear that livestock must not be subject to the “routine use of synthetic medications.” Antibiotics cannot be used “for any reason.” And yet:

“Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.”

So an animal treated with appropriate medications is thereby rendered unclean.

OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes). Then there are the “Homeopathic remedies, Bryonia, Phytolacca,” and other letters of the alphabet.

However, you must not use Bag Balm for any reason whatsoever.

Go organic”: slander a farmer

At Maine’s Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January, we got to mingle with other farmers, big and small, and to attend workshops on combating pests and Internet marketing.

In the Exhibition Hall, I found myself standing behind two young women in wool grilling a commercial apple orchardist about his spraying practices. He was trying to explain to them that he kept both “organic” and “conventional” plots and that the “organic” trees actually needed to be sprayed more often because of the transitory nature of “organic” pesticides. This increased his costs in both chemicals and fuel, which was reflected in the price of his apples. The women then sidled off to another booth. I asked him if they “got it.” He issued a flat “No.”

I had just published an editorial on the remarkable irony that MOFGA, the group that itself defined the sharp divide between “organic” and “conventional” farmers, was complaining about feeling excluded from an event at the show. This event, called “Convergence = Sustainability,”was billed as “bringing all farmers together to talk about common issues.” It was apparently not enough that an entire day of the show was called “MOFGA day.” They seemed to want “conversion,” not mere “convergence.”

In response to the Convergence = Sustainability flap, MOFGA published an editorial with the following contemptible passage:

Why would organic growers and consumers want to converge with conventional agriculture, as the title of a Maine Agricultural Trades Show session, held in January, suggested? Craving the Organophosphate-Arsenic-Laced Special for dinner?

There seems to be no limit to the calumnies organics advocates will heap on non-certified farmers. Maine’s organic guru Eliot Coleman derides non-organic farmers as “chemical farmers” who supposedly believe that “nature is inadequate.” He rehashes the 19th fallacy of “chemical” versus “biological,” dismissing the whole agricultural discipline of plant pathology as “plant-negative.”

Members of the Organic Consumers Association also employ the derisive term “chemical farmers” in their screeds. They even come right out and say that local foods not “organically-produced” are unsafe and that consumers should shun their local farmer who is not certified organic. Their modus operandi is to frighten people into buying organic.

Non-organic farmers and feedlot operators are literally poisoning us and our children…”

The belief armor of such ideologues is so strong that the concept of “dose” doesn’t penetrate. Organic devotees endow “pesticide residues” with seemingly supernatural powers of corruption while simply ignoring the fact that our diets are full of poisons. To them it doesn’t matter, as Bruce N. Ames and Lois S. Gold have shown, that “99.99% of the pesticides humans ingest are natural.”

It doesn’t matter that fungicides protect us from one of the most potent carcinogens known, aflatoxins produced by molds; what matters are the hypothetical effects of micro-grams of fungicides found on apples, as promulgated by such organizations as the execrable Environmental Working Group.

It doesn’t matter that another potent carcinogen, benzo(a)pyrene, is ubiquitous in cooked foods. Instead of considering, by twisted “organic” logic, that this morning’s hot coffee and toast is a cancer cocktail crossing her placental barrier, a pregnant mother propagandized into being afraid of non-organic food will strap her babies into car seats and drive miles to avoid “chemical” farmers and their products.

Surviving the end of oil, organically

The last plank of the organic barrel raft to be removed unceremoniously from my grasp was the “sustainability” claim. In spite of what I knew were absurdities in the organic movement, I still believed that organic farming would be the only option left to us in a “post peak oil world.” Oil-based farming was clearly unsustainable; as oil becomes rarer and more expensive, we will have to find more sustainable ways to farm, and organic is waiting in the wings to save the day.

I accepted that peak oil was imminent, if not here already, and that this would mean the disappearance of “industrial,” “petroleum-based” agriculture, along with the wholesale decline in the accoutrements of contemporary civilization (i. e. well-stocked supermarkets). But having followed the alleged End of Oil for almost a decade now, I’ve amended my position to “maybe,” even “I don’t know.”

The peak oil “collapse,” always just around the corner, never seems to happen. This doesn’t mean “peak oil is a myth”; rather, it means the catastrophic effects have been over-sold, sort of like the media-hyped “comet of the century” Kohoutek in the 1970s, which fizzled out.

Besides, it doesn’t follow from the decline of oil that organic farming will rise. Organic foods have always been more expensive to produce, even in a regime of low oil prices, than supposedly “oil-based” foods. Organic farmers have fuel bills, too, and they are virtually addicted to plastics, so in the predicted expensive oil future, organic prices will continue to outpace conventional prices.

It doesn’t even follow that organic methods are more “sustainable” than “conventional” ones. My deconversion from this last plank of belief has been preserved for posterity in an exchange with Robert Carroll of the Skeptics Dictionary, under his entry on “organic (food and farming).” He says:

“…the problems we will face will probably be exacerbated if we went totally organic. Think of how much more land we would have to use to feed the world’s population. Where is this land going to come from? Clear-cutting rainforests?

…organic farming could feed the world if population stopped or receded, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Conventional farming of genetically modified crops may be the only hope for feeding the billions more that are likely to be added to world population within the next 50 years.”

The alleged “sustainability” of organics for a “post oil future” is an instance of an ideologically-based movement co-opting a genuine issue (“peak oil”) and casting it in apocalyptic terms in order to make salvationist claims for itself.

The end of the matter

In the end, there is nothing particularly wrong with the methods sanctified as “organic”—the food produced is as good as any other food—but it turns out that just about every other utterance that issues from the organic movement and its acolytes is an absurdity, a contradiction, a misrepresentation, a slander, or a fib.

I phrase the Jesus quote at the beginning this way:

“It’s not what goes into your pie holes that’s the problem. It’s what comes out of your pie holes that’s the problem.”

So if you currently buy your fresh produce from your local organic farmer and you really like it, continue to do so. Just tell them to cut the crap, along with their prices.


All in all, a fantastically, informative read. Just as we should be wary of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Government when they assert, by fiat, that so-so equals bladdy-blah, so should it be of Big Organic when they assert their methods use no pesticides, less-intensive pesticides, is automatically better because it’s au naturale (wild almonds anyone? They contain cyanide), or, any other contradictory occurrences. I believe Rob Hart has said it best: “The world has changed. We don’t live anything like our ancestors. We don’t work like them, talk like them, think like them, travel like them, or fight like them. Why on earth would we want to eat like them.”

Thanks for the guest post Mike. And don’t forget, if you buy S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I’ll give you Random Rationality: Expanded free (which cost 3 times as much). Just email me your receipt (you’ll find my email at my author website). Thanks for reading.

What is the Future of Pseudoscience?

Bad Science, Good Science

We live in an age of information, it is said again and again. But that doesn’t mean we live in an age of good information” ~ Rebecca Rosen

The above quote nicely sums up where we are right now. We need better ways of analyzing the veracity and integrity of the multitudes of information we meet with everyday in greater quantity. Skeptical readers perusing the Internet try, and often fail—not that it’s a bad thing, it only shows their human—to separate the good information from the bad information; the good science from the bad science; and the meaningful statistics from the meaningless statistics. This paradigm, of needing to verify and to fact-check everything, is going to change soon. Some time ago, I had the clever little thought—I don’t have many so I have to cherish them—that one day soon, someone will invent, or create, the Universal Fact Checker (UFC), most likely, as a browser plugin (an app for your browser that performs a task). Recently, something similar has been created, but I’ll get to explaining that shortly. First, I want to explain what I think the UFC will be. I envision it as an artificial intelligence (AI) that scours what you read informing you of dubious, false, or outdated claims, providing instant fact-checking on the spot—just as Fact Check does for US politicians; just like medicine does to snakes oilmen; and what science does to non-science. The key difference being is that it is with you at all times at the point of contact, as you absorb new information. You will not have to seek it out, or even to remember to seek it out, it will just be there karate-chopping bullshit in the face, like Penn & Teller, but, always there. Let’s face it, how many of us spot-check everything we learn? Not a single one of us. There simply isn’t enough time to do so even if you wanted to, and even if you had to. In such scenarios that we are in almost every day, the logical solution is not to accept it as fate, but to invent a technology that alleviates the problem—inability to check and retain every piece of information provided to us—and performs the necessary tasks orders of magnitude better than we could.

How Might It Work?

Picture this: imagine you’re reading some pseudoscientist’s take on autism, intelligent design, theistic evolution, quantum healing, or whatever other woo you can shake a scientific stick at, but never makes it goes away (as not everyone will read it, or even have the scientific training to understand it) but, as you browse and absorb, your trusty little UFC scours ahead, subjecting every word, statistic, number, sentence, and paragraph on the page against empirical, peer-reviewed science and academic works highlighting the paragraphs that profess false certainties or provide dubious claims. In other words, MMA’ing the hell out of pseudoscience (I had to put a bad pun in somewhere). Only the strongest claims—evidence-based claims—will survive; what we would otherwise call good science; which is, what we would otherwise call—for lack of a better word—the truth.

Consider an example: (1) A website details the increase in autism rates in the last several decades (true). (2) It then goes on to say vaccines contain thimerosal (partially true). (3) It, then, continues on to say that since thimerosal contains the neurotoxin mercury (true), comes to the conclusion: (4) vaccines cause autism (false). So, how might the UFC access such a claim?

(1) The first section, after having been UFC-assessed, remains untouched because there really has been an uptick in autism rates. Though, if you happen to hover your mouse over it, you will be informed that much of the uptick has been due to a redefinition of autism, and, doctors becoming more aware of autism, thereby, increasingly diagnosing it instead of the condition going unseen or misdiagnosed. So, it is quite likely that the uptick in autism rates is not really an uptick at all, but merely, properly accounting for it for the first time, though still comparing it to the previous underestimated counts. (Of course, it will also tell you that it is a hypothesis, the leading hypothesis, but still not decidedly proven, yet far in advance of any other leading hypothesis.)

(2) The second section being somewhat factually based, is highlighted in orange. As a curious observer you, again, hover your mouse over the highlighted paragraph and a side-bar appears informing you that thimerosal was removed from vaccines by the summer of 2001, excepting the flu and tetanus shots. So, the statement, being as it is a generalization, has tried to lull you into a false certainty—and in this case, failed. You become slightly more suspicious of everything else the article professes to know.

(3) You move on to the third section, and notice that, it too, is highlighted in orange, with a sidebar informing you that methyl-mercury is a neurotoxin, but it (methyl-mercury) is not found in those few vaccines that still contain thimerosal (or any vaccine that ever contained thimerosal), as mercury in thimerosal is bound as an organic ethyl-mercury; it thereby being rendered impotent and easily filtered out by your kidneys, and, therefore, cannot be a neurotoxin. Your suspicions continue to increase.

(4) The fourth section, you’ve now noticed, is highlighted in red as the conclusion does not follow the logic deductively, but rather, inductively, and even then, in a series of inductive leaps with no evidential threads to support the leap from one to the next, so it’s closer to say that they are purely imaginative leaps. The sidebar will inform you that studies looking for any causal thread, which have cumulatively looked at millions of children, have found not even a simple correlative example between thimerosal (or vaccines in general) and autism, or any other disorder. It will tell you that in studies that looked at vaccinated and non-vaccinated kids, they have the same rates of autism, but overall, vaccinated kids get less sick. You now close the webpage and never visit the website again.

Ramifications

Now, wouldn’t that be a sight. Every creationist, anti-vaxxer, homeopathic, quantum healing, feng-shui, talking-to-the-dead website would be littered in orange and red paragraphs. The websites of the Thinking Mom’s Revolution; of Joe Mercola; of Natural News; of Age of Autism; of Reasonable Faith; of Answers in Genesis would become virtual ghost-towns, almost overnight (well, so the theory goes). They will cry foul, they will bitch, they will whine, and complain about being censored, and that it is all a conspiracy to keep the truth from you, because of course, only they have it. Some will listen, I hope most don’t. It will be true, their future babble about censorship, that is. But it will be censorship by good science, and since good science is what nature has regarded as true, it will be censorship by nature, or as I prefer to call it, the universe. (When people refer to nature, they refer to the insignificant speck of dust that is the Earth, but the Universe is where the action is at.) Michael Specter said it best in his book Denialism: What can be understood and reliably repeated by experiment is what nature regarded as true.” Indeed, there will be a conspiracy, there will be censorship, but, it will be imposed by nature, and therein shall we find the truth.

I’ve meant to write this post for some months, but never got around to it. I finally did so after reading two interesting articles in close succession: one in The Atlantic by Rebecca Rosen, Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out, and the other on the open-source science journal PLOS ONE titled, Text Mining Effectively Scores and Ranks the Literature for Improving Chemical-Gene-Disease Curation at the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database. (I highly recommend you read both before continuing, but if you don’t have time to read the articles, I will summarize—inadequately I might add, so read them.)

The first is a tool, named Churnalism, and it has been created to identify plagiarism in the media. It will allow users to submit or post articles and have the language checked against press releases, Fortune 500 companies, and government sources. This will help the would-be reader separate the wheat from the chaff, the original from the copied, and the reportage from the self-congratulatory, and subjective, press release. You’ll have front-row seats as the reportage, reporters, blogs, and online media without integrity fall to the wayside. In short, it is a simple way to instantly check the integrity of those whom we trust with reporting the truth. This tool has the potential to cull those with false pretenses. (You can even install it as a browser plugin so it automatically identifies those articles that have plagiarized. Just as I hope the UFC will do one day—hopefully soon.)

The second is yet another tool created to serve a specific need performing a different, though equally important, task (at least for scientists, though if it helps them, it helps us all). There are thousands of scientific studies being published every day. (The open database, PubMed, alone publishes a new study every minute, and there is, perhaps, 50 million studies published somewhere.) No scientist can keep up with it, though it doesn’t stop them from trying. But, an inordinate amount of time is wasted weeding out non-relevant studies. If scientists could find a reliable way to accurately and quickly accomplish that task, it would, well, free up more time for them to do more science. So, a few scientists created a sophisticated algorithm that read through 15,000 papers going back to 1926 on metal toxicology and, using inputted indicators of article relevancy, novel data content, interaction yield rate, mean average precision, and biological and toxicological interpretability (you don’t need to know what these means) was able to, 85% of the time, rank the studies accurately in their relevance so that precious research time (and PHD students) could be focused towards those studies most conducive to their ends. Now, that is cool! (Also useful, but cool invariably comes first.)

What’s Next?

As I made the case earlier, this seems to be the beginnings of the left-hook out of left-field that pseudo-scientists will receive, and, hopefully, a lot sooner than many expect. These two programs, pieces of information technology, will not sit around unused and stagnant; others will take it, play with it, evolve it, and twist it to new purposes, and I hope one of those gifted folks turns it full-force towards the elimination of pseudoscience. Nothing is more relevant today than removing the influence of pseudoscientific jibber-jabber from the discourse we should be having on vaccines, nutrition, more importantly climate change and biotechnology, and perhaps even economics and politics. I can see no barriers to its implementation (aside from cost, which, as I’ll explain in a few paragraphs, is only a short-term problem).

I’m sure, by now, that most people know about IBM’s Watson beating two human opponents (the two best human opponents I might add) in Jeopardy; a game based on the nuance of human language. Watson, an AI, was able to deconstruct the language, understand grammar and syntax in the context of a question, and probabilistically match it to information it ascertained from Wikipedia. (That is, it wasn’t trained to play the game and had to figure out the answers all on its own in a similar manner to how our brains work.) Watch this video to see just how formidable Watson is (4-minutes long). You’ll even see most of the time that when Watson is beaten to the punch that he had the correct answer as well. Watson is now being trained as a medical assistant, and will be most instrumental in analyzing the totality of medical research and new studies coming out every day that a doctor could not hope to keep up with, and helping said doctor in correctly diagnosing patients reducing errors and cost, increasing health, and improving lives along the way. Watson, the fact checker, could be, in a few years, capable of the reasoning in our vaccine example above, if not already. And if IBM is this far, then other companies aren’t far behind. In fact, Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, is working to fully develop a personal, super-intelligent, and always online virtual assistant at Google that can read and understand the semantic content of the web at large. At that point, it will be possible that you’ll no longer have to search for stuff. You’ll just ask questions instead and empirically relevant, sound answers will be displayed. (Perhaps, this explains why Google is moving into hardware: Google Glass, self-driving cars, and the takeover of Motorola. No search results when you ask a question, but that is merely uninformed speculation.)

Benefits

Instead of searching for when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, where you may have several moon-landing-was-a-hoax results on the first page, you’ll only get the real, empirical answer: July 20th, 1969 alongside a photo of him, you know, actually standing on the moon.

Instead of spending long hours trying to research vaccine safety, where, as a non-medical professional, you can’t tell who’s giving you sound advice and who isn’t; and where, subsequently, a lot of good information is mixed, and lost in, a mountain of bad information, you’ll simply ask: “Is the DPT vaccine safe for my child?” The unambiguous answer will be yes, linking to the multitude of peer-reviewed studies (and only peer-reviewed) on the subject as well as, perhaps, explaining the pro’s and con’s of the quality of the studies, their methodology, any biases, statistical significance, and so forth. It will do this, perhaps, while also showing you the statistical advantage and risk-benefit analysis of not vaccinating your child, so that you may make your decision within the full context of available information bypassing your human heuristics that often ignores several important factors in valuing and acting on information.

Instead of having to filter through creationist babble about when and how the Universe was created, instead, you’ll ask “When and how did the Universe come into being?” The answer will be: “13.82 billion years ago. This data was ascertained with help from the Kepler and Hubble space telescopes, from WMAP, experiments in particle accelerators etc etc etc, and the best-supported hypothesis of creation at this time is a quantum energy fluctuation that instantiated itself into a system of net-energy zero that then forced negative space to expand to compensate for the positive energy instantiation, so that the system (Universe) remained at net zero energy.” (Of course, the super-intelligent machine will find a way to say this, or whatever the correct answer is, if it has changed or been refined, in a far more precise and succinct way than I have.)

But, where will these answers come from? From empirical, peer-reviewed research of course. From the hard and soft sciences, from academia, from open-source journals, and the avalanche of historic data just sitting around drawers waiting to be digitized, analyzed, and parsed through.

While the scenario I provided above—the autism example—is probably not going to happen for some years; for it takes an immense amount of computation and advanced algorithms. While these exist, they are supremely expensive, and considering that the UFC would be most useful as a free plugin—just as I have the churnalism plugin in my Chrome browser that automatically warns me if plagiarism is found—there is, as yet, no profit motive. (However, the profit motive is only necessary when the technologies are expensive. As they get cheaper, it will no longer be necessary.) But, because technology, particularly information technology (IT), is so awesome, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes cheap enough. (As IT’s price-performance per constant-dollar roughly doubles every year like clockwork. Therefore, in 10 years, the technology will be 1000 times more powerful while costing the same, adjusted for inflation, as now.) It’s only a matter of time before it is cheap enough.

Bye-Bye Pseudoscience

Mark the calendar friends, Churnalism and the Science Text-Miner are only the first step. When the UFC arrives, it will come out of the gate swinging. At first, it will be simple, but it will iterate quickly and quicker until it encroaches upon, enveloping and suffocating, all the fields of pseudoscience, and real science will win. How could good science not win? It offers unlimited expansion, untold benefits, improves our lives in a very real way, and—again, for lack of a better word—has the good manners of being true. Pseudoscience appeals only to our vanity and ego and little more, it can only win in an environment where it is not selected against, such as the current (and past) environment where only a small percentage of the population are scientifically trained, but as soon as the tools of skepticism become available to one and all, it will be relegated to the dustbin of history, a future bedtime story told to kids who understand that having bad, non, or no science is as scary as the bogey monster now is to many… (If you doubt the sincerity of that statement, as I’m sure many will, then I invite you to move back to the Rift Valley in Africa and live without the benefits that observation, replication, and innovation have bought us, and which have resulted in the tools of our survival and eventual ascendancy. Those tools, which have bought us prolonged healthy life, increased food production, clean water, reduced infant and maternal mortality, and this webpage did not come easy. Billions worked, and died, for them so that we may be where we are now. See how long you last without shelter, tools, binoculars, night-vision, vaccines, weaponry, clothes, wheels, and, most importantly, fire.)

Timeframe

Impossible to say, but, it is only a matter of time. There is nothing forbidding it, our AI’s today are quite powerful, and information technology is getting cheaper predictably, every single year, so, it follows that our AI will only become more powerful, exponentially so. It is only a matter of time. When it does come, either next year, in five years, or in ten, hilarity will ensue, but more importantly, good science will finally and fully claim its status in the game of thrones played for with truth-claims for millennia  Nothing will unseat it thereafter; well, nothing without a regress to the past. Lives will be improved and prosper; economies will grow and become more efficient; and, for good and all, better knowledge will have a selective advantage, and false knowledge will, for the first time in 200,000 long, agonizing, and painful years, have a selective disadvantage. Good riddance! The byproduct of our dear UFC will be, that, our minds will almost seem to perform as if on steroids. That is something I’d sign up for in an instant.

“Science is not a democratic process. Scientists don’t line up and say ‘gee,’ we really like this theory, let’s all vote for it. That’s not how it works. What we do in science is we find what explanations work.” ~ Eugenie C. Scott (Biologist)

 

GMOs are Unnatural? And Other Thoughts on Biotech

GMO

My last three posts have been about GMOs. I took a bit of flak for it—I even got some thank you’s and well done’s, mainly from scientists and farmers. In copping the negative flak however, the consensus seemed to be that genetically engineered foods and GMO technology are unnatural, therefore bad, and this is usually wrapped up in the guise of the naturalistic fallacy (anything natural is better than anything manmade). I find this naturalistic argument rather short-sighted, and a non-sequitur (conclusion does not follow from the logic). (I’m not saying that its wrong to eat organic foods, merely that the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the way it is presented. If you want to take what nature offers, then have at it without need of rationalizing it.) I also find that the stated goals of many an activist organization would, almost without question, lead to outcomes in-conducive to the stated environmentalism that those who hold the argument adhere to. Let me detail why I think so, as well as get into a dissection of biotechnology, nature, evolution, and a few others subjects (I got a bit carried away and before I knew it, this post was almost 5,000 words).

GM in Nature

Let’s take the basic premise: nature makes stuff better than we do—arguably the root of the organic movement. Starting at the beginning: some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, there existed a single-celled replicator that is the common ancestor of everything alive today. Harken back to the thought that recombinant rDNA technology is unnatural, which would mean that nature doesn’t do it. For, if genomic modification was unnatural, then we could confidently say that we wouldn’t be here. Since nothing could have evolved from that original replicator. It would just be replicators ad infinitum, one after the undifferentiated other. Nothing would change, because random changes and mutations would not occur. Even the original replicator would not have evolved so we wouldn’t have gotten that far. Nature is the original Engineer. (If you’re wondering why I capitalized engineer, then you haven’t watched Prometheus. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.) In order to go from that replicator to a 100-trillion celled human being, nature had to employ genomic engineering, albeit by accident. The only difference between nature’s style and our own is that nature’s is directionless and purposeless—there is no end goal in mind; whatever happens, happens. For every animal that exists, for every animal that was born, for every animal that lived out its short life, there were billions that met untimely, and quite likely, painful ends. Of all the species that ever existed, 99.9% are today extinct. Nature is not the benign process we think her to be, and though it is very easy to say that mother nature should be our guiding light (or spirit, or mother), but I submit to you that the 1.7 billion people who died of natural infectious diseases in the 20th century alone would not agree (if they could disagree, that is), or the 1.97 billion people who died of non-communicable diseases. If we were to compare our own body count: all the wars, crime, subjugation, and intolerance of mankind, to natures, we’d find that she more than trebled our own count, which stands at some 980 million people. Surely, nature does put us to shame with her 3.67 billion death tolls. Be that as it may: it follows that we are here because of the natural process of genomic modification and there is nothing inherently unnatural in the process. Mutations happen: either nature makes them happen with no thought to the outcome, or we control for them with genetic engineering.

Nature Does It Best

Let’s again take the basic premise that nature makes stuff best. From that first replicator, and then every step along the way, nature haphazardly selected for organisms preferentially selecting for those with beneficial mutations (allowing them better success in passing on their genes), selecting against those with detrimental mutations, and being ambivalent towards those with benign mutations until, eventually, in the Rift Valley some few million years ago, primates began evolving intelligence along with the spectacularly lucky coincidence of an opposable thumb. These two lucky outcomes allowed their descendants to manipulate their environment with an ever-increasing degree of control using said, gifted intelligence. (One theory is that intelligence evolved as a courtship device; watch this video by Jason Silva for a 90-second primer.) Therefore, our intelligence and the manipulation of our environment are thus given to us by Mother Nature…arguably to have it used. Every animal on this blue-green dot we call Earth uses to its advantage every trick and tool nature endowed it with. (After all, those that don’t often do not pass on their genes.) To categorically state that nature makes stuff better than we do so that we should bow down to her wisdom is to willingly ignore that nature made us the way we are to do what it is we do, which is the propagation our genes using our selective advantage (intelligence and environmental manipulation). It follows then, that, everything we do is, concordantly, natural. (Unless of course, you believe you have free will, which you don’t.) We are made by nature, therefore everything we do is natural and, therefore, everything we are doing now is the best possible solution because it is natural. As you can see, this line of reasoning (natural > human-made) is a slippery slope and is, plain and simply, ill defined. The distinction between nature, human culture and technology is an arbitrary distinction. We do the things that we do now because of our naturally endowed capacity. But, another way to put it is that after 3.8 billion years, an animal (Homo sapiens) evolved its own evolvability (technology) thus continuing the process of selection in the process superseding natural selection becoming the dominant selection process. We are the first species that does not live entirely within the constraints of natural selection, but that does not mean we don’t live in a selection process, just that we override natures and institute our own. In time, we rely less and less on natural selection and more on environments of our own choosing—but it is so because nature made it so. Ants make anthills, beavers make dams, birds make nests, and Homo sapiens make technology, and it’s all natural. (Note: I’m not saying we need to colonize the Earth and have everything submit to our mighty republic. Yes, I just finished watching Spartacus.) Only that within our domain, we have already done so to our own advantage, and there is nothing wrong with this—it is natural even.

Selection

Remember that evolution happens regardless of whether we rework it to our advantage—biotech crops—or leave nature be.

  • Evolution is natural selection by random mutation
  • Pre-Industrial (i.e., organic) agriculture is artificial selection by random mutation
  • Conventional agriculture is artificial selection by accelerated random mutation
  • GM agriculture is artificial selection by purposeful mutation

The changes are changes in degree, not in kind. To label one unnatural is to label them all unnatural. It is evolution, continued. Something has to fulfil both the selection process and the mutation process in evolution. It’s either nature, which has neither direction nor purpose, and evidenced by her 3.67 billion person death toll in the 20th century from just 2 categories, has neither your health or longevity in mind; or we fulfil the selection process, which nature gives us the ability to so.

While the result of recombinant rDNA technology may be labelled unnatural (merely because it doesn’t exist in nature, not because it can’t). The same cannot be said of the technology that produces such food. We are co-opting nature’s methods to make food, not playing God. (You may dispute the fact that I said that it could exist in nature by saying that a fish gene could never wind up in a tomato, but you’d be wrong. Your genome is the combined genome four times over of the amphioxus fish-like marine chordate. A 1cm little fish’s genome mistakenly copied twice over on itself has resulted in every land animal today, and you. If nature can turn a little fish into you, then why is it so distasteful that we put cross-species genes where we need them? Uncertainty may be the first thing that comes to your mind, but nature had no idea what she was doing either.)

The Point

There is a movement to demonize GM technology and even conventional agriculture, with the wish to return to the agricultural past. Organic agriculture is fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, but we can’t feed the world with it. Remember Paul R. Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb? It stated in 1968 that in the 70s and 80s, mass famines would ensue as we wouldn’t be able to make enough food, and any efforts to avert such a disaster are a waste of time and should be scrapped. (Thomas Malthus said much the same thing in 1798.) Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why didn’t the predictions of mass starvation and disaster come to pass? Well, they would have if we listened to him and did nothing. Instead we developed the technologies that allowed us to increase yield to a stupendous degree.

Context

Since 1961, we’ve increased yield by 300% using only 12% more land. How? We used technology to make drastically increase yield and avert the predicted disaster of Ehrlich and many others. Said differently, if we kept farming organically, mass famine would have ensued. Without such yield increases thanks to plant science, we would have had to use two Latin America’s of arable land to compensate, or, more likely, the predicted mass starvation would have occurred. If in the 1960s when the world population was less than 3 billion people, the propagation of organic farming as the sole agricultural method would have resulted in disaster, how it will help us now when we are 7 billion people and on the way to 9-10 billion people? The majority of that increase in yield has come from plain ol’ conventional agriculture, but now our yields are coming up against a glass wall for that type of plant science, and GE foods are the next process to take us forward to surmount the coming set of problems. And, while we still have a starving billion today, it is not because we can’t create the food, but we can’t get it to them. The solution to world hunger is for those most afflicted by it to be able to grow their own food, instead of relying on food aid and handouts as band aids applied to a broken bone. Organic farming will not suffice for Sub-Saharan Africa; they need heat-tolerant and drought-resistant strains. (They already don’t have any biotechnology or conventional agriculture, ergo, organic farming, which is what remains, has failed them.)

Future Problems

In the next 40 years, we need to double yield without an increase in land usage—in fact we’ll need to decrease land usage (agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change). We will not accomplish this by going back to low-input agriculture—though it won’t go anywhere for those who still want it. I make the case in my book that Vertical Farming (VF) will do the trick. VF certainly is capable, but what if the mass migration from horizontal farming to vertical farming never takes place? The technology was invented in the 50s by the US military and then nobody did anything with it for 60 years. What if that no-usage scenario repeats itself? We cannot afford to stand idly by and hope that everything will go according to plan. We need contingencies and redundancy. One of those is GM agriculture. We have been eating GM food for 20 years: in that time, we’ve spared the environment 438 million kilograms of pesticide use. (Don’t forget, organic farming uses pesticides too, and organic pesticides aren’t automatically better for the environment. Some are thousands of times more toxic.) In 2010, 19.4 billion kgs of CO2 was not released into the atmosphere because of GM technology (the equivalent of 8.6 million cars removed from the roads for a year). Over half of the economic benefits of GM seeds have gone directly to farmers in developing countries helping them rise up out of subsistence farming and poverty. In America, the country that eats the most GM food, cancers over the last 20 years have gone down 20% so the promised health apocalypse that many have warned about were coming have not materialized.

If we want to solve the problem of population growth, we have to realize that living in poverty is what propels the world’s poor to have more children, and food insecurity is a major factor. As Peter Diamandis wrote in Abundance, poor families living in subsistence need at least 3 kids, and they aim for male children. Why three? Well, as distasteful as it sounds; one may die, one will tend to the farm and look after the parents as they age; and the other is sent to get an education to break the cycle and make money enough to hopefully lift them out of poverty. The best solution to breaking out of a life of subsistence is food security. People in Sub-Saharan Africa can’t use organic farming (which, as mentioned earlier, if defined only by lack of conventional tools and biotechnology, then they are already organic, and food insecure).

Potential Benefits

Recently, we passed peak farmland, which unlike peak oil or peak water actually has positive connotations for us, but especially, the environment.

See the blue section in the above graph? That is the actual farmland used since 1961 to get us the aforementioned 300% yield increase. See the upward sloping green section? That’s how much land we would have used if we didn’t use conventional agriculture to create todays food. It is the equivalent landmass of the USA, Canada, and China, and try to imagine the destruction of forestry that that would have entailed. To be an environmentalist is, by definition, to support the conservation of nature. To support the conservation of nature should be, by definition, to support conventional agriculture as it uses less land to grow that food—going forward, this will entail supporting, or at least supporting the possibility of using, GMOs.

If we continue on our current path of increasing yields using science and biotechnology, the authors of the Peak Farmland study conservatively estimate that we could return 146 million hectares to nature by 2060, with high estimates that 256 million hectares could be restored (roughly double the area of the USA, east of the Mississipi). None of this even takes into account the potential land and resource reduction benefits of IV meat (which I detail here), or the coming generation of biotech crops, many of which will have: significantly reduced pesticide use (some using no pesticides at all), reduced nitrogen use (reducing river pollution), increased nutrition along with many other benefits. But, many such seeds are locked away due to the intense furore to GMO use, allowing only those few that the seed giants can afford to push through the regulatory burden. PG Economics noted that if, in 2010, those biotech crops already available were removed from the market, farmers would have had to plant an additional 5.1 million ha of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn, 3 million ha of cotton, and 0.35 million ha of canola to keep production steady, equivalent to an additional 8.6% of arable land in the US. Yet, this is what activists would have us do, remove all GM crops, necessitating the further destruction of forestry and nature for human purposes.

So, if we move forward into the future, we’ll give back hundreds of millions of hectares of farmland to nature, and if we move forward with biotechnology, we’ll do likewise.

Big Ag

But, are there problems, real problems, with biotechnology that have been covered or up concealed? With the technology, we find no problems that aren’t present in other forms of agriculture. As the National Academy of Science, and many prestigious scientific organizations concluded, the process itself is no more inherently risky than any other method. Biotech crops usually have between 1 and 3 genes altered, but every new generation of organic and conventional crops will have a few different genes in there too. (They are inevitable: a DNA copying error, a passing cosmic ray etc., will, and do, induce genetic mutations. To say there is uncertainty in GMOs is likewise to admitting that there is uncertainty in any new generation of plant or animal. The average human offspring carries about 100-200 mutations, but they are still people. Food with 1-3 added genes is still food.)

On the business side is where we find many that many folks have a priori problems. But these problems are indicative, and suggest the need of, business reform, patent reform and competition, and not the outright banning of the technology (which is just not possible, anyway). This business problem ended up co-mutating into advocacy against GMOs in general instead of where it should actually be directed, lack of competition due to the overbearing regulatory burden on GM crops which was instituted due to the initial advocacy, and round and round the circle we go, as the increased advocacy only exacerbates the problems activists think they are trying to stop. The intense backlash against biotechnology has only cemented the power of those few who first began exploring the field. Even then, the scale of abuse, often levelled at Monsanto, rivals the misinformation that the Catholic Church spouts against condom use on the continent most ravaged by aids, likening condom use to be a greater danger than the ravages of aids. (A sensible approach to Monsanto was detailed by activist Ellen of One Hundred Meals.)

We need to stop pretending that only Big Ag and Monsanto lobbies, undercuts, and undermines democracy; the organic movement spends $2.5 billion a year on advocacy. We need to stop thinking that Monsanto is after world domination: the global GM seed market in 2012 was $14 billion ( that is world domination with 0.0002% of global purchasing power), while organic food sales are $60 billion worldwide. (The total value of those GM crops when harvested is around $65 billion.) We need to know that all farms strive to use the least amount of pesticides required, as it is their biggest expense, and that synthetic chemicals are not a priori worse than organic chemicals, in fact, quite the opposite. In other words, we need to get real, and deal with the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.

For whatever problems we have today, the solution is not to ban it, it is to weigh the risks vs. the rewards and act appropriately. It is to study and to research, and to have reasoned debates among experts on the pros and cons; but above all, keeping in mind the effects on people far and wide around the world. Food security and a heavy disease burden (usually going together) undermine society at every level of its functioning. To fix them is to advance significantly in all other matters of societal dysfunction. Who knows how many Newtons, Einsteins, and Curies we are losing to lack of food, clean water, and education every year while we bicker over functionally equivalent types of food. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t, but don’t stop others from making their own choice. The liberal movement in America and Europe is pro-choice when it comes to matters of female reproduction—and rightfully so! —Yet, move the topic to food, swiftly change to being anti-choice, even though the ramifications for billions of poor people around the world are far worse than for a women in a forced pro-life environment.

But instead of focusing on legitimate problems with the business, competitive, and legal environment, red herrings are thrown this way and that: that organic food is nutritionally superior; a meta-analysis covering 162 studies over a 50-year period says their not, and any nutritional differences are unlikely to have a significant outcome on health. Facts are thrown out stating that organic is environmentally superior to all other forms of farming, despite the fact the answer is far more nuanced. We are told that farmers are using GMOs to lather their fields in Roundup, yet the National Academy of Science wrote, “When adopting GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops, farmers mainly substituted the herbicide glyphosate for more toxic herbicides.” (A report from the National Research Council even gave an impressive list of GM benefits including: improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use, but everyone focused instead on the little nuggets of bad news instead of the load of good news.) In using GMOs we use less toxic pesticides, and the result is a net environmental benefit, as glyphosate usually replaces atrazine (a pesticide 200 times more toxic). Instead of learning about real yields on GMO, we get the Union of Concerned Scientists telling us that ‘intrinsic yields’ haven’t increased since the inception of GMO, even though intrinsic yield tells you nothing, but total yield really has increased. But the most destructive effect of this headline-grabbing debate fiasco is as Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California wrote, “as it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

Red herrings are red for a reason, they are meant to distract you, not inform you. We need some green herrings.

Choice

Those of us with the ability to read this post have the luxury of choice when it comes to choosing between organic, conventional, and GM agriculture. (‘Certified Organic’ also means GMO-free, so, we don’t need to go through the hoops of requiring even more labels.) But more than 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night (16 million people of whom will die of hunger this year) will not have that luxury. Half the planet’s population remains malnourished, then the one to two million people (670,000 are under five years of age) who will die from Vitamin A deficiency this year who, in point of fact, will not be thankful to Greenpeace for their 16-year blockade of GM Golden Rice that could save them—they’ll die slow, painful deaths instead, only to be replaced by more kids to replace them, many of whom will die too. To fix that problem—which is not only a moral necessity—reduces the burden of increased population growth. (The response to both of those claims—starvation and vitamin A deficiency deaths—is that we shouldn’t be feeding them unhealthy food instead. Those saying this have clearly never gone without food for longer than a few hours, let alone the few weeks it takes to die of starvation, or the years over which blindness sets in from vitamin A deficiency, which then goes on to kill half those afflicted. And, of course, it assumes that GM food really is less healthy or less nutritious, which it isn’t.) It’s time we got out of our First World bubble.

There is, despite the hysteria, a scientific consensus on the safety and risk profile of GM technology. Almost every scientific organization, from the National Academy of Sciences to the Royal Society thinks it so and 600 peer-reviewed studies back up the claim. Aside from a few deniers, we trust our scientists on climate change, don’t we? They are shouting from the rooftops about the dangers of climate change, and how little time we have left to reverse course. You’d think if there were a comparable danger from biotech, you’d have more than a handful of scientists speaking up. So, why don’t we trust them on biotech?

Norman Borlaug—father of the Green Revolution, who saved one billion lives using plant science—had this to say about the food fight we in the West are squabbling over: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.

While we endlessly bicker and sensationalize, people are dying of starvation. It does no good to deal in hypotheticals such as: if we wasted less food, there’d be enough for everyone (you wouldn’t be able to ship it to them); if more people were charitable, everyone would be ok; if we switched to organic agriculture, we could feed everyone (wrong), along with many others. Despite the fact that many of them are wrong or idealistic, they presume people being rational, informed, and having access to and accepting unadulterated and uncensored good, reliable information. Is that likely to happen anytime soon? The cries of the anti-vaxxers are still putting kids (and society at large) in danger; the chant of the climate-deniers only delays needed progress; but on issues of food security, arguably the most important of all, we’ll all see reason?

Changing People or Inventing Technology—Which is Easier?

Is it easier to change the hearts and minds of billions of people with all their complexities and interrelationships or is it easier to invent new technologies that solve the issues for those affected? The climate movement has struggled to change the hearts and minds of people and politicians for over twenty years and we’ve got very little to show for it. Let’s not continue making the same mistake with food. Changing the consumption habits of one billion westerners—if that is even possible—will take a long time with no certainty of success. Meanwhile, the people dying of starvation will keep dying. The technologies to feed them using less land and cheaper inputs are here and now, they are safe, they are capable, and they are predictable, regardless of how shrill the opposition to them is from well-fed oppositionists who’ve never felt the sensation of hunger. It’s time to deal with the facts, but above all, it is time to value human lives consistent with the evidence and facts we have. The intentions and hearts of the bored, guilted sensibilities of Western activists who grumble at a skipped lunch is in the right place; their proposed solutions and flawed reasoning are not.

They are plenty of problems we face in agriculture. The vehement backlash against biotechnology is distracting from those issues. Biotechnology won’t solve every problem, but they will help substantially. In fact, the co-use of biotech crops alongside organic crops—in what is called a refuge zone—significantly curtail pest resistance. It may be that the bright agricultural future within our grasp uses both systems side by side.

The next generation of GMOs could boost nutrition, reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, and boost yield, letting us feed the world without chopping down its remaining forest. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine ‘bio-organic’ farms that don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, but that do use these genetically enhanced seeds.” ~ Keith Kloor (Science Writer)

Whatever is the case, we need to realize that feeding 7 billion, let alone 9 to 10 billion people in the near future, isn’t going to be easy. If it fits on a Facebook photo as a caption, you can rest assured it will solve nothing. This post is 4,600 words long and is barely scratching the surface. Some silly shared photo on Facebook demonizing Monsanto or chemical use not only shows you things out of context, they detract from the conversations we should be having.

[Updated to remove superfluous text]

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

Arctic Apples

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 Family Farmer

thefarmerslife.com
In reading about GMOs in the last several years, I also read lots of reports about how farmers are disadvantaged, slaves to Monsanto, and for the most part, I blindly accepted them. But I had never heard from a farmer before. It was time to change that. It occurred to me recently that we live in the (mostly) free-market. The Big Ag BioTech companies can’t force people to buy their products, they have to convince them; with results, with cost-savings, or whatever else that a farmer needs that I know nothing about. The 95% of GM acreage in America isn’t a Monsanto empire, the farms bought into it not because they were forced to, but because they saw a benefit in it, and they keep buying the seeds not because they are obligated to, but because they still see benefits. On my last post when I interviewed a molecular biologist, Brian Scott (his photo is the featured image), a fourth generation family farmer, was kind enough to let me ask questions about how he farms and why he uses biotech seeds, and what specifically was his relationship to Monsanto from whom he buys some of his seed types. I wanted to know what really happens between a farmer and the evil company everybody talks about, and not hear about it from activists who’ve probably never set foot on a farm. While this is only one story from one farmer, it is enlightening. Also, do check out his blog, The Farmers Life, where he blogs about running his farm.

Fourat (Me) – Why do you use GMOs?

Brian –  I like to call GMO a tool in my toolbox. Biotech isn’t a silver bullet for every problem, but it’s still a powerful tool. We use traits like Bt and Roundup Ready (RR) on many of

thefarmerslife.comour acres, but not all of them.  All our soybeans are generally RR, while only some of our corn carries that trait. Popcorn and wheat, our other crops, are not available in GMO varieties. Some of our corn acres are dedicated to waxy corn production, and we generally don’t buy them as RR.  Built in insect resistance in Bt corn along with seed treatments mean it’s a very rare event that we have to treat a crop in season for pests.  That means we prevent soil compaction by keeping another piece of equipment out of the field. It also means a sprayer doesn’t need to filled with water, fuel, and pesticide which is good for the earth and the wallet.

Me – What incentives are there for using GMOs?

Brian – There can be incentives such as buying traited crops and certain chemistry (herbicide, etc) as a bundle to receive price discounts. Some crop insurance plans also offer a biotechnology discount. I think that says a lot about the effectiveness of GMO. If an insurance company is willing to give you a discount, they must believe those crops lead to less crop insurance claims.

Me – As many activists allege, are you a slave to Monsanto once you sign their contract?

Brian – I’m certainly not beholden to any seed company. I can plant what I want and manage it how I see fit. Do I sign an agreement that stipulates certain things when I buy patented seeds? Yes. Do patents only apply to biotechnology? No. These agreements are not nearly as binding as people would lead you to believe. The most viewed post I’ve put online is an outline of my 2011 Monsanto Technology Use Agreement. In the post I break down the line items in my own words, but I also provide the reader with a scanned copy of the agreement pulled straight from my filing cabinet. This allows anyone to read the agreement for themselves. In short, if I buy seed from Monsanto, Pioneer, etc nothing binds me into buying seed from them the following season. Nothing says I have to use their brand of herbicides or insecticides. Believe what you will about farmers being slaves to seed companies, but you’ve got to talk to a farmer before your mind is set in stone. My post can be found here. (Fourat: Definitely a worthwhile read.)

Me – Do you think you should be able to reuse the seeds you purchase from Monsanto? If not, why not?

Brian – That’s a tough question. For my purposes, if I wanted to save seed it would be soybean seed. All of our corn is hybrid corn. Hybrids don’t necessarily produce seed identical to the parent plant. Therefore, planting that seed the next season would give you an unknown result.  Soybeans self-pollinate so they remain true to themselves genetically. If I saved seed I would need to take a little extra care and expense to clean and possibly apply seed treatments to protect young seedlings. Right now my view is that of a division of labor. Farmers are great at producing high quality and high quantities of crops. The seed companies have the know how and resources to breed great plants. I think that’s a great combination for success. I’m not saying farmers couldn’t develop their own seed. Successful farmers are some of the smartest people I know, and can do anything if they choose to. [Fourat: I’d never thought about it this way. Farmers can save time and money by not having to clean and protect the next crops seeds. Funny how simple things evade the mind to those of us not actually involved in the industry.]

I also believe since it takes several years and millions if not billions of dollars to bring an innovative new variety to market, that any breeder large or small should be entitled to benefit financially from said variety for some period of time via a patent system.

Me – What is the most glaring factual error, if any, made by activists when discussing GMO seeds?

Brian – I often ask people what they think about crops that produce their own chemical defenses naturally, and I find a good number of people aren’t aware that some crops do this.  For example cereal rye has an ability to suppress weeds. This quality is called allelopathy. Many plants are naturally resistant to herbicides. Think about your lawn. Spraying 2,4D on your grass to kill dandelions and other weeds won’t harm your lawn. Grasses, which include corn and wheat, have a natural tolerance to that chemistry. Biotech may be allowing plants to do new things, but we are really just mimicking something nature has already shown us is possible.

I see many people say that seeds are soaked in glyphosate which is the active ingredient in Roundup. I’m not really sure where that idea comes from, but seeds are not somehow filled with herbicide. I think it’s possible people are confusing herbicides and insecticides thinking Bt and Roundup are the same thing. Bt traits protect crops like corn and cotton from pests like European corn borer.

Another fallacy is that GMO crops failed in the drought of 2012.  As if somehow during the worst drought since 1988 or maybe even the Dust Bowl era nature was supposed to give us a normal yield because our crops are able to protect themselves from pests and be resistant to certain herbicides. Drought tolerant varieties of corn were not widely available to growers in 2012. I’ve grown Pioneer’s version of drought tolerant corn in a test plot. It beat everything else in the plot hands down. Wide availability of drought tolerant corn varieties will spread in the next year or two. Drought tolerance and water use efficiency could be game changers for water use in the highly irrigated areas of the Great Plains. It should also be noted that all the corn being marketed as drought tolerant was brought to fruition by conventional breeding techniques except for Monsanto’s. Theirs will be the one genetically modified version.

Farmers make plans on how to plant and manage their crops several months before actual fieldwork begins.  In the end we all understand that weather will be the ultimate factor in determining the success of those plans. In agriculture there are countless variables in play when managing a crop, and the one thing you have no control over is the weather. It can rain too much or not enough. Temperatures may be great for crop growth, or they may be too hot or too cold. Farmers must do all they can to realize the potential of a seed, but nature will always dictate a large portion of yield.


So, do you still think Monsanto is an evil empire out for world domination? Why don’t we just leave it at a company like any other, trying to make money. Some people call this greedy, but the rest of us also spend most of our lives making money. So if you dislike (or hate) Monsanto, then maybe it’s time to encourage other bio-tech innovations to make seeds better, cheaper, or both, to offer to Brian and other farmers like him a better deal. (As Dr. Kevin Folta told me in my interview with a scientist, there are many seeds paid for with tax dollars sitting on shelves around the country that are better in several respects than what Monsanto has provided us. As long as they are shielded from competing against these seeds, farmers do have limited choices. You can read my interview with him here.) Competition and a dynamic marketplace is what gives consumers the most choice and power, and now, Monsanto pretty much stands alone having cornered a majority of the market. Much of their practices are rooted in this power and laws (not in the science and seeds), so let’s go about encouraging innovation and competition.

And if you are against the consumption of GMO foods, there is no need for it. There is already a label that tells you the exact same thing, ‘Certified Organic’ is another way to say “GMO free.” GMO food is in 80% of your supermarket, so it’s a safe bet that anything you see in the supermarket has a GM ingredient in it. There is no need to create ever more regulatory hoops to label GMO food, when the opposite label means the same thing. As for me, though I live for the moment in Europe where I can’t get GMO food, even if I wanted to, I’ll not shy away from it in my travels, it is my opinion that they are the future of food. (Note: I am not saying I think organic production is going away, or that everyone should eat GMO food because I said so; as long as there is a market, there will be self-interested people looking to make money by providing that product.)

Biotech seeds have been the fastest adopted agricultural technology in history. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no closing it, only managing it, so let us manage it better, and that will only occur if farmers are convinced. So if you have issues, have them not with the science or technology, but the handful of controlling companies who are only responding to the incentives the market has provided them. Competition is needed, not an outright ban, which is probably impossible anyway. But, it is heartening to me, that family farmers are not disadvantaged by using what is available now. (I know that Monsanto has disadvantaged other family farmers, or just farmers, but this is not a bias against GM seeds, it is against the company, and it doesn’t mean they are out to screw everybody else as well. They act in their own interest as does any other company.) And as for the subject of chemicals that always comes up, let us put them in the proper context:

Every compound you can name, no matter how scary has a safe level; and every compound, no matter how natural, has a toxic level.” ~ Brian Dunning (Author)

Thanks Brian, for making food for the rest of us. We, or at the very least I, are grateful, and I trust that you know what you’re doing.

[UPDATE: Part 3 in the series: Lowdown on GMOs with a Biotech Firm can be read here.]