Obama Signs Bill Overturning Vermont’s GE Foods Labeling Mandate: Brace for Shit Storm

July 29, 2016

Earlier today, the president signed S. 764 into law: a Federal level law that stipulates that the Secretary of Agriculture is to decide on a mandatory nation wide standard by which all foods derived from sources which have been modified by in vitro recombinant DNA techniques will be labeled. Biotechnology advocates have largely opposed any Bill which unjustifiably singles out one particular breeding method for mandatory labeling (either Federally or at the State level).

Although this Bill was intended to be a compromise, the new Bill will not satisfy GE food opponents, simply because it won’t be conspicuous enough for them to easily construe them as warning labels.

Shitstorm

They argue that the proposed labeling methods won’t convey any real information. They are actually correct about that, but not for the reasons they likely believe. The truth is that no policy of mandatory GMO labeling would convey any objectively relevant information. It’s really just a double standard which singles out one breeding method out of many on the basis of a manufactroversy propagated by anti-science activists and organic industry marketing, and further spread by unwitting consumers who’ve been duped by the hype.

I’ve outlined what I take to be the most important of the numerous flaws in the reasoning behind the mandatory GE food labeling movement here.

The Vermont labeling Bill has not had the effect that its proponents likely desired. It has resulted in fewer food choices for Vermont shoppers. This is an issue opponents of the law warned would be problematic if a patchwork of illogical and/or inconsistent State Level labeling laws were permitted to exist.

As readers of this blog are most likely aware, there is an international scientific consensus on GE foods which stipulates that

1). All the currently approved commercially available crops that have been brought about via modern molecular genetic engineering techniques are at least as safe to consume (and are at least as safe for the environment) as their corresponding non-GE counterparts.

2). There is nothing about the process of modern genetic engineering that makes unpredicted dangers any more intrinsically likely than would be the case with other methods of altering an organism’s genome (I.e. Selective breeding radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization).

Insofar as point one is concerned, there is a tremendous amount of evidence to corroborate that conclusion, and an international scientific consensus based on it (citations to many studies, reports and systematic reviews, as well as position statements from numerous credible scientific organizations are hyperlinked within).

Despite the science, many anti-GMO activists and organic industry front groups have pushed for a law which singles out GE for a mandatory label, despite the fact that has been shown to introduce the fewest off target DNA changes of any currently used method of altering a plant’s genome, and despite their end products being the most tested and heavily regulated category of foods in the entire food supply.

They’ve tried to demonize GE through a variety of tactics, including the use of emotive propaganda imagery, shedding doubt on the legitimacy of the science through the use of evidence-free conspiracy hypotheses, and have even resorted to attacking independent scientists and science communicators for conveying the state of the mainstream scientific position on the subject, and vandalizing both GE test crops and family farmers’ personal crops. They even produce bad studies, sometimes even fraudulent ones, under the pretense of “independent science” (often published pay-to-play predatory journals) which contradicts the thousands of other studies. In some cases these so-called “independent” studies are fraught with undisclosed conflicts of interest.

These are all common tactics employed in several areas of science denialism, from opponents of vaccine science, water fluoridation and GE foods, to AGW denial, evolution denial and young earth creationism.

Several GE food opponents have come to realize that pretending that GE foods are more dangerous than their non-GMO counterparts will be a losing battle so long as there are people in the world who can follow the science. So, instead they take a “right to know” approach to their argument. They ask “if GMOs are so safe, why won’t you label them?”

Framing the debate in this way allows mandatory labeling proponents to set up a useful catch-22. Before mandatory labeling laws, they get to ask loaded questions such as “If they’re so safe, why don’t you label them?” After the implementation of mandatory labeling laws, they get to ask “If they’re so safe, why did they need to be labeled?” The answer to the former question is because mandatory food labels are supposed to be for information pertinent to consumers making food choices conducive to health and nutrition. The answer to the latter question is that they DIDN’T need to be labeled.

We already have voluntary labeling, but we don’t generally make a label mandatory unless it has some kind of objectively defensible relevance to the consumer (I.e. Health, nutrition, safety etc). Genetic engineering is a process: not an ingredient, and from an objective scientific point of view, breeding method is irrelevant to health and safety. Consequently, considering how thoroughly biotech opponents have flooded the internet with propaganda misinformation against GE foods, mandatory labels could easily be misinterpreted as a warning. It would mislead people into thinking it denoted some kind of pertinent difference in safety and/or nutrition between GE foods, conventional, and organic foods, when that is simply not the case.

The bottom line is that singling out GE out of all the other breeding methods to push irrational labeling mandates is an ideological position, not an evidence based one. There is not even one single valid argument for forced labeling of GE foods that doesn’t equally pertain to non-GE crops.

Instead, my view is that we should take an approach with GMOs that perfectly parallels the way we handle Halal and Kosher foods. We permit retailers to use Kosher, Halal and GMO-Free as voluntary labels for marketing purposes, because all three are based on ideological belief systems, rather than any scientifically defensible bearing on health.

That way, the burden of cost is placed on the people who want something for ideological reasons, and that allows food companies to voluntarily target that niche market if they so choose instead of passing the extra costs of regulation on to customers who don’t want illogical policies driven by mob rule.

However, this current labeling Bill is a compromise. If nothing else, it will at least mitigate the problems with interstate commerce that would be created by having a patchwork of state-level labeling laws.

Life Expectancy Has Increased Significantly and it’s not Just Due to Child Mortality Rates

A popular theme among movements which oppose certain aspects of modern science and technology is the notion that people were healthier in the “good old days,” back before the introduction of many modern scientific advancements. The idea is that there was once a time when there were no artificial chemicals, no fluoridated water, no genetically engineered crops, no vaccines or other modern medical science, all food was organic, and everyone led longer, happier, and healthier lives. There are many variations of this particular worldview aesthetic, and different ones have different ideas as to what the biggest alleged culprits are. Some hypothesize various conspiracies involving governments and/or corporations, whereas others may simply view new technology as “unnatural” (ergo undesirable) in their estimation. The common thread, however, is the belief that people are worse off now than in centuries past, and that one or more forms of human intervention are at fault.

One of the most obvious things one might think to bring up when presented with this sort of historical revisionism is the fact that life expectancy has steadily increased in nearly every country on the planet over the last 150-200 years or so.

Child Mortality

In response, some people will attribute the rise in life expectancy solely (or at least primarily) to a decrease in child mortality. There is some truth to this. As we can see from the graph below, child mortality has indeed decreased dramatically in the past 250 years or so. It also makes sense that changes child mortality rates would obfuscate the interpretation of data indicating an increase in life expectancy.

However, putting aside the fact that a decrease in child mortality rates is one the ways in which the advancement of scientific knowledge has benefited people, the idea that that it is sufficient to account for the increase in life expectancy is a myth. I think this is worth addressing because even a lot of skeptics make this argument.

Although it’s true that child mortality can skew mean life expectancy results, it should come as no surprise that statisticians know this and take it into account. It turns out that life expectancy is still much higher today (particularly in developed countries) than in the past even when adjusted to compensate for the effects of high child mortality rates. This is relatively easy to do when comparing data from populations in recent centuries, simply because people wrote it down. For example, rather than computing life expectancy from birth, which assigns a lot of weight to the effects of child mortality by default, statisticians use “life expectancy at age x.” Child mortality is defined as the number of children dying before their 5th birthday. For example, this chart of life expectancy over time in the UK gives the numbers over time for several different values of “x.”

Click here to see the interactive version

Click here to see the interactive version

 

Lo and behold! It turns out that expectancy is on the rise even if adjusted for the decrease in child mortality.

“To see how life expectancy has improved without taking child mortality into account we therefore have to look at the prospects of a child who just survived their 5th birthday: In 1845 a 5-year old had a expectancy to live 55 years. Today a 5-year old can expect to live 82 years. An increase of 27 years.”

 

Hunter Gatherer Times

That said, in the case of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, the data is not as straight forward to obtain. This is simply because paleoanthropologists have to apply specialized techniques to determine the age at which a specimen died, and because we’re forced to rely on the tacit assumption that the limited number of specimens available to us constitute a representative sample. These researchers included “life expectancy at age 15.” Granted, the mean life expectancy is greater than 30 (lower to upper-mid 50s is most common), compensating for people dying before age 15 does not come even close to putting the mean life expectancy in the ranges we see today (typically 70s and 80s depending on which countries one looks at).

World Population

Unsurprisingly, total world population numbers have increased dramatically as well. If Big Pharma, the Great and Terrible MonSatan, the Shilluminati Reptilian Shadow Government, or any other shadowy forces are indeed engaged in some elaborate conspiracy to harm everybody for personal gain, their execution has left much to be desired insofar as any and all outward appearances are concerned.

Of course these facts all raise additional questions and other issues. What are the most influential causes of the life expectancy increases we’ve seen, and just how much greater could human life expectancy, max longevity, and global population conceivably get?

Transhumanism and Life Extension

If you’re familiar with the transhumanism and life extension movements, you may be aware that these are some of the important questions faced by proponents of indefinite life extension. They are also the topics of some of the common criticisms of the life extension enterprise.

See, the life extension movement has a concept called “longevity escape velocity,” which describes a hypothetical situation in which the rate at which life expectancy increases actually outpaces time itself. However, despite steadily increasing life expectancy numbers, changes in maximum longevity over time have been far less dramatic. Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122, still holds the official world record as the oldest verified person on record, and although several others have made it into their one hundred and teens in the subsequent years, none have verifiably broken the 120 barrier, whereas life expectancy numbers have increased by at least a few years in nearly every country between 1995 and 2015.

Without also increasing longevity numbers, life expectancy could only keep increasing for so long until the mean life expectancy would approach max longevity as a narrow bell curve with a small variance and standard deviation. The biological limits of the human life span are not well known or well understood at this point, and there is much debate and speculation as to how long a person could potentially live. Anyone interested in learning more about the challenges faced by life extension researchers (insufficient funding not withstanding) can check out the works of Aubrey de Grey and Alex Zhavoronkov for more information. 

Overpopulation

The issues of life extension and population growth also raise the issue of Malthusian catastrophe. Biotechnology can help with agricultural efficiency and productivity to a point, but it’s unclear the extent to which our technology can continue to keep pace with a growing population, and that’s only touching on the food aspect of resource allocation. Debates on the prospect of potential overpopulation run the gamut from extreme pessimism to optimism insofar as predictions as to whether technological solutions will win in the end. I can’t claim to know, in large part because I don’t view current trends as a viable basis for reliable projections that far into the future, but I tend to lean towards the idea that technological innovation will likely surprise us for the better. Steven Novella has laid out a couple of the more salient pro and con arguments here.

As far as what has caused the steadily increasing life expectancy over the last 150 years or so, there doesn’t appear to be a solid scientific consensus on the specific minutia, but it is probably safe to say that scientific knowledge and technology have been important contributors. In the concluding synthesis section at the end of their paper, “The Determinants of Mortality,” Cutler et al argue that improved housing, sanitation, and medical technology, the germ theory of disease, vaccines, advanced pharmaceuticals, and improved nutrition have likely all contributed to varying degrees.

Conclusion

Life expectancy has increased steadily for the last 150 years or so, and it cannot be attributed solely to the reduction in child mortality. This may not conclusively rule out the claim that dark forces are conspiring to wipe us out with GMOs, vaccines, chemtrails and water fluoridation; but if they are, it shows that they’re failing spectacularly at that task.

Mandatory GMO Labeling Opposition: Not just for Shape-Shifting MonSatan Cyborg Super-Shills from the future

The issue of whether or not there should be a mandatory label for all genetically engineered (GE) foods is a hotly debated issue in the public conversation on biotechnology and its implementation in modern agriculture. Proponents of such a law often ask questions such as “If GMOs are so safe, why won’t you label them?” And proclaim that they have “the right to know” what’s in their food. They claim that it’s just a matter of transparency and makes for informed consumers.

These lines of argument are misleading (for reasons I will elaborate upon momentarily), but on the surface they seem compelling to people who aren’t familiar with the debate-framing techniques they utilize; so much so, that one can come across numerous individuals on social media who seem convinced that the only way anyone could possibly have any reason to oppose mandatory GE food labeling would be if they had a personal financial stake in the matter. Thus, even the most reasonable counter-arguments are frequently met with the accusation of “Monsanto Shill!”

phonto

The Dishonesty and Intellectual Vacuity of the Shill Gambit Fallacy

As a skeptic blogger, public science communicator, and frequent critic of some of the mandatory GMO labeling law proposals currently under discussion, I witness this behavior on a regular basis. As much as I’d like to be able to say that the Great and Terrible MonSatan’s Shape-Shifting Shilluminati Reptilian Overlords provide me with DecaShillions of dollars per femtosecond for disagreeing with random anti-science activists on the internet, it is sadly not the case. It’s also an implicit appeal to motivation logical fallacy because it doesn’t actually rebut the arguments, so it wouldn’t be valid even if it were true. See here for more on why the Shill Gambit fallacy fails. 

How science deniers must see me.

How science deniers must see me.

Okay, just one more silly meme and then I’ll be serious. I promise!

still waiting

The reality.

However, putting aside the logistical and financial implausibility of the notion that everybody who thinks mandatory labeling is a bad idea must be paid by corporations to disagree with random people in obscure corners of the internet, there are indeed several good reasons why a mandatory label specifically and exclusively for genetically engineered foods would be neither sensible nor desirable.

It Would be Misleading and Would Convey no Objectively Relevant Information  

For instance, considering how thoroughly biotech opponents have flooded the internet with propaganda against GE foods, mandatory labels could easily be misinterpreted as a warning. It would mislead people into thinking it denoted some kind of pertinent difference in safety and/or nutrition between GE foods, conventional, and organic foods, when that is simply not the case. Mandatory labeling proponents like to respond to this with a slippery slope rebuttal in which they imply that this point is comparable to opposing ingredient labels, macro-nutrient breakdowns, or allergen warnings, but those are flawed comparisons. Genetic engineering is a process: not an ingredient, and unlike GE food labeling, labeling for ingredients, allergens and nutritional content, actually DOES convey information pertinent to nutrition and safety. From an objective scientific point of view, breeding method is irrelevant to health and safety. As a side note, GE food opponents sometimes use the possibility of new allergens as an argument against the technology, but I’ve already deconstructed that claim here

There are a couple of ways in which labeling proponents may respond to this point (not counting the aforementioned shill gambit fallacy, which is more of an admittance of defeat than a counter-argument). One way is for the labeling advocate to assert that there IS in fact a relevant difference, and that GE foods are, in fact, ruining people’s health. However, that approach puts the labeling proponent in a disadvantageous position because they then have to argue against the international scientific consensus, which is bound to be an unpromising strategy: one which I’ve already addressed at great length here, so I’ll try to keep this section brief.

The Scientific Case: Why a “GMO” Label Conveys No Information Objectively Relevant to Health:

Suffice it to say that there is a formidable body of scientific data to corroborate the conclusion that GE foods are at least as safe as their non-GE counterparts, and there is an international scientific consensus based on it. The standards of safety testing are orders of magnitude more rigorous than is required for those other breeding methods, all of which affect hundreds or even thousands of times as many genes than GE methods do, and which do so in ways that are not tracked or accounted for as well as they are with new GE products (citations to many studies, reports and systematic reviews, as well as position statements from numerous credible scientific organizations are hyperlinked within).

At least about half of the GE food research is independently funded, contrary to the claims of most opponents of the science, so any claims that the scientific consensus is bought and paid for by corporations are simply not credible. Even the oil giants several of whom are 20-30 times larger than the biggest biotech companies are capable of buying off the entire global scientific consensus in a particular field.

I’ve also already addressed other common specious pro-labeling arguments such as: patents, “superweeds,” pesticide use (GE crops have actually helped reduce total pesticide use, and facilitate a segue to less toxic herbicides), accidental cross-contamination, the tobacco science gambit, allergensseed saving, and terminator seed myths in the past. For that reason, I won’t be focusing on any of those (nor the safety arguments) here. It’s good policy to take on what is one of the best arguments available from any position with which one disagrees, and those ones are all relatively easily refuted, so there’s no point in me reiterating their flaws now.

I understand that there are some for whom no amount of evidence will ever change their minds, but it is not necessary to convince them to change their beliefs. It suffices to demonstrate their beliefs are unfounded, because they tend to eventually out themselves as irrational ideologues. This permits neutral bystanders who are still forming their views on the matter to discern which is the more rational point of view to adopt.

Don't be this person.

Don’t be this person.

The unapologetic science deniers may not admit it when they’re shown to be wrong, but they’re usually the easiest to refute.

Removing the debate from the realm of scientific discussion

That’s why the more clever labeling proponents opt to tacitly concede the mainstream scientific position on GE foods, and instead make political arguments for mandatory labels that don’t rely on explicitly rejecting the science.

One way they do that is to give examples of other types of existing food labels that don’t have any scientifically-backed relevance to health. The purpose of that is to then argue that it’s okay to force labeling for things devoid of any real evidence-based relevance to the health and safety of the product because we already do that anyway. I’ve already addressed that line of argument here, particularly the example of Country of Origin Labeling laws (aka COOL laws).

Nevertheless, it’s still a more sophisticated strategy than the “GMOs are killing us” approach, because it means that the labeling proponent doesn’t have to fight the inevitably losing battle of disputing the science of GE foods. It instead allows him or her to reframe the discussion in purely normative terms. There’s more wiggle room when debating matters of politics and personal values than there is when overtly denying a formidable body of scientific knowledge.

That said, there are normative reasons to oppose mandatory GE food labeling as well.

The Costs of an Unnecessary Labeling Mandate

First and foremost, it would likely increase costs at nearly every stage in the supply chain. Labeling proponents often hold this naïve notion that mandatory GE food labeling would only entail the mere cost of the sticker and print job. Well, I’m telling you that if the cost argument sounds specious to you, then it’s because you don’t understand the issues at hand. The bulk of the costs wouldn’t come from the price of hiring a graphic designer or from merely slapping stickers on things. What about regulatory oversight? What good would such a label be without enforcement of regulatory standards? What about the storage and shipping segregation costs at each and every node in the supply chain from farm to supermarket?

This study on labeling by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) is one of the more comprehensive ones I’ve seen with regards to the cost of GMO food labeling.

Also, there’s this article from Nebraska Wheatie if you prefer to understand from a farm perspective. Getting grains from the fields to the plant is not as easy a feat as one might assume, and additional superfluous segregation makes it worse.

Such a mandate would also add an additional layer of unnecessary government bureaucracy. It’s not as simple as merely saying “just label it”. There will have to be heavy government oversight into what is considered a GMO, what percentage of a product might have to be GE in a particular product for the product to warrant a label, and there would have to be some sort of punishment worked out for improper labeling. It would be a waste of lawmakers’ time and attention, and would probably lead to a flood of lawsuits, tying up our courts as well.

Double Standards

Second, it would represent a hypocritical double standard in that it would arbitrarily stipulate that transgenics and cisgenics be labeled, while ignoring the use of mutation breeding techniques, which use ionizing radiation and mutagenic chemicals to force random mutations in the development of many crops, (including many certified organic crops, no less). This process, as well as hybridization and even selective breeding, all affect hundreds or even thousands of genes in ways that are entirely untracked. The end products of this process undergo no safety screening or allergy testing at all before being brought to market. Even wide-cross hybridization and traditional selective breeding involve greater modifications to the genome than the more precise modern molecular genetic engineering techniques, the products of which currently undergo multiple iterations of at least three tiers of testing over a period of several years before being granted acceptance. It typically takes more than a decade (give or take) to bring a new GE product from the preliminary Research and Development stage to the market, and costs well over $100 million USD, tens of millions of which are allocated to satisfying regulatory testing requirements and registration alone. They are perhaps the most tested category of foods in the entire history of food science, so anyone who tells you they aren’t tested long enough is either grievously misinformed, or is applying an irrational double standard for no good reason (this comic from SMBC comes to mind). Note: This is not to say that mutagenesis, hybridization or other methods of modifying genomes are bad, per se. The point is that the singling out of transgenic and cisgenic organisms is a patently absurd double standard.

This problem is largely due to the fact that “GMO” is a very poorly defined and misleadingly named term. It stands for “Genetically Modified Organism,” yet it’s used colloquially to refer almost exclusively to transgenic organisms, despite the fact that literally ALL of the food in our food supply has technically had its genome “modified” in some manner or another, which makes the term a bit of a misnomer. I frequently use “Genetically Engineered” instead of “Genetically Modified” in order to avoid ambiguity, but old habits die hard and the term is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The Real End Game 

Third, the push for labels comes largely from the organic food industry, a $63 billion+ a year industry worldwide, much larger than any of the big agricultural biotech companies, and one which has poured millions into negative and possibly even bordering on libelous anti-biotech propaganda campaigns designed to increase their market share. The whole labeling issue is nothing more than a clever marketing strategy to get people to continue to pay inflated prices for food that is no better for them (a conclusion you can cross corroborate herehere, here and here). Many in the upper echelons of the organic and anti-GMO industry have openly admitted that the ploy for GE food labeling is the first step towards their real end game, which is to dupe people into getting GE foods banned, which would eliminate their most viable competition. This is not speculation, nor has any great effort been put forth to conceal the goal. The quotes in the following graphic illustrate why it’s naïve to assume that GE food opponents won’t double down to try to get GE foods banned if and when they get the mandatory labels they desire.

Dr. Steven Novella explains it thusly:

They have successfully demonized GMOs and the companies who produce them, largely through misinformation, distortion, cherry picking, and outright lying. Now they want to capitalize on that groundwork by labeling GMOs.

If they win on that front, they will increase, if anything, their demonization of GMOs. They will push for banning, county by county, state by state, and also push for federal laws to make producing or using GMOs all but impossible.

That is partly what the labeling issue is about also. Make it such a burden that companies will choose to go GMO free for the practical and propaganda benefits (even in the absence of any scientific reason).

 

Framing the debate in this way allows mandatory labeling proponents to set up a useful catch-22. Before mandatory labeling laws, they get to ask loaded questions such as “If they’re so safe, why don’t you label them?” After the implementation of mandatory labeling laws, they get to ask “If they’re so safe, why did they need to be labeled?” The answer to the former question is because mandatory food labels are supposed to be for information pertinent to consumers making food choices conducive to health and nutrition. The answer to the latter question is that they DIDN’T need to be labeled. Anyone attempting to deconstruct the deceptive reasoning at play gets labeled a troll or a Monsanto Shill based on the false premise that nobody would ever take issue with it unless they were monetarily compensated for doing so.

why not label gmos

Yet, hardly anyone seems to be even moderately skeptical of the organic industry, but many people will credulously swallow any poorly sourced propaganda garbage they hear that makes biotech companies look bad. That David and Goliath image the Organic Industry has constructed is simply part of their marketing strategy. Obviously not everyone who participates in (or advocates for) organic farming is guilty of this, but enough of them are complicit in permitting the public to believe convenient myths without challenging them. These myths include the notion that “organic” means no pesticides, and that organic is safer and/or more environmentally sustainable than conventional farming. There is no compelling scientific evidence for any of these common public perceptions, yet the popular acceptance of such myths gets used to portray biotech science as illegitimate, the scientists as untrustworthy, unethical, and obedient lackeys of “evil” corporations, and organic farmers and advocates as trustworthy altruists uninterested in such shallow pursuits as monetary compensation. It’s all about influencing public perception to weave a narrative that circumvents the need to scientifically demonstrate the superiority of their methods, and the push for mandatory GMO labels is no exception.

We Already Have Voluntary Labels Which Convey this Information 

Fourth, mandatory GMO labels are unnecessary given that there are already voluntary labeling initiatives to cater to those who have anti-GMO ideologies. People can already make a decision to buy organic or non-GMO certified, both of which are labeled. Therefore it’s dishonest to pretend that mandatory GMO labels are a prerequisite to someone avoiding genetically engineered foods.

Government Mandates Should be Based On Reason: Not Ideology

I personally think such ideologies are silly and unfounded, but I’m fine with you having such leanings. It’s none of my business really. However, I’d really rather that YOU pay the costs of separate logistics, storage, shipping and inspection yourself rather than imposing them upon the rest of us (lest it become my business).

This is consistent with how we treat Halal, Kosher, and other manner of ideologically-based preferences that aren’t predicated on any kind of scientific evidence of nutritional differences or detrimental health effects, and that’s how it should be. It makes zero sense to mandate the labeling of a breeding process and falsely imply that it conveys something important just because some people want it for some personal reasons. Voluntary labels are fine, but government policy should not driven by mere curiosity or mob rule. It needs to be based on reason and evidence.

Merely Desiring Something Is Insufficient Justification for Receiving it at the Expense of Others

This anti-evidence based mentality regarding policy commonly manifests as the misleading assertion that we “have a right to know what’s in our food.” It’s disingenuous because it takes for granted the assumption that mandatory GE food labels would actually accomplish that, which is not true, and because it presupposes the mere fact that some people think they want something is sufficient justification that they ought to receive it. The idea that labeling laws should be dictated by mob rule rather than by careful evaluation of the facts falls apart when we realize that over 80% of people surveyed were in favor of the mandatory labeling of foods containing DNA. Yes, you read that correctly. That’s deoxyribonucleic acid: the hereditary material present in virtually all life on earth. Note: there are some viruses which rely on RNA for storing their genetic information, some of which use reverse transcriptase in their host organism to insert DNA copies of their RNA into their host’s cell (or even genome), but almost all life on earth utilizes DNA.

This is why the relativism of post-modernist thinking is not viable and why science needs to inform public policy. All ideas are NOT equally meritorious. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov‘s take on anti-intellectualism, democracy does not mean that one person’s ignorance is just as good as another’s knowledge.

The Bottom Line

Singling out GE out of all the other breeding methods to push irrational labeling mandates is an ideological position, not an evidence based one. There is not even one single valid argument for forced labeling of GE foods that doesn’t equally pertain to non-GE crops. The reality is that ALL of our food has been modified for thousands of years.

I understand that people like to argue that GE is different, and strictly speaking, that is trivially true (just as all breeding methods are technically different from each other), but it’s also ultimately a red herring. This is because the ways in which it differs are its strengths, not its weaknesses, and overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that they are no more dangerous or unpredictable than their conventional counterparts.

Wide-cross hybridization, radiation mutagenesis, and every other older technology, changes many, many genes and epigenetic structures, the affected protein pathways are often not understood, and the resulting organisms go through little or no testing afterwards.

On the other hand, modern genetic engineering techniques used in food crops usually change at most two or three genes, the affected messenger RNA and protein pathways for which are well understood, and the resulting organisms go through multiple layers of safety and environmental testing.

So, the singling out of GE plants is not only a double standard, but it’s a double standard that is biased in exactly the opposite direction from what would make any logical sense, both from a biological plausibility standpoint, and in terms of our empirical knowledge.

The Toddler Defense

That means that a GE food label would convey zero information of objective relevance, which is why Pro-mandatory GE food labeling arguments eventually usually boil down to what I call The Toddler Defense: “CUZ I WANNA!!!” They want it because they want it. Facts and logic be damned.

The Toddler Defense

The Toddler Defense

In Conclusion

The justifications for mandatory GE food labeling laws simply aren’t there.  People arguing for mandatory GMO labels are essentially arguing that a mere uninformed prejudice constitutes sufficient justification for implementing policy that, from an evidence based perspective is a meaningless double standard, and that others should have to pay for their right to be prejudiced.

Looking at a structurally identical hypothetical case should show why this is not as egalitarian as it sounds. For instance, consider a case in which an area is dominated by racist bigots who want all of their food labelled with the ethnicities of all the people who harvested or processed the food. Should they get their wish, too? If this comparison seems outlandish, it shouldn’t. The cases are logically and structurally identical. The fact that some people may find one subjectively desirable but find the other repugnant is immaterial. It’s not a valid counter-argument. In both cases, people are demanding the right to know something for which their desire is based exclusively on mere prejudice, and whereby the information demanded has been shown to be devoid of any objective relevance to the consumers who want it. All the ethnicity labeling arguments could be refuted, deconstructed, and whittled down to the aforementioned toddler defense; just as we saw was the case with labeling advocacy.

This is why pro-mandatory labeling arguments fail.

  • Credible Hulk
  • Edited by Nandu Nandini

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Why Country of Origin Labeling is not an argument for mandatory GMO labeling:

There exists a category of pro-mandatory GMO labeling arguments that seeks to remove the formidable burden of having to argue against the international scientific consensus on GE food safety by reframing the discussion to purely normative and/or political terms. This differs from many of the common talking points of GE food opponents in that it doesn’t seek to show that there’s anything wrong with the science or safety of GE foods. Instead, the strategy is to argue that objective scientific merit should not be a prerequisite to the implementation of labeling mandates so long as someone desires it.

One common approach to doing so is to cite examples of existing labels whose implementation is not predicated on any scientifically-backed bearing upon health, nutrition, or safety. It’s actually a rather humorous argumentative strategy if you think about it. It basically implicitly concedes that GE labels would be pointless from an objective scientific standpoint, but  argues that that’s okay because we have other pointless labels in society as well. It has even spawned jokes such as this graphic here:

Of course the approach is purely strategic; so don’t be surprised if the person you see using it eventually drops their apparent tacit acceptance of the science when pressed on the matter, at which time they may resort to some variant of common anti-science tropes such as the old “science has wrong before” or “there was a scientific consensus that smoking was safe” canards, which I’ve rebutted here and here respectively. However, the sincerity of the labeling proponent is not a prerequisite to addressing this argument, so let’s grant him or her the benefit of the doubt and focus on the argument itself.

The examples you’ll likely usually see used for this line of argument will tend to be specious, in that the proponents often use voluntary labels (i.e. rBST free, organic, Kosher, Halal, etc.) as arguments for mandatory labeling laws. However, there is one example that a small subset of slightly more sophisticated labeling proponents occasionally use, which I think is worth addressing, and that is Country of Origin Labeling Laws (aka COOL laws). As the name implies, COOL laws are labeling laws which stipulate that retailers are required to include certain information regarding the origin of said food product.

As far as I’m aware, nobody argues that the requirements of COOL laws are grounded in any science-based concern over the safety or nutritional value of the food, yet they exist. So the anti-GMO argumentative strategy here is to use COOL laws as an example to show that we already do pass labeling mandates for things that aren’t relevant in any scientific way, but which some people want for some other reason. If that’s the case, they argue, then “why not GMOs?” However, that line of argument still fails. Here’s why:

From the State’s perspective, if the underlying premises of Country of Origin Labeling laws (COOL laws) were valid (an assumption I’ll address in a moment), then there would be incentives for their implementation; which simply aren’t there for the case of mandatory “GMO” labeling. In the case of COOL laws, the State’s goal was to protect its own economic and cultural interests. In the case of mandatory GMO labeling laws, there is no such incentive because it would incur costs to both consumers and retailers with no corresponding risk reduction due to their well-established safety equivalence with their non-GMO counterparts.

However, COOL laws have subsequently been struck down.

Not only did the underlying premises not play out in the real world as expected, but the WTO also deemed them to violate international law.

In fact, COOL laws should serve as an example of why mandatory “GMO” labeling would be a bad policy. COOL laws cost both consumers and the industry a lot of money for no good reason.

According to the following USDA report to Congress:

USDA estimated first-year costs of $305 million for beef producers, $373 million for beef intermediaries (packers, processors, and wholesalers), and $574 million for retailers of beef. For the pork sector, first-year costs were estimated to be $105 million for producers, $101 million for intermediaries, and $93 million for retailers. Total first-year implementation costs were estimated at $1.3 billion for beef, $300 million for pork, and $2.6 billion for all covered commodities (beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, fish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, ginseng, peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts).

The USDA also reported that consumers had to pay more as well:

 

Consumer surplus losses for the 2009 COOL rule were estimated to total $5.98 billion in the beef industry and $1.98 billion in the pork industry over the 10 years at a 5 percent rate of discount. For the 2013 COOL amendments, consumer surplus losses were estimated to total $378 million for beef and $428 million for pork.

 

This contradicts the  idea (popular among anti-GMO activists) that only large corporations were being adversely affected by such laws (a common assumption among GE food opponents, who tend on average to be motivated largely by anti-corporate sentiments). The fact that they’re being struck down also refutes the use of such laws as examples of labeling mandates not contingent on the pretense of some kind of tangible expected benefit. There were economic incentives that, in the case of GMO food labeling mandates, would exist exclusively for the anti-GMO industries. In the former case, those predicted incentives didn’t even play out as planned.

Moreover, the entire argument is just a red herring, because the truth is that voluntary organic and non-GMO labels are market-incentive driven labels, which already exist, and preclude the presence of genetically engineered foods.

Thus, the ideal would be, that we take an approach with GMOs that perfectly parallels the way we handle Halal and Kosher foods. We permit retailers to use Kosher, Halal and GMO-Free as voluntary labels for marketing purposes, because all three are based on ideological belief systems, rather than any scientifically supported bearing on health. This is fair and reasonable.

  • Credible Hulk
  • Edited by Nandu Nandini

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A chemical is a chemical is a chemical

A chemical’s properties are not affected by whether it was made by God, Mother Nature, evolution, or a chemist in a lab coat.

There’s a certain irony to drinking a soy latte from a BPA-free mug, but that’s not something the chemophobic fear squad seems to understand. This fear-mongering crowd would have you believe that synthetic endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are going to be the downfall of civilization as we know it (I admit, that’s hyperbolic, but so are many of their exaggerated claims). However, in a truly perfect example of inconsistent application of the precautionary principle and selective consideration of data and data gaps, they completely overlook the potential risks of phytoestrogens, naturally occurring endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in soy and other common foods.

Phytoestrogens are of particular concern because of the increased consumption of phytoestrogen-containing food. Sales of soy-based food products (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy “milk”, soy “yogurt”, soy-based baby formula) have grown substantially since the late 1990s. Other sources of phytoestrogens include grapes and red wine, citrus fruits and juices, parsley, celery, pepper, kale, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, apples, chocolate, green tea, beans, apricots, cherries, berries, spinach, and flax seed.

Data suggest that the exposure to EDCs from natural dietary sources may be higher than exposure to synthetic EDCs although this is a difficult comparison to make conclusively. Epidemiological studies of the health effects of both show mixed, complicated (i.e. confounded by associated factors), and mostly small results. Despite this nuance, we tend to view natural EDCs favorably, and synthetic EDCs unfavorably, despite having similar chemical properties. Source, not evidence, is the foundation for the difference in attitude toward natural and synthetic EDCs.

Now, this is not meant to make you afraid of eating soy, kale, berries and all these other foods, or of using your shampoo. I point this out to draw attention to the fact that that we tolerate a lot of risk in our lives and that exposure and risk are unavoidable parts of life. A simplistic dichotomy between the hazards of synthetic exposures and safety of natural exposures is often not based on evidence. There is truly no such thing as a risk-free, exposure-free life, even with so-called “all-natural” products. However, there are some simple and easy steps to reduce exposures if you are concerned, like avoiding soy-based products and use less plastic in food preparation and storage during sensitive developmental periods.

Reducing and mitigating risks where it is feasible to do so is reasonable, but it is often not a simple undertaking. For example, a recommendation to completely avoid phytoestrogen containing food would be misguided as evidence consistently shows that, despite concerns about exposure to phytoestrogens at certain times in life, a diet rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables produces a net benefit for health.

The similarities between natural and synthetic chemicals are often overlooked as we fall victim to our assumptions that natural is good and synthetic is bad. A chemical’s properties are not affected by how it was produced. Synthetic chemicals that have a biological effect are able to do so because they are able to mimic or interact with systems that exist in nature. Chemistry, not source, determines how a chemical acts in a biological system.

From a 2010 review, “The pros and cons of phytoestrogens”:

Phytoestrogens are intriguing because, although they behave similarly to numerous synthetic compounds in laboratory models of endocrine disruption, society embraces these compounds at the same time it rejects, often with vigor, use of synthetic endocrine disruptors in household products. Thus, phytoestrogens both expand our view of environmental endocrine disruptors and propound that the source of the compound in question can influence the direction and interpretation of research and available data. While the potentially beneficial effects of phytoestrogen consumption have been eagerly pursued, and frequently overstated, the potentially adverse effects of these compounds are likely underappreciated. The opposite situation exists for synthetic endocrine disruptors, most of which have lower binding affinities for classical ERs than any of the phytoestrogens but can sometimes produce similar biological effects. (emphasis mine)

In interpreting information about health effects of chemicals, wherever they come from, we must be aware of our biases in favor of the natural and against the synthetic to ensure that we analyze data objectively. Only when we consider evidence without bias can we arrive at sound recommendations and regulations.EDCs

 

Genetic Engineering and the Emergence of Herbicide-Resistant Weeds

One of the more common criticisms leveled against Genetically Engineered plants, particularly Herbicide-Resistant (HR) strains, is that they are purported to lead to what critics refer to as “Superweeds.” The term superweeds is not a scientific term, and can be very misleading to people not familiar with the science. What is really meant by the term is the event in which local weeds become resistant to a particular mode of action undertaken by the farmer for the purpose of weed control. For instance, local weeds might evolve a resistance to a particular herbicide is it’s used often in the areas in which they grow. There’s nothing “super” about the alleged superweeds other than the fact that they’ve become resistant to one particular method.

That said, there are legitimate concerns over the evolution of weeds developing resistance to herbicides (such as glyphosate), or for that matter insects building resistance to a particular insecticide (such as Bt), but that’s an issue that affects all methods of pest control. It happens with all herbicides and insecticides, whether they’re organic, synthetic, or naturally produced by the plants, and can occur either via evolution with respect to certain local selection pressures (such as a high usage rate by farmers of a particular herbicide or insecticide), or via horizontal gene transfer. However, anti-GMO activists frequently try to frame the issue of resistant weeds as a uniquely GMO-related problem, (particularly in the case of glyphosate), which shows either ignorance and/or intellectual dishonesty of the anti-GMO movement.

Natasha Gilbert, the author of the following Nature article explains:

But herbicide resistance is a problem for farmers regardless of whether they plant GM crops. Some 64 weed species are resistant to the herbicide atrazine, for example, and no crops have been genetically modified to withstand it.”

 

As a matter of fact, even tilling weeds by hand can lead to resistant weeds. Indeed, one of the benefits of herbicide resistant crops is it makes it much easier to employ no-till farming, the benefits of which include a reduction in farming-related greenhouse gas emissions and and improved environmental impact quotient, as demonstrated here and here.

One particularly prominent example of herbicide-resistance arising via a combination of selective breeding and mutagenesis is the Clearfield line of plants developed by the BASF company. The Clearfield brand plants are resistant to a class of herbicides called acetolactate synthase inhibitors (or simply ALS inhibitors). ALS is an enzyme involved in the biosynthesis of the branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) in many plants, fungi, algae, bacteria and yeasts. Resistance to ALS inhibitors has independently arisen multiple times in plants, and has done so by more than one mechanism.

In the case of BASF’s Clearfield line, my understanding of it is that they looked for instances in which a relevant ALS gene mutation had occurred naturally in wild plants sexually-compatible with the crops in which they wished to imbue the trait, and then bred the resistance to ALS inhibitors into their target plants over the course of a few generations, and crossed out any undesired phenotypes which came along for the ride. In cases for which no plants sexually-compatible with the target plant could be found with the desired ALS gene mutation, it was induced via mutagenesis. Mutagenesis is a plant breeding method whereby radiation and/or chemicals are used to speed up the rate of random genetic mutations in hopes that one of them will yield a desirable phenotype, in which case the plant with the desired mutation is kept and selectively bred. This was how ALS resistance was induced in wheat. Chris Barbey, a PhD student in plant molecular genetics and cell biology explains more about the aforementioned process here.

*As a side note, it’s worth keeping in mind that plants created in this manner are extremely common (here’s a registry of them), and are required to undergo no safety or allergy testing whatsoever, despite the fact that the changes induced are random, completely untracked, and the number of genes affected by the process is FAR greater than the number of genes typically altered in the case of modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. In the US, they are even permitted in organic farming (though the same is not true in most European countries). 

Ironically, while anti-GMO activists have been foretelling of the allegedly impending doom of glyphosate-resistant weeds arising from the use of glyphosate resistant GE crops, the number of resistant weeds arising in response to herbicides commonly employed on non-GE crops has been far greater (particularly in the case of the aforementioned ALS inhibitors, as well as triazines) as you can see below.

C/O Weed Control Freaks

c/o  Weedscience.org (click for the most updated version).

To add insult to injury, Chipotle, the popular restaurant chain which famously announced in 2015 that they’d be going completely GMO-free, used the avoidance of herbicide-resistant weeds as one of their primary justifications for rejecting GE foods. This was an additional irony due to the fact that now the foods they use almost certain to have been grown using pesticides FAR more likely to select for herbicide resistant weeds than the ones they replaced by rejecting GE foods. Their change over appears to have been based on a desire to capitalize on unfounded public trepidation towards genetically engineered foods, and is unlikely to have any positive effect with respect to toxicity, food safety, or the safety of pesticide applicators. Weed scientist, Andrew Kniss explains this development in more detail here.

Moreover, although weed resistance has slightly increased, the RATE at which herbicide resistant weeds have been developing since the rise in glyphosate resistant GMO crops has not increased. In fact, after the introduction of herbicide resistant GE crops, the number of new herbicide resistant weeds actually DECREASED to 11.4 documented cases per year. Practically speaking, the difference in the slopes (which represent the rate at which herbicide resistance develops) of the regression lines between the two time periods are probably not meaningful, but the point is that, based on the best data available, we can be quite certain that adoption of GE crops has NOT increased the rate at which resistant weeds have developed relative to other uses of herbicide.

The following graph presents the chronological increase in unique cases of herbicide resistant weeds. Glyphosate-Resistant GE crops were introduced to the commercial market in 1996, at which time they swiftly became popular. Notice how there is no increase in the steepness of the slope of the graph following their introduction.

Weed scientist, Andrew Kniss goes into greater depth on that here, as does this article here by my friend, Marc Brazeau, creator of Food and Farm Discussion Lab.

Now, it’s all fine and good to highlight the inconsistent logic and lack of adequate analysis of the facts on part of the critics of GE foods, but it seems rather unsatisfactory to merely point out that their criticism is an equally real problem for all crops, but a simple “tu quoque” only rebuts the unique application of the criticism to GE crops, but doesn’t really prescribe any viable means of dealing with the problem.

So what’s the solution?
Well, one crucial component appears to be increasing diversity of weed management protocols. Although there’s a critical caveat with the following recommendations based on recent research (more on that in a moment), according to weed science professors at the University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University, the following practices should help:

These weed management practices avoid the continuous and exclusive use of glyphosate and lessen the potential for developing glyphosate-resistant weeds:

  • Rotate between Roundup Ready® and conventional crops or crops with other types of herbicide resistance.
  • Use Roundup Ready® crops and glyphosate in your crop rotation where they have the greatest economic and management value.
  • Rotate glyphosate with herbicides that have different modes of action.
  • Apply a residual herbicide before glyphosate or tank mix another herbicide with glyphosate.
  • Avoid making more than two glyphosate applications to a field over a two-year period.
  • If glyphosate is used as a burndown treatment and in-crop in the same year, tank mix the glyphosate applied in the burndown treatment with an herbicide that has a different mode of action. The in-crop glyphosate application should still be rotated with other herbicides in other years.
  • Use cultivation and other mechanical weed management practices.
  • In addition, growers should apply glyphosate at labeled rates and at the correct stage of weed and crop growth to reduce the risk of poor control. Also, scout fields regularly, identify the weeds present, and record their locations on maps to allow a quick response to changes in weed populations.”

Here’s the caveat: although it was previously more common to believe that rotating herbicides would be a good strategy to slow the development of herbicide resistant weeds, there is some compelling new research which suggests otherwise. Instead, the superior strategy may be to use a second herbicide with a different mechanism of action concurrently rather than alternating between them. The data actually suggests that rotating them may exacerbate the onset of herbicide resistance.

This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but consider that mutations conferring resistance to a particular herbicidal mechanism of action are relatively rate as it is. If some weeds develop such resistance to one herbicide, then they have a chance to proliferate that trait throughout their population. Later, when the farmer rotates to another herbicide, there’s a chance that a few of the weeds in the local population (some of which already have evolved resistance to the first herbicide) will end up with an additional mutation rendering them resistant to the second herbicide.

Alternatively, if two herbicides with different mechanisms of action are used at once, the likelihood is far less that any weeds in the population will suddenly have not one, but two new mutations that just happen to be the correct mutations to confer resistance to both mechanisms of action simultaneously. If they develop the mutation to resist one or the other, but not both, then the weed just dies. It can’t pass on that trait. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but that’s the basic idea. Importantly, it’s consistent with the data. For a more in-depth explanation, I defer once again to weed scientist, Andrew Kniss’s articles here and here.

So, in conclusion, the issue of resistant weeds is a legitimate one, but since it is neither unique to GE crops, nor any less problematic with non-GE crops, it is not a legitimate criticism of GE foods. There are practices capable of helping farmers manage the problem, but discarding GE technology is not one of them.

 

BOOM!

 

GE Seed Patents, Cross-Contamination, and the Trouble with Cyborg Super Shills from the Future

In being involved public science communication, I come across a number of people who accept the international scientific consensus on the safety of Genetically Engineered (GE) foods for humans, animals and the environment, but who nevertheless dislike them because they are against patents and licensing agreements. Regardless of whether one likes the current IP laws, or whether one even likes the concept of patents at all, it’s important to understand why seed patents exist and why a dislike for IP laws is not a valid argument against GE foods.

The issue with patenting plant technology is analogous to software agreements. We’re talking about a product which requires years of development and massive overhead investment, and as soon as the product goes out the door, anyone can make as many copies as they want at virtually no cost if given a Carte Blanche to do so. In the case of GE plants, it takes an average of about ten years and $136 million to bring a new product to market. That includes R&D as well as multiple tiers of safety testing. The premise is that by allowing a means by which companies can recoup their investment, the option of patenting an invention incentivizes further innovation.

Now, you might argue that there are also instances in which patents on a versatile new technological idea might delay additional innovation by postponing when other people can legally incorporate it and build on it in new ways, but even if you could demonstrate that, it still wouldn’t constitute an argument uniquely against GE foods.

Why?

Because being a GE product is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being patented. Not all GE products are patented, and there are many non-GE products which are patented. In fact, plant patents precede genetic engineering by well over half a century due to the plant patent act of 1930:

Here are some examples from the 1930s, of which this one was the first. And you can see several other from around that time here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here. This one here is an example of a patented organic seed (yes, they do indeed exist).
For anyone interested in learning more about the history and development of seed patent law, you can follow up with this Delta Farm Press article.

In other words, seed patents aren’t some new phenomenon that arose concurrently with GE crops, nor are they uncommon in non-GE crops. This author from Europabio puts it thusly:

“Agricultural innovation plays a key role in driving long-term agricultural productivity, rural development and environmental sustainability by encouraging new solutions. For this reason, innovation needs to be supported and protected.

Contrary to what some say, GM seeds are not the only seeds with Intellectual Property Rights. Almost all conventional (non-GM) and organic hybrid seeds are patented and cannot be saved for use in the next planting season.

In any industry, the maintenance of IPR is an essential basis for innovation and progress.”

 

So, if you run across someone whose justification for opposing GE seeds is that they often involve patents, then you immediately know that either

A. they don’t realize that the same criticism could be used against other breeding methods, and that it doesn’t even apply to all GE products.

Or

B. they are applying a double standard in terms of which they’ve somehow arbitrarily chosen to single out one technological line of innovation for involving patents to the exclusion of all other breeding methods, all of which can (and often do) involve patents as well.

In the former case, a person can’t know what they don’t know. Nobody knows everything, and sincere mistakes do happen. You can try explaining to them, and they’ll either reevaluate or they won’t.

In the latter case, however, the act of singling out one breeding method may be a symptom of motivated reasoning, and may be indicative of an ideological (or in some instances possibly even financial) bias that really has nothing to do with patents or with other arguments he or she might make against the technology to which he or she is opposed.

It’s also worth mentioning that patents have expiration dates.
Here is an elucidating article on Monsanto’s own page about patent law and what happens when a plant patent expires. In this case, their original roundup ready soybean trait just expired in 2015.

That said, another misconception I sometimes hear is that patenting a food product permits its holder to “control the food supply,” and to set prices as they deem fit. However, plant patents do not give the owner the ability to regulate seed quantity and price. The market does that. Patents merely permit a time windows during which to recoup their investment for their innovation by disallowing people to use the product without permission and sell it as their own. There are other seed companies, and they compete for farmers’ business by offering good seeds at competitive prices.

Yet another particular outlandish misconception I’ve sometimes heard people claim is that the patents somehow allow companies (usually Monsanto is the accused party) to “force people to use their seeds.” This is of course complete nonsense. That has never happened. A seed company can’t force anyone to use anything. Many farmers choose to use GE seeds because they permit them higher outputs for fewer inputs, or for whatever other benefit they deem pertinent to their particular goals.

Moreover, it’s simply not the case that most farmer’s find the stewardship agreements of Monsanto and other seed companies onerous. If they did, then they’d just keep shopping around until they found a company whose seed licensing agreements they liked.

But doesn’t the Great and terrible MonSatan have complete and unchallenged dominion over the Intergalactic Food Supply, you ask?

Here's a Tee Shirt of this.

Here is a Tee Shirt of this.

Not hardly.

The truth is that farmer’s have more choice in seed than a lot of city folk realize. Here’s one seed catalog, but if one googles around, it is easy to find others. The anti-GMO people have been simply been spreading incorrect information:

In this excellent follow up article (which I highly recommend), Steve Savage sums it up brilliantly:

“The modern anti-biotechnology narrative would have you believe that certain companies (Monsanto usually being portrayed as the ultimate demon) are using patents in some new paradigm to “control the food supply.” This view ignores the fact that plant variety patents have been a common feature of crop genetics since 1970 and that a great many of those patents are held by universities, by the USDA, and by similar international agencies (Patents for vegetatively propagated plants have been an option since 1930).

Actually, the most foundational tools of biotechnology for plant, pharmaceutical or industrial use were patented by scientists at Stanford University.  For a time, any group that did genetic engineering needed a license to the Stanford-held, Cohen-Boyer patents that are now considered a “gold standard” for university licensing.

When, in the 1990s, commercial biotechnology entered the agricultural seed market space, the fact that such products were patented was nothing new.  For decades, commercial, academic and government researchers have typically patented their inventions.  None of this is sinister.  If someone develops a crop variety that has real economic value to farmers, it does not matter whether the innovation originated in the public or private sphere, it may well be patented.  For any entity to take the following steps to commercialize that trait, the temporary exclusivity afforded by a patent makes it worth their effort and investment to do so.”

The patent argument is also related to a couple of other common anti-GMO arguments. Those arguments involve complaints about so-called “terminator seeds,” which are seeds engineered not to be sterile so as not to produce second generation plants.

Terminator seed technology was researched but never deployed (Monsanto had bought a company that had been researching it, but chose not to use it-in part due to screaming on the part of activists). The reason why farmers can’t save the seeds produced by their GM plants for next season is due to contractual terms of agreement, which stipulate not to re-use them. That usually brings up a related argument regarding seed saving, which I’ve already covered here.

The cliff notes version is that the trend towards not saving seeds predates GM foods by several decades though, so it’s not a uniquely GM or uniquely Monsanto-related phenomenon. Hybrids in particular tend to produce inferior second generation crops. If it’s the contracts telling them not to reuse seeds that people don’t like, the they just buy from someone else. There are a lot of seed companies out there as we saw earlier.

Here is an article from Monsanto concerning the Terminator Seed tech:

“Monsanto has never commercialized a biotech trait that resulted in sterile – or “Terminator” – seeds. Sharing the concerns of small landholder farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops. We stand firmly by this commitment, with no plans or research that would violate this commitment.”

Terminator seeds

The irony of the protests against terminator seeds is that they would have rendered it physically impossible for cross contamination of crops to occur, which is another thing activists often complain about Monsanto allegedly suing for (but which in reality has never happened, and probably never will). They do occasionally sue people for deliberate copyright infringement, in which case they then donate the money to youth leadership initiatives and scholarship programs. They have to defend their patents or else they become meaningless and they lose them.

In 2012, a coalition of organic farmers known as the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), with the help of the Public Patent Foundation (PPF) attempted to sue Monsanto over the issue of cross pollination. They were asked to provide evidence that anyone had ever been sued by Monsanto for accidental trace cross-contamination, and lo and behold, they lost the case because they couldn’t produce a single case of it ever happening. SCOTUS declined to hear the case because OSGATA had no evidence that it ever had or ever would happen. You can peruse the court documents here.

“Indeed, plaintiffs’ letter to defendants seems to have been nothing more than an attempt to create a controversy where none exists. This effort to convert a statement that defendants have no intention of bringing suit into grounds for maintaining a case, if accepted, would disincentivize patentees from ever attempting to provide comfort to those whom they do not intend to sue, behavior which should be countenanced and encouraged. In contrast, plaintiffs’ argument is baseless and their tactics not to be tolerated. “

The PPF and OSGATA case was particularly ridiculous in my opinion because it was a preemptive lawsuit for something that Monsanto has never done, and claims they never will do. Yet, the plaintiff wanted to push them into a stronger relinquishment of their rights to protect their patents, such that pretty much anyone could get away with stealing their products.

They were ostensibly trying to preemptively sue Monsanto for something they had never done on the grounds that they “might” do so in the future (even though Monsanto has explicitly declared that it will never do that). OSGATA intentionally tried to make up a controversy, but the courts weren’t buying it.

“The Public Patent Foundation had written a letter to Monsanto basically asking for a blanket immunity for all the plaintiffs against ever being sued for patent infringement, even if they did intentionally engage in infringing activity. Monsanto responded with a statement of its policy, which it had previously published in other venues:

‘It has never been, nor will it be[,] Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are present in [a] farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means.’

Amazingly, the Public Patent Foundation characterized Monsanto’s statement as an implicit threat, and as such the basis for declaratory judgment action.

The court totally rejected this flawed logic, declaring it “objectively unreasonable for plaintiffs to read [the language of Monsanto statement] as a threat.”

In conclusion:

Singling out GE foods by admonishing seed patenting is not a valid argument. They incentivise technological innovation by allowing inventors to recoup their investments. Plant patents are not unique to GE seeds. They’d already been common for over half a century before GE technology, and not all GE seeds have patents or expensive licensure agreements, and the ones which do, eventually expire. There are no terminator seeds on the commercial market, the trend of not saving seeds predates GE by over half a century, and no, farmers don’t get sued for accidental trace contamination.

BOOM!

image

Money For Nothing: Why Homeopathy Is Still Pseudoscientific Nonsense That Does Not Work

When doctors and scientists publicly denounce the viability of homeopathy, much of the resistance and confusion on the part of the general public stems from people confusing homeopathy with medicinal herbs or with simple home remedies. That is not what we are referring to. When we speak of homeopathy, we’re talking about products based on two main pre-scientific ideas which were codified and promulgated in the late 1700s and early 1800s by a man by the name of Samuel Hahnemann.

 They are as follows:

1. The law of similars. (Aka the notion that “like cures like”).

2. The law of infinitesimals. (The idea that the medicine becomes more effective the lower the dosage).

That means that if someone was sick, the homeopath would find some substance believed to CAUSE symptoms similar to that which the patient is experiencing, and then dilute it repeatedly until there was little or none left.

However, this took place before modern chemistry. We now know with great mathematical precision that a given amount of a substance has a certain number of fundamental atomic or molecular units of which it is comprised. In chemistry, we use the standard of one “mole,” which is defined as 6.02*10^23 atoms (or molecules) of the substance. That’s approximately six hundred thousand million million million! And is known as Avogadro’s number. So, just as we use the term “one dozen” to refer to twelve of something, we use the term “one mole” to refer to approximately 6.02*10^23 of something. The mass and volume of one mole always depends on the substance in question, simply because different elements and molecules have different masses and densities, but for many common substances, one mole is an amount that can approximately fit in a person’s hand (though a mole of a larger and/or more complicated molecule may of course take up more space than that).

Why does this matter?

Well, supposing tacitly that the particular substances they use are even capable of treating the patient’s ailments (which is a generous assumption), the way homeopaths utilize the so-called law of infinitesimals is by diluting the substance (usually with water) over and over again. The problem is that diluting to that degree means that the probability of finding even just a single molecule of the active ingredient (or allegedly active I should say) in the amount supplied in most homeopathic products, is ostensibly zero. To have a non-trivial likelihood of finding even one molecule at that concentration, one would have to consume a homeopathic product oh, I don’t know, say maybe the size of the Continental US (for moderate dilutions), or as big as the radius of earth’s orbit around the sun in the case of really large dilutions.

This not only goes against everything we know about biology and medicine, but against everything we know about chemistry and even physics.

For example, on many commercial homeopathic products, you may see notation such as 12X or 30C. The 30C designation means to dilute the original solution to 1 part in 100, and then to repeat that 30 times. C means 100, and 30 means the number of times it’s done. We’re on an exponential scale, so that’s (10^2)^30, which equals 10^60. In other words that dilutes the original solution by 1 part in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion (by volume of solution: not by mass). To put that in perspective, a mol of any substance, (a standard unit of measure in chemistry for an amount of a substance), is about 6.02 x 10^23, or approximately 600 billion trillion molecules of the substance. So, just to make the arithmetic easier, supposing you were to start with about 1/6th of a mol of the purported active ingredient; that’s roughly 100 billion trillion, or 10^23 molecules diluted by a factor of 10^60, which is 1 in 10^37, or 1 part in 10 trillion trillion trillion, which works out to

NOT FUCKING MEDICINE!!! 

More recent generations of homeopaths have attempted to construct theoretical reasons why it could still work, but they are regarded as pseudoscience because there’s no evidence for them, but a lot of evidence against them. These attempts at reconciling belief in homeopathy with modern physics have included things like the idea that the water “remembers” the medicine that used to be in it, and that that changes its structure and/or behavior. Other ideas include “vibrational medicine,” which attempts to borrow technical-sounding terminology from the field of quantum mechanics, but for which there is no support to be found within either modern physics or clinical medicine.

If that were indeed the case, one might be inclined to question why water would “remember” the essence of the active ingredient that was diluted out, but wouldn’t remember the Stegosaurus poo, or whatever other unsavory substances with which a given H2O molecule would likely have come into contact over billions of years of evaporation, re-condensation, freezing, thawing, splitting and reformation.

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The following article goes over some of the evidence-free pseudoscientific mechanisms of action that have been proposed by various homeopathy proponents.

Yet, despite this, many people believe in it anyway, usually based off of personal anecdotes that can be understood in terms of the placebo effect (a notion which homeopathy proponents typically seem to misunderstand and/or misrepresent). Consequently, many double blind placebo clinical trials have been done which establish that the products simply don’t work. They are the equivalent of taking sugar pills, or drinking water.

If the scientific community had dismissed homeopathy purely on the grounds that it contradicts the last 300 years worth of theoretical science in chemistry, physics and biology, then proponents of homeopathy would just dismiss us as closed-minded. But the fact that so many clinical trials have been done suggests that we were open to the far fetched idea that literally everything from atomic theory and particle physics to immunology and the germ theory of disease were all incorrect. All we required was some good quality evidence that homeopathy could produce some clinically relevant effects in excess of a placebo. It just turns out that even when you judge on the basis of efficacy alone, without worrying about whether it makes theoretical sense, we see that it indeed does not work.

The studies that appear to show positive effects tend to lack one or more of the essential features of informative high quality clinical trials. These include elements such as random selection, random assignment, decent sample sizes and double blinded placebo control groups, all of which serve to minimize bias and filter out obfuscatory noise in the data in order to draw more reliable conclusions. When a large number of double blinded placebo controlled trials have accumulated, it becomes possible for scientists to perform a systematic review. Systematic reviews are among of the strongest forms of evidence one can have on the evidential hierarchy in science, because they combine a large quantity of the best quality evidence available pertaining to particular question in order to examine trends and prevalent conclusions in the data.

What follows is a paper even more inclusive than that; it’s a systematic review OF systematic reviews on the efficacy of homeopathy for various medical conditions.

The authors stated the following:
“Seventeen articles fulfilled the inclusion/exclusion criteria. Six of them related to re-analyses of one landmark meta-analysis. Collectively they implied that the overall positive result of this meta-analysis is not supported by a critical analysis of the data. Eleven independent systematic reviews were located. Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo. It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.”

Moreover, The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health concluded the following:

“There is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition.
Although people sometimes assume that all homeopathic remedies are highly diluted and therefore unlikely to cause harm, some products labeled as homeopathic can contain substantial amounts of active ingredients and therefore could cause side effects and drug interactions.
Homeopathic remedies are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, FDA does not evaluate the remedies for safety or effectiveness.
Several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics. There are significant challenges in carrying out rigorous clinical research on homeopathic remedies.”

This conclusion was corroborated by national health review committees in both Australia and the UK as well.

Back in 2009, the WHO went on public record by stating that it does not recommend the use of homeopathy for the treatment of HIV, TB, malaria, influenza or infant diarrhea.

The following were some of their comments:

Dr Mario Raviglione, Director, Stop TB Department, WHO:

“Our evidence-based WHO TB treatment/management guidelines, as well as the International Standards of Tuberculosis Care (ISTC) do not recommend use of homeopathy.”
Dr Mukund Uplekar, TB Strategy and Health Systems, WHO:

“WHO’s evidence-based guidelines on treatment of tuberculosis…have no place for homeopathic medicines.”

Dr Teguest Guerma, Director Ad Interim, HIV/AIDS Department, WHO:

“The WHO Dept. of HIV/AIDS invests considerable human and financial resources […] to ensure access to evidence-based medical information and to clinically proven, efficacious, and safe treatment for HIV… Let me end by congratulating the young clinicians and researchers of Sense About Science for their efforts to ensure evidence-based approaches to treating and caring for people living with HIV.”

Dr Sergio Spinaci, Associate Director, Global Malaria Programme, WHO:

“Thanks for the amazing documentation and for whistle blowing on this issue. The Global Malaria programme recommends that malaria is treated following the WHO Guidelines for the Treatment of Malaria.”

Joe Martines, on behalf of Dr Elizabeth Mason, Director, Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development, WHO:

“We have found no evidence to date that homeopathy would bring any benefit to the treatment of diarrhoea in children…Homeopathy does not focus on the treatment and prevention of dehydration – in total contradiction with the scientific basis and our recommendations for the management of diarrhoea.”

Now, all of this raises a couple of questions.

Firstly, why do so many people still believe in homeopathy?

Secondly, what’s the harm in letting those beliefs go unchallenged?

There are a number of reasons that contribute to the first. As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, a lot of people simply don’t know precisely what the term refers to. Additional contributors may include the placebo effect, regression to the mean, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, a belief that it’s more natural and that natural equals better, or perhaps just a general distrust and/or dislike of mainstream medicine.

There are many people who tend to assign greater salience to their personal experiences and anecdotes than they do to rigorous scientific evidence, either because they aren’t aware of the degree to which additional variable can confound the accuracy and objectivity of their assessment of their experiences, and/or because they lack the scientific background to competently evaluate the veracity of the conclusions on which scientific studies are based.

Now, to be fair, Hahnmemann began implementing his ideas in a time during which contemporary medicine was still not very scientific. Many of the standard treatments were not merely inefficacious and based on flawed premises, but were in many cases more harmful than simply leaving a patient untreated so he or she could heal naturally. For instance, blood letting was still quite common in his time, and wasn’t even seriously questioned by science until the mid-19th century. So, people could be excused for buying into it at the time given the current state of human medicinal knowledge and methods. However, many people still believe in homeopathy anyway even though that’s no longer the case.

Additionally, people have also had bad experiences with hospitals, costly and arduous drug procedures, drug regimens and insurance plans, and experiences of mainstream medical doctors appearing cold, detached and not giving them the time, compassion and attention they felt they needed. In some cases, that may have pushed them away from science-based medicine. As a side note, I do think there may be something to learn from homeopaths and other so-called alternative medicine practitioners in that regard. Namely, what Dr. Steven Novella refers to as the “touchy feely” aspects of the alt med world which may actually be more pertinent to a patient’s overall well-being than one might initially assume. It’s not a substitute for efficacious treatment methods of course,

As for the question, “what’s the harm?”
Rather than wax hypothetical about how failing to discourage credulity might be detrimental to critical thinking and effective decision making, or about how opting for methods known to be inefficacious might prevent or delay someone from getting more scientifically supportable treatment in time, how about I just give you an already compiled list of instances in which it has led to one or the other. It’s not pretty to read, but if you’re in doubt, here it is.

In summary, homeopathy is a pre-scientific modality of medical intervention that contradicts multiple entire branches of modern science, doesn’t work any better than a placebo (because that’s what it is), but which somehow caught on and retained its popularity in the modern era despite the overwhelming evidence that it is simply pseudoscientific nonsense.