Glyphosate and the Gut Microbiome: Another Bad Argument Annihilated

Introduction:

Glyphosate is a broad spectrum herbicide that was first introduced by the Monsanto company in the 1970s under the brand name Roundup. The already popular product grew even more popular among farmers upon the introduction of various commodity crops which were genetically engineered to resist the herbicide while it killed the surrounding weeds with which the crops would otherwise compete for water and nutrients. Glyphosate went off patent back in the year 2000, and since then many manufacturers have cashed in on its popularity [1]. Although it is of unusually low toxicity, glyphosate receives a level of scrutiny and vehemence of criticism that is disproportionate to its actual established risks [2],[3],[4]. This is attributable in part to its ubiquity in modern conventional farming, but it’s likely even more attributable to its association with Monsanto, against which a large and well-organized counter-movement has emerged [5].

Consequently, many different arguments have been formulated and circulated among this counter-movement and beyond. The purpose of this piece is address one of those arguments in particular. More specifically, on numerous occasions I have heard glyphosate critics argue that glyphosate should be opposed because it might alter the microbiome in humans. In a post on his facebook page, The Mad Virologist discussed a recently published study on the effects of glyphosate on gut microorganisms, and inspired me to unpack the microbiome argument against glyphosate and explain what’s wrong with it.

Background

Glyphosate binds to and inhibits the action of an enzyme known as EPSP synthase, which plants need in order to make three important aromatic amino acids: phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan via what’s known as the shikimic acid pathway, which occurs in plants, bacteria, fungi, algae and some protozoan parasites [6],[7]

Image c/o Zucko et al 2010 [37].

Glyphosate does this by acting as what’s called an uncompetitive inhibitor. That means that it can only bind to the enzyme-substrate complex – the substrate being shikimate-3-phosphate in this case – and cannot bind the enzyme when the substrate is unbound [8],[9]. Upon binding to the enzyme-substrate complex, glyphosate prevents the complex from forming its product, 5-enopyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate (EPSP). Normally the complex would form EPSP by reacting with another molecule called phosphoenol pyruvate (PEP), but sufficient concentrations of glyphosate reduces the number of units of the enzyme-substrate complex available to form their product. The shikimic acid pathway doesn’t exist in us. Humans and other mammals, for example, can’t make those amino acids at all to begin with, so we get them directly from our food. Plants need those amino acids in order to grow and to make proteins, so if they are unable to synthesize them, they can’t grow, and therefore they die.

Additionally, mammals such as ourselves have lived in co-evolutionary association with myriad microorganisms whose aggregate is referred to as the microbiome. The roles of the microbiome in human health and the effects resulting from changes in its composition are active areas of scientific investigation [33].

Image: retrieved from UmassMed.edu

However, our collective knowledge of the relationship between the microbiome and human health is still in its infancy. Consequently, the topic is an easy target for exploitation by proponents of pseudoscience who would leverage it as a promotional tool for their own agendas, and/or extrapolate to claims which overstep what the current body of scientific literature actually supports [34],[35],[36].

The Gut Microbiome Argument Against Glyphosate

Keeping that in mind, the reasoning underlying the gut microbiome argument against glyphosate can be summarized as follows:

1. The makeup of a person’s gut microbiome is relevant to human health in ways which are only recently starting to be elucidated.

2. Bacteria possess the shikimic acid pathway and can use it to synthesize aromatic amino acids.

3. Glyphosate inhibits a key enzyme used in the shikimic acid pathway.

4. Therefore, glyphosate might be altering people’s microbiome in detrimental ways.

Simple enough?

Good.

Is This Argument Biologically Plausible?

However, the problem is that this argument flies in the face of one of the basic principles of microbiology: that microbes grow in the presence of abundant nutrients. As I’ve explained on several occasions when this has come up in my facebook comment sections, bacteria shouldn’t need to synthesize aromatic amino acids when they are literally bathing in them in the gut, therefore this argument against glyphosate is grasping at straws and not plausible. A recent study tested this more formally (in vivo) [10].

How did I know in advance that this was extremely unlikely to be a major issue before this research? It was because I knew that gut bacteria live in… Wait for it… the GUT!!! Where aromatic amino acids are abundant. That means they will continue to grow if the final product of a given biosynthetic pathway is supplemented to them – which is what we are doing by supplementing them with aromatic amino acids through the food we eat – even in the presence of something that inhibits that specific pathway.

This principle is the basis for experiments that allow scientists to functionally characterize which genes’ enzymes act on which substrates in a given biochemical pathway (called functional complementation analysis), and has been in common use for the last century or so as a method for ascertaining the specific steps of varous metabolic pathways, and/or the genes which code for the enzymes which catalyze each reaction [11],[12],[13],[14].

For an example of how this immersion technique has been used, consider the elucidation of the arginine synthesis pathway in N. crassa fungi by Srb et al 1944 [15]. The authors used radiation to induce mutations in the cells, and then performed a genetic screen to isolate those with mutations relevant to the arginine synthesis pathway. This was accomplished by growing colonies of mutants in a medium which included arginine, and then in one which lacked arginine. Cells which grew in an arginine-containing medium but not without it were deemed incapable of synthesizing their own arginine, and were subsequently grown under four different conditions:

  1. In a medium lacking ornithine, citrulline, and arginine.
  2. The same medium as 1, except supplemented with ornithine only (no citrulline or arginine).
  3. The same medium as 1, except supplemented with citrulline only (no ornithine or arginine).
  4. The same medium as 1, except supplemented with arginine only (no ornithine or citrulline).

The results were as follows: 

Image c/o Biological Science 4th ed [16].

This implied that there were three types of mutants. Some had mutations preventing them from producing functional copies of the enzyme responsible for catalyzing the reaction to produce ornithine from its precursor, some for the enzyme responsible for catalyzing the reaction to produce citrulline from ornithine, and some for the enzyme responsible for catalyzing the reaction to produce arginine from citrulline. This is a simple textbook example, but the point here is that supplementing cells with the end product of a metabolic pathway negates the need for the cell to synthesize it itself through that pathway. This particular example used bread mold, but the same principle applies to bacteria.

Moreover, the Shikimic acid pathway is also metabolically expensive, so it’s not likely that the bacteria are actively using this pathway in the presence of abundant aromatic amino acids (i.e. phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan), especially when they are in competition with other microbes [17]. So, unless the person (the host) is literally starving to death, then it is far more likely gut bacteria are taking them in the easy way by just absorbing them from their environment.

If the host actually is literally starving to death or suffering from severe malnutrition, then they have far bigger and more urgent problems to worry about than their gut microbiome. Starvation and severe malnutrition themselves cause harm [18]. Consequently, parsing out and identifying harm to the host attributable to malnutrition and distinguishing it from harm to the host due to glyphosate-induced alterations to the microbiome would be problematic, especially considering that any hypothetical problems caused by the latter would be avoided by mitigating or preventing the former.

None of this is new or controversial, which is part of the reason why researchers never bothered with a full blown in vivo experiment until recently on the effects of glyphosate on the microbiome. It is also the reason why the results of the recent study should not be surprising.

Earlier Studies

Earlier studies on glyphosate’s effects on bacteria were either full of methdological problems, and/or not setup in such a way as to test the question of how it affects the microbiome in vivo, where aromatic amino acids are abundant. I’ll start with the lowest hanging fruit before dealing with more credible studies, for which the strengths and limitations are more subtle.

Samsel and Seneff

Computer scientist Stephanie Seneff is an anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-glyphosate activist who claims that GMO foods cause concussions and suggests that glyphosate in vaccines have contributed to school shootings and the Boston Bombing [19],[20]. Seriously, you can’t even make this shit up, but I digress. She and her co-author, a retired consultant by the name of Anthony Samsel, published a series of papers in a predatory pay-to-play journal (entropy) implicating glyphosate in a whole host of conditions (including celiac disease, MS, Parkinson’s, cancer, and autism), many of which involved convoluted non-sequitur arguments based on glyphosate’s alleged effects on the microbiome [21],[22]. Eric from Skeptoid has meticulously broken down the plethora of flaws and red flags in that paper, which would take way too long to reiterate here [23]. To get an idea of just how terrible that paper is, Thoughtscapism points out that it has actually been used as an example of how to spot bogus science journals: a little factoid I found far too hilarious to omit [24],[22].

Other Earlier Studies

This 1986 study showed significant growth inhibition, but only at glyphosate concentrations on the order of a millimolar or more, which is thousands of times the amounts realistically occurring in the gut from food [25]. To put this into perspective, legumes are the food crop with the highest allowed pesticide residue limit in the US (5.0 ppm) [26]. 5.0 ppm = 5.0 mg of glyph/kg of legumes, and glyphosate has a molar mass of 169.07 g/mol.

So, if we estimate that an average full stomach is roughly 1 L in volume while assuming homogeneous distribution, then we get that millimolar concentrations in the gut would involve (1 L)*(10^-3 mol of glyph/L)*(169.07 g of glyph/mol of glyph)*(10^3 mg/g) = 169.07 mg of glyphosate.

If we then assume the maximum permissible amount of glyphosate on the food crop with the highest maximum allowable glyphosate residue limit, we can calculate that millimolar concentrations in the gut by dividing the mass of glyphosate required to achieve millimolar concentrations by the mass of glyphosate per unit of mass of legumes at the maximum allowable residue limits.

When we do that, we find that it would require ingesting about 33.8 kg of legumes (or about 74.5 lbs).

i.e. (169.07 mg glyph)/(5.0 mg of glyph/kg of legumes) = 33.8 kg of legumes.

This of course assumes 100% absorption, which, as neuroscientist/geneticist/toxicologist, Alison Bernstein (aka Mommy, PhD) explains here, is actually not the case. So, the actual amount of legumes required to reach such concentrations in the gut may actually be many times higher than my sample estimate.

As Thoughtscapism points out, even at those extreme doses, the bacteria were not killed, but rather grew at a slower rate, and even that effect was partially mitigated when the researchers supplemented the bacteria with aromatic amino acids to simulate conditions likely to occur in the gut [27]. This 2010 study suffered from similar limitations [28].

Similarly, the following study showed a significant reduction in colony forming units (CFU) in vitro, but the concentrations were again on the order of a millimolar (and up to 29.5 mM), and no aromatic amino acids were supplemented to any of the test groups, which again means that it cannot be extrapolated to the gut microbiome where aromatic amino acids are abundant [29].

The Danish Study

In the new study, researchers from Denmark mapped the microbiome of Sprague Dawley rats using next generation sequencing techniques both before and after exposure both to high doses glyphosate and a commercial glyphosate formulation [10]. The researchers found that even doses 50 times that European Acceptable Daily Intake value (ADI = 0.5 mg/kg of body mass) had limited effects on microbiome composition over the course of two weeks, and that glyphosate’s effects on prototrophic bacteria growth was highly dependent on the availability of aromatic amino acids in the intestinal environment. If you are thinking that two weeks isn’t very long, you have to consider the fact that the average generational time for bacteria is roughly on the order of about 20-30 minutes (or often even less). That means that two weeks represents something on the order of (2 wks)*(7 days/wk)*(24 hrs/day)*(2-3 generations/hr) = 672–1,008 generations. Given the life expectancy of Sprague Dawley rats relative to humans, this duration is also comparable to roughly a year and a half in the life of a human [30].

What this means is that anyone continuing to promote the wrongheaded argument that glyphosate can affect health by altering the composition of the microbiome will have to hypothesize a completely new mechanism by which this is supposed to occur (preferably a biologically plausible one). This is because the reasoning behind this argument is based on the premise that glyphosate-induced inhibition of the shikimic acid pathway in gut microorganisms should prevent them from growing due to their (wrongly) assumed dependence on it for the synthesis of aromatic amino acids. This hypothesis predicts that hundreds of generations of bacteria should not be permitted to grow normally if this effect is occurring to any meaningful degree. The evidence falsifies this prediction.

Conclusion

The claim that glyphosate harms human health via disruption of the microbiome was never a biologically plausible one, because it only makes sense when the system is not being viewed as a whole. Ironically, glyphosate and GE food opponents like to say that they take a holistic approach, but this is not a holistic argument, because it ignores the environment in which the microbiome exists.

We know that organisms don’t bother synthesizing compounds they can already get from their environment. Knocking out one step of a biochemical pathway and growing microorganisms on different media with various substrates is a tried and true classical method for identifying which substrates are involved in a given pathway and/or the enzymes which catalyze their reactions. We also know that the human gut contains abundant aromatic amino acids alleviating the need for resident microorganisms to synthesize them. Running out of them is not a concern because they are replenished multiple times per day. The exception to this would be cases of starvation or malnutrition, in which case malnutrition would be the problem to address: not glyphosate. Despite this, in vivo research has been done, and reaffirms exactly what theoretical predictions would imply. Gut microorganisms grew and replicated for hundreds of generations, thus contradicting the predictions of the hypothesis under discussion.

In order to continue to argue that glyphosate had some other negative effect on the microbiome which would be undetectable within the first several hundred or more generations, a contrarian would have to either postulate a different mechanism by which this could be rendered into a testable scientific hypothesis, or appeal to vague and unspecified unknowns.

In the former case, this would constitute an abandonment of the original argument in place of a new hypothesis leading to predictions distinct from those of the hypothesis under discussion. Essentially, this would mean conceding (either explicitly or implicitly) that the original claim was false (or at least not supported), and then moving the goalpost to a new claim based on a different mechanism.

In the latter case, such vague and half-baked speculation could be applied just as easily to virtually anything. It makes no specific postulates and thus makes no testable predictions, and is therefore unscientific. It is what we sometimes refer to as “not even wrong” [31].

– Cred Hulk

For more on glyphosate and common myths about it, Thoughtscapism has put together the most comprehensive piece I’ve ever seen on the subject for a general audience [32].

References

[1] Glyphosate | History of glyphosate. (2017). Glyphosate.eu. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from http://www.glyphosate.eu/glyphosate-basics/history-glyphosate

[2] (2017). Www3.epa.gov. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/cleared_reviews/csr_PC-103601_20-Feb-02_a.pdf

[3] Hulk, C. (2015). Glyphosate toxicity: Looking past the hyperbole, and sorting through the facts. By Credible HulkThe Credible Hulk. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from http://www.crediblehulk.org/index.php/2015/06/02/glyphosate-toxicity-looking-past-the-hyperbole-and-sorting-through-the-facts-by-credible-hulk/

[4] Scientific evidence that Roundup is dangerous has been mounting.. (2017). Greenpeace International. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from http://act.greenpeace.org/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1844&ea.campaign.id=37624

[5] Millions march against GM crops. (2013). the Guardian. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/may/26/millions-march-against-monsanto?INTCMP=SRCH

[6] Glyphosate | Glyphosate: mechanism of action. (2017). Glyphosate.eu. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from http://www.glyphosate.eu/glyphosate-mechanism-action

[7] Starcevic, A., Akthar, S., Dunlap, W. C., Shick, J. M., Hranueli, D., Cullum, J., & Long, P. F. (2008). Enzymes of the shikimic acid pathway encoded in the genome of a basal metazoan, Nematostella vectensis, have microbial origins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences105(7), 2533-2537.

[8] Sammons, R. D., Gruys, K. J., Anderson, K. S., Johnson, K. A., & Sikorski, J. A. (1995). Reevaluating glyphosate as a transition-state inhibitor of EPSP synthase: Identification of an EPSP synthase. cntdot. EPSP. cntdot. glyphosate ternary complex. Biochemistry34(19), 6433-6440.

[9] Alibhai, M. F., & Stallings, W. C. (2001). Closing down on glyphosate inhibition—with a new structure for drug discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences98(6), 2944-2946.

[10] Nielsen, L. N., Roager, H. M., Frandsen, H. L., Gosewinkel, U., Bester, K., Licht, T. R., … & Bahl, M. I. (2018). Glyphosate has limited short-term effects on commensal bacterial community composition in the gut environment due to sufficient aromatic amino acid levels. Environmental Pollution233, 364-376.

[11] Hudson, A. O., Harkness, T. C., & Savka, M. A. (2016). Functional Complementation Analysis (FCA): A Laboratory Exercise Designed and Implemented to Supplement the Teaching of Biochemical Pathways. JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments), (112), e53850-e53850.

[12] Sohaskey, C. D., & Wayne, L. G. (2003). Role of narK2X and narGHJI in hypoxic upregulation of nitrate reduction by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Journal of bacteriology185(24), 7247-7256.

[13] Smits, T. H., Balada, S. B., Witholt, B., & van Beilen, J. B. (2002). Functional analysis of alkane hydroxylases from gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. Journal of bacteriology184(6), 1733-1742.

[14] Salcedo, E., Cortese, J. F., Plowe, C. V., Sims, P. F., & Hyde, J. E. (2001). A bifunctional dihydrofolate synthetase–folylpolyglutamate synthetase in Plasmodium falciparum identified by functional complementation in yeast and bacteria. Molecular and biochemical parasitology112(2), 239-252.

[15] Srb, A., & Horowitz, N. H. (1944). The ornithine cycle in Neurospora and its genetic control. Journal of Biological Chemistry154(1), 129-139.

[16] Freeman, S. (2017). Biological Science (6th ed.). Edinburgh Gate Harlow Essex CM20 2JE England. Pearson Education.

[17] Hibbing, M. E., Fuqua, C., Parsek, M. R., & Peterson, S. B. (2010). Bacterial competition: surviving and thriving in the microbial jungle. Nature Reviews Microbiology8(1), 15-25.

[18] Correia, M. I. T., & Waitzberg, D. L. (2003). The impact of malnutrition on morbidity, mortality, length of hospital stay and costs evaluated through a multivariate model analysis. Clinical nutrition22(3), 235-239.

[19] Seneff Claims GMOs Cause Concussions. (2015). Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/seneff-claims-gmos-cause-concussions/

[20] Who is Stephanie Seneff?. (2017). VAXOPEDIA. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://vaxopedia.org/2017/07/28/who-is-stephanie-seneff/

[21] Anthony Samsel (n.d.) LinkedIn [Profile page]. Retrieved Dec 10. 2017, from https://www.linkedin.com/in/anthony-samsel-60566523/

[22] A guide to detecting bogus scientific journals. (2015). Sci-Phy. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from http://sci-phy.com/detecting-bogus-scientific-journals/

[23] Roundup and Gut Bacteria. (2013). Skeptoid. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from http://skeptoid.com/blog/2013/05/04/roundup-and-gut-bacteria/

[24] →, V. (2016). 2.-3. Glyphosate and Health Effects A-ZThoughtscapism. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/09/07/2-3-glyphosate-and-health-effects-a-z/

[25] Fischer, R. S., Berry, A. L. A. N., Gaines, C. G., & Jensen, R. A. (1986). Comparative action of glyphosate as a trigger of energy drain in eubacteria. Journal of bacteriology168(3), 1147-1154.

[26] (2017). Gpo.gov. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-05-01/pdf/2013-10316.pdf

[27] →, V. (2016). 4. Does Glyphosate Harm Gut Bacteria?Thoughtscapism. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/09/08/4-does-glyphosate-harm-gut-bacteria/

[28] Ahemad, M., & Khan, M. S. (2011). Toxicological effects of selective herbicides on plant growth promoting activities of phosphate solubilizing Klebsiella sp. strain PS19. Current microbiology62(2), 532-538.

[29] Shehata, A. A., Schrödl, W., Aldin, A. A., Hafez, H. M., & Krüger, M. (2013). The effect of glyphosate on potential pathogens and beneficial members of poultry microbiota in vitro. Current microbiology66(4), 350-358.

[30] Andreollo, N. A., Santos, E. F. D., Araújo, M. R., & Lopes, L. R. (2012). Rat’s age versus human’s age: what is the relationship?. ABCD. Arquivos Brasileiros de Cirurgia Digestiva (São Paulo)25(1), 49-51.

[31] Burkeman, O. (2005). Briefing: Not even wrongthe Guardian. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/sep/19/ideas.g2

[32] 17 Questions About Glyphosate. (2016). Thoughtscapism. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/09/07/17-questions-about-glyphosate/

[33] Wang, Y., & Kasper, L. H. (2014). The role of microbiome in central nervous system disorders. Brain, behavior, and immunity38, 1-12.

[34] Germ theory denialism and the magical mystical microbiome – RESPECTFUL INSOLENCE. (2015). RESPECTFUL INSOLENCE. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://respectfulinsolence.com/2015/12/17/the-magical-mystical-microbiome/

[35] Forbes Welcome. (2017). Forbes.com. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kavinsenapathy/2016/03/07/keep-calm-and-avoid-microbiome-mayhem/#45140eb826b3

[36] Gut Check. Probiotics and Metabiome.. (2015). Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved 10 December 2017, from https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/gut-check/

[37] Zucko, J., Dunlap, W. C., Shick, J. M., Cullum, J., Cercelet, F., Amin, B., … & Long, P. F. (2010). Global genome analysis of the shikimic acid pathway reveals greater gene loss in host-associated than in free-living bacteria. BMC genomics11(1), 628.

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Scientific Consensus isn’t a “Part” of the Scientific Method: it’s a Consequence of it

Although conceptually simple, the term “scientific consensus” is often misused and misunderstood. It can get confused with appeals to popular opinion or erroneously conflated with “consensus” in the colloquial sense of the word. These misunderstandings can lead to things like opinion polls, often predominated by unqualified individuals, being misconstrued as evidence that no scientific consensus exists on some topic for which it clearly does, or that it leans towards a different conclusion than it actually does. In some cases, the very concept itself invokes resentment or even retaliatory commentary from people whose views are threatened by its implications. The purpose of this article is to clarify the concept that the term scientific consensus is meant to refer to and address some of the arguments commonly leveled against it.

Defining Scientific Consensus

Just as the term “theory” has a different meaning in science than its colloquial usage, the term scientific consensus means something different than “consensus” in the usual colloquial sense. The latter typically refers to a popular opinion, and needn’t necessarily be based on knowledge or evidence. On the other hand, a scientific consensus is, by definition, an evidence-based consensus. A convergence of the weight of existing evidence is a prerequisite which distinguishes a knowledge-based scientific consensus from mere agreement. This is critical, because the scientific enterprise is essentially a meritocracy. As a result, it doesn’t matter if a few contrarians on the fringe disagree with the conclusions unless they can marshal up evidential justification of comparable weight or explain the existing data better. The weight of the evidence is paramount.

In a nutshell, a consensus in science refers to a convergence of many independent lines of high quality evidence all leading the majority of active scientists in a given field to arrive at the same conclusion and/or complimentary conclusions. It’s not something any scientist necessarily sets out to become a part of as a goal, but is rather something they discover they’re a member of because that’s where their research results led them. The process by which scientific consensus emerges over time can be complicated and tends to vary from case to case, but it is likely to exist whenever scientific knowledge is this best explanation for a given consensus. Furthermore, scientific knowledge is the best explanation for a consensus when the following definitional criteria are satisfied:

Consilience of Evidence: The consensus should be based on varied lines of evidence which independently converge on the same conclusion or set of conclusions [1]. The scientists and their results needn’t necessarily agree on every single minute detail, and the data convergence will typically fall within a set of error bars, but will point to the same general conclusion even if debates still exist on the minutia. This may involve contributions from multiple scientific sub-specialties, each providing different pieces comprising a broader understanding or set of conclusions.

For instance, the scientific consensus in climate science incorporates evidence and expert knowledge from meteorology, geology, geophysics, geochemistry, atmospheric physics, atmospheric chemistry, community and global ecology, astronomy, planetary science, and even stellar astrophysics. Scientists from different specialties study different aspects of the issue and arrive at results comprising a piece of a puzzle whose results are all consistent with the conclusion that the recent warming trend has been largely the result of human activities [38],[39],[40],[41],[42].

Similarly, the scientific consensus on the individual and social benefits of vaccination combines knowledge and evidence from fields such as microbiology, immunology, virology, epidemiology, systems biology, molecular biology, biochemistry and more. Knowledge comes together from these disparate disciplines to create vaccines that significantly reduce the likelihood of their recipients contracting the diseases against which they are designed to protect, whose risks are greater than the minuscule risks of adverse reactions to the vaccines [36],[37],[43].

Social Calibration: The experts involved are mutually committed to employing the same high standards of evidence and formalisms, and have good justifications for those standards [1]. Nobody disputes that carefully collected and reproducible evidence is key in science; the problem is that evidence doesn’t talk. It has to be interpreted by human scientists. The Social Calibration criterion has to do with what the scientific community as a whole accepts as evidence, how they decide what is relevant and significant, and how individual scientists persuade their peers that they are correct.

One of the reasons that certain fringe disciplines are viewed as pseudosciences by mainstream scientists is because they operate under lower and/or inconsistent standards. For example, one of the most important methods of ascertaining the safety and efficacy of a given medical intervention in conventional science-based medicine is the performance of a large randomized double blinded placebo-controlled clinical trial [34]. In contrast, many so-called “alternative” modalities are satisfied to rely on a modality’s ancientness (whether real or merely assumed), weak or non-replicable studies, and/or unverifiable personal testimonies that may or may not reflect how most patients would be affected [32],[33]. In some cases, alternative practitioners persist even after a substantial clinical evidence directly contradicts the premises underlying the modality, such as is the case with homeopathy [47]. That’s not to say that there do not exist certain exceptions, but the overarching pattern is that the standards of evidence agreed upon by mainstream medical researchers is different than the standards deemed acceptable in alt med. The agreed upon standards of evidence in scientific medicine represents what is being referred to here as social calibration. A counter-example would be something like ghost hunting, whereby there do not exist any consistent standards insofar as what is supposed to qualify as evidence for a ghost [48]

Social Diversity: This criterion simply means that the evidence and analyses comprising the scientific consensus should come from varied sources by scientists of varied backgrounds and cultures in order to avoid any systematic bias in the scientific literature [1]. For example, one of the arguments against the international scientific consensus on genetically engineered food safety is based on the misconception that seed companies like Monsanto are the only ones doing the research, or that they dictate who does. That’s not actually true, but if it were, then the evidence would be falling short on this criterion. Instead, the GE food consensus is supported by myriad studies by scientists from different ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds with varied funding sources from all around the world, and by position statements from the most prestigious scientific organizations on the planet [27],[28],[29],[30]. The Social Diversity criterion ensures that a consensus is not a product of group think, politics, financial incentives, ideological motives, or shared cultural values.

Via John Garrett of Skeptical Science for Denial 101

Scientific Consensus =/= Unanimity

Notice that the aforementioned criteria defining scientific consensus does not preclude normative contestation or outlier viewpoints within the scientific community. That’s actually quite normal and usually fairly benign. Total absolute 100% unanimity among experts is not a prerequisite to a consilience of evidence supporting a particular conclusion.

Not All Disagreements are of Equal Merit

However, there are cases in which that normative contestation and areas of scientific uncertainty becomes exaggerated by groups with ulterior (unscientific) motivations (either financial, political, or ideological) in order to argue against the reliability of extant scientific knowledge and/or to obfuscate public understanding of it. This phenomenon of special interest groups combating scientific conensus is well-documented on topics ranging from the risks of smoking tobacco, anthropogenic global warming, and the safety of GMO foods and conventional vaccine schedules [2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15],[16],[17],[19].

With a few exceptions, however, the contrarians in these cases are attempting to shed doubt on the existence, strength, and/or legitimacy of the scientific consensus on a particular topic, and are not necessarily directly contesting the very concept of scientific consensus itself. Rather than claiming that there can be no such thing as scientific consensus, most of them instead argue that such a situation does not exist with respect to the particular topic on which they disagree, or that it may exist but is nevertheless simply unfounded. They insert false balance and exploit the normal everyday uncertainties and tentativeness inherent to all scientific knowledge and attempt to amplify them with respect to topics they wish to portray as more contentious than the evidence actually suggests. This is effective because acceptance that a scientific consensus exists has been shown to function as a “gateway belief” to accepting that a set of propositions is true, and manufacturing the appearance of continued legitimate scientific controversy can obscure public perception of its existence [20],[21].

However, there are some exceptions whereby contrarians attempt to undermine the very concept of scientific consensus itself (i.e. here). As you may have guessed, the claimants in such cases invariably misrepresent what scientific consensus actually is. They try to portray it as analogous to arriving at a conclusion by way of an opinion poll, which is an example of the fallacy of equivocation [18]. They will typically argue you that what matters is the scientific evidence, which, although true, ignores the fact that a concilience of evidence is already a non-negotiable prerequisite to scientific consensus [1]. It is therefore nonsensical to speak of evidence and scientific consensus as if the latter was not contingent upon the former, let alone to imply that they are mutually exclusive. Again, this is no more legitimate than arguing against scientific theories by equivocating to a colloquial definition of theory.

Based on the criteria described earlier (consilience of evidence, social calibration, and social diversity), it’s easy to see how scientific consensus will unavoidably emerge on any question for which repeated applications of the scientific method by a diverse group of scientists result in a body of evidence whose results lean heavily towards certain conclusions and away from others. Although it is possible to quantitatively analyze the nodes and connections of various scientific citation networks and how they evolve over time with respect to a given topic, the specific pathway by which scientific consensus emerges tends to vary from case to case.

This paper entitled The Temporal Structure of Scientific Consensus Formation (by Shwed et al) explains some methods by which such scientific citation networks can be analyzed to ascertain degrees of scientific consensus and to partition nodes into salient sub-communities [2]. There are both pros and cons to this approach, but such efforts are designed to minimize dependence on the discretion of individual scientists in the detection of scientific consensus. When a new topic of study first arises, different scientists typically end up in different camps which approach key questions differently, explore different initial hunches, and form different citation networks as more and more studies are produced. As a scientific consensus begins to form, the lines of distinction between the various camps begin to dissolve, and members of each start to converge on certain areas of agreement.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the authors also discovered that when scientific consensus is achieved, the aforementioned scientific citation networks tend to grow in size, as does the total rate of literature output on the topic. At least, that was the case in the instances they analyzed. The relevance of this observation is that any consensus arrived at on the basis of weak or faulty evidence will tend to quickly dissolve as interest in (and scrutiny towards) the topic increases, whereas conclusions based on stronger evidence will tend to open up follow-up questions whose study results are complimentary to them. This is another key to understanding why scientific consensus represents not the death of scientific inquiry, but rather a scaffolding on which subsequent scientific inquiry can build and grow. It simply represents what we’ve learned so far about some aspect of the universe. In this way, scientific consensus is not so much a final point of arrival but rather a launching point for further inquiry to add to and refine our current knowledge. The authors also identified three trajectories along which scientific consensus emerges, which they characterize as “flat, spiral, and cyclic,” but I’ll leave that for readers compelled to read the original paper [2].

If the scientific consensus is wrong on some topic, then the subsequent exploration of additional questions derived from it should reveal that. There’s a reason why we refer to science as a self-correcting enterprise. It’s not just a catch phrase. Efforts to better understand the universe must build upon existing knowledge. Scientific consensus helps shape the discussion and guide resource allocation with respect to tangential and/or follow-up questions within a particular sub-discipline. Without it, we would simply keep spinning our wheels by re-establishing the same conclusions over and over again without ever attempting to build on that foundation and generate new knowledge.

Why Scientific Consensus Matters

Although often colored by personal values, biases, competing motives, and desires, humans generally make decisions based on what they perceive to be true. This is true both on the individual and group levels. Not everyone can be an expert in a scientific discipline, and nobody can be an expert in all of them. Consequently, people routinely have to assess what is likely to be true in areas on which they are not experts, and make decisions based on it. Scientific Consensus represents the most reliably accurate knowledge available to human beings on a given topic at any given time. It’s far from infallible, but then again, so is every other epistemological framework available to humans (albeit even more so). To reject it on the grounds that it is not infallible in favor of even less reliable approaches to knowledge would be an example of the Nirvana Fallacy [31]. The best available option, even if imperfect, is nevertheless still the best available option. Scientific consensus also serves as a launching point guiding further scientific study of related questions, and helps facilitate the generation and accumulation of new knowledge.

Detecting Scientific Consensus

I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that analyzing scientific citation networks with sophisticated algorithms and statistical methods is not something that the average person is likely to do with respect to every scientific claim they stumble upon. It’s not the be all end all anyway, because it only shows how sub-communities of scientists and their published work converges over time. It does nothing to adjudicate on the quality of individual studies within a citation network or the reliability of their conclusions. Nor does it distinguish between cases where a cited work’s findings are being used as supporting evidence, versus cases where a cited work’s conclusions are being challenged. It’s useful, but it’s not a replacement for actual human experts capable of summarizing the state of affairs in their fields of specialization. Ultimately, becoming an expert in a particular field would be the ideal way to equip oneself to competently assess the current state of the science within it, but that’s not feasible for most people, and nobody is an expert on every topic.

Systematic Reviews as Proxies

Fortunately, however, there are other proxies one can look for to get a ballpark idea of the degree of scientific consensus (or lack thereof) on a particular topic. For example, on many thoroughly studied topics there exist systematic reviews and/or meta-analyses which examine many studies at a time in order to assess what is implied by the weight of the evidence. A systematic review seeks to answer a specific research question by summarizing all the available scientific literature fitting a pre-specified set of eligibility criteria; a meta-analysis seeks to use statistical methods to summarize and analyze the results of such studies. Systematic reviews can vary widely in quality just like other types of studies. You can get an idea of what a good systematic review should entail and how to read one here [22],[23],[35],[44],[45].

Position Statements as Proxies

Alternatively, many reputable scientific organizations will put together position statements on certain topics, which can be a useful proxy for ascertaining the degree of scientific consensus that exists for a given topic. If the majority of prestigious organizations have arrived at similar conclusions, then the chances are that there is a fairly strong scientific consensus on the subject. Obviously this is an imperfect proxy, because there are also front organizations which masquerade as objective scientific organizations, but which are really serving some other agenda, and because it doesn’t provide a clear view of the evidence upon which their conclusions are based.

Other Proxies

It’s advisable to avoid relying too heavily on petitions or surveys of scientists’ opinions as a proxy for or against the existence of a scientific consensus, particularly on topics that tend to be controversial in public discourse. It’s not that they can’t ever be done in such a way that they could convey useful information, but rather that they’re too easy to screw up, or to be manipulated into conveying misleading information. In fact, that’s a common tactic used by people whose goal it is to obfuscate public understanding by disputing the existence of a scientific consensus on particular topics where it exists. They accomplish this by cobbling together signatures and/or statements from people whose views comport with theirs, but whose qualifications are often tangential to the topic under discussion, and/or whose opinions represent a tiny minority of researchers, and are not well-supported by the weight of the evidence in the peer-reviewed literature.

For example, the debunked Oregon Petition Project was an attempt to obscure the weight of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change [24]. A document assembled by the Discovery Institute which boasted of 100+ scientists who reject the theory of evolution was humorously rebutted by the National Center for Science Education with Project Steve: a list comprised exclusively of scientists named Steve who accept evolution, which nevertheless dwarfed the Discovery Institute’s list [25]. Similarly, anti-GMO campaigners have written things such as the I-SIS letter as an attempt to sew uncertainty and doubt on the mainstream scientific consensus position on the safety of Genetically Engineered food crops [26],[27]. HIV/AIDS denialists have also attempted similar tactics [46].

One possible exception to this rule of thumb would be a survey which groups the participating scientists according to the degree to which their area of specialty pertains to the subject under discussion so that one can see whether the percentage of agreement increases the closer the areas of expertise get to the specific topic. Even then it would have to be based on a representative sample of each sub-category of scientists, and I wouldn’t recommended relying on it as anything more than a complimentary proxy with which to cross-corroborate with other signs of an extant scientific consensus.

Above all, avoid relying on unsourced YouTube conspiracy videos, opinionated people with no relevant scientific education, blogs and other websites that make sensational claims for which they don’t cite credible research, and fake experts whose claims are totally inconsistent with the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

It’s perfectly fine to use a video medium to learn about science, but just understand that there is no vetting process whatsoever, so content creators can say whatever they want with impunity. University lectures are usually fine (and recommended), as are tutorials videos such as Khan Academy, and any videos which cite credible sources in their video description. This should go without saying, but I’m including it for the sake of completeness.

Conclusion

Scientific consensus is not a part of the scientific method so much as it is a consequence of it. It inevitably arises whenever a large body of scientific literature accumulates that points towards similar conclusions. Typically, people who argue otherwise are equivocating due to them either misunderstanding or deliberately misrepresenting the meaning of the term. Scientific consensus is characterized by the co-existence of a consilience of evidence, social calibration, and social diversity, and although not infallible, nevertheless represents the best knowledge currently available on a given scientific question at a given time. Furthermore, it is instrumental to the generation and accumulation of new knowledge in that it directs researchers toward complimentary follow-up questions whose exploration allows humankind to build upon previous knowledge. 

References:

[1] Miller, B. (2013). When is consensus knowledge based? Distinguishing shared knowledge from mere agreement. Synthese190(7), 1293-1316.

[2] Shwed, U., & Bearman, P. S. (2010). The temporal structure of scientific consensus formation. American sociological review75(6), 817-840.

[3] McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2000). Challenging global warming as a social problem: An analysis of the conservative movement’s counter-claims. Social problems47(4), 499-522.

[4] Proctor, R. N. (2012). The history of the discovery of the cigarette–lung cancer link: evidentiary traditions, corporate denial, global toll. Tobacco Control21(2), 87-91.

[5] Lopipero, P. A., & Bero, L. A. (2006). Tobacco interests or the public interest: 20 years of industry strategies to undermine airline smoking restrictions. Tobacco Control15(4), 323.

[6] SCHURMAN, R. (2004). Fighting Frankenfoods: Industry opportunity structures and the efficacy of the anti-biotech movement in Western Europe. Social problems51(2), 243-268.

[7] Wales, C., & Mythen, G. (2002). Risky discourses: the politics of GM foods. Environmental Politics11(2), 121-144.

[8] Anti-GMO Activists Are the One Practicing Tobacco Science. (2015). Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Retrieved 4 August 2017, from https://fafdl.org/blog/2015/05/19/anti-gmo-activists-are-the-ones-practicing-tobacco-science/

[9] Boykoffa, M. T., & Boykoffb, J. M. (2004). Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press$. Global Environmental Change14, 125-136.

[10] Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2008). A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change.

[11] McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). THE POLITICIZATION OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND POLARIZATION IN THE AMERICAN PUBLIC’S VIEWS OF GLOBAL WARMING, 2001–2010tsq_1198 155.. 194. The Sociological Quarterly52, 155-194.

[12] Gary Ruskin, GMO Labeling Movement Funded by Anti-Vaxxers | American Council on Science and Health. (2017). Acsh.org. Retrieved 4 August 2017, from http://www.acsh.org/news/2017/05/08/gary-ruskin-gmo-labeling-movement-funded-anti-vaxxers-11245 Attach quote

[13] The Anti-Vaccine And Anti-GMO Movements Are Inextricably Linked And Cause Preventable Suffering. (2017). Forbes.com. Retrieved 4 August 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kavinsenapathy/2017/05/18/the-anti-vaccine-and-anti-gmo-movements-are-inextricably-linked-and-cause-preventable-suffering/#7c1113b536a2

[14] SCHICK, S. F., & GLANTZ, S. A. (2007). Old ways, new means: tobacco industry funding of academic and private sector scientists since the Master Settlement Agreement. Tobacco control16(3), 157-164.

[15] Kata, A. (2012). Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm–an overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine30(25), 3778.

[16] Offit, P. A. (2015). Deadly choices: How the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all. Basic Books (AZ).

[17] Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PloS one9(2), e89177.

[18] Equivocation. (2017). https://www.logicallyfallacious.com. Retrieved 5 August 2017, from https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/81/Equivocation

[19] Something About Pots and Kettles. (2015). The Skeptical Beard. Retrieved 5 August 2017, fromhttps://economicaltruth.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/pots-and-kettles/

[20] van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2015). The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PloS one10(2), e0118489.

[21] Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., & Vaughan, S. (2013). The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science. Nature Climate Change3(4), 399.

[22] Systematic reviews and meta-analyses: a step-by-step guide | www.ccace.ed.ac.uk. (2017). Ccace.ed.ac.uk. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from http://www.ccace.ed.ac.uk/research/software-resources/systematic-reviews-and-meta-analyses

[23] Uman, L. S. (2011). Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry20(1), 57–59.

[24] 30,000 Scientists Reject Anthropogenic Climate Change?. (2016). Snopes.com. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from http://www.snopes.com/30000-scientists-reject-climate-change/

[25] Project Steve | NCSE. (2017). Ncse.com. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from https://ncse.com/project-steve

[26] Scientists Declare No Consensus on GMO Safety. (2017). I-sis.org.uk. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Scientists_Declare_No_Consensus_on_GMO_Safety.php

[27] Hulk, C. (2015). The International Scientific Consensus On Genetically Engineered Food SafetyThe Credible Hulk. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from http://www.crediblehulk.org/index.php/2015/11/22/the-international-scientific-consensus-on-genetically-engineered-food-safety/

[28] Sanchez, M. A. (2015). Conflict of interests and evidence base for GM crops food/feed safety research. Nature biotechnology33(2), 135-137.

[29] (GENERA), G. (2014). Source shows half of GMO research is independent | Ag ProfessionalAgprofessional.com. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from http://www.agprofessional.com/news/New-resource-shows-half-of-GMO-research-is-independent-272765251.html

[30] (2017). Genera.biofortified.org. Retrieved 7 August 2017, from http://genera.biofortified.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/GENERA_beta_PR.pdf

[31] Man, F. (2016). The nirvana fallacy: An imperfect solution is often better than no solutionThe Logic of Science. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from https://thelogicofscience.com/2016/06/20/the-nirvana-fallacy-an-imperfect-solution-is-often-better-than-no-solution/

[32] We Should Abandon the Concept of “Alternative Medicine”. (2015). Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/we-should-abandon-the-concept-of-alternative-medicine/

[33] Hunt, K., & Ernst, E. (2009). Evidence-based practice in British complementary and alternative medicine: double standards?. Journal of health services research & policy14(4), 219-223.

[34] Sibbald, B., & Roland, M. (1998). Understanding controlled trials. Why are randomised controlled trials important?. BMJ: British Medical Journal316(7126), 201.

[35] Greenhalgh, T. (1997). Papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews and meta-analyses). BMJ: British Medical Journal315(7109), 672.

[36] Graphic proof that vaccines work (with sources) – Isabella B. – Medium. (2015). Medium. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from https://medium.com/@visualvaccines/graphic-proof-that-vaccines-work-with-sources-61c199429c8c

[37] Vaccines work. Period.. (2013). Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/vaccines-work-period/

[38] Hulk, C. (2017). No, Solar Variations Can’t Account for the Current Global Warming Trend. Here’s Why:The Credible Hulk. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from http://www.crediblehulk.org/index.php/2017/01/17/no-solar-variations-cant-account-for-the-current-global-warming-trend-heres-why/

[39] Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., … & Nuccitelli, D. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters11(4), 048002.

[40] Oreskes, N. (2004). The scientific consensus on climate change. Science306(5702), 1686-1686.

[41] Doran, P. T., & Zimmerman, M. K. (2009). Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union90(3), 22-23.

[42] →, V. (2015). Is There a Consensus about Climate Change?Thoughtscapism. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/03/13/is-there-a-consensus-about-climate-change/

[43] Comparison of Effects of Diseases and Vaccines – Canadian Immunization Guide. (2012). Web.archive.org. Retrieved 8 August 2017, from http://web.archive.org/web/20160325103229/http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/cig-gci/cedv-cemv-tab-eng.php

[44] Shea, B. J., Grimshaw, J. M., Wells, G. A., Boers, M., Andersson, N., Hamel, C., … Bouter, L. M. (2007). Development of AMSTAR: a measurement tool to assess the methodological quality of systematic reviews. BMC Medical Research Methodology7, 10. http://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-7-10

[45] Liberati, A., Altman, D. G., Tetzlaff, J., Mulrow, C., Gøtzsche, P. C., Ioannidis, J. P., … & Moher, D. (2009). The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate health care interventions: explanation and elaboration. PLoS medicine6(7), e1000100.

[46] Schüklenk, U. (2004). Professional responsibilities of biomedical scientists in public discourse. Journal of medical ethics30(1), 53-60.

[47] Hulk, C. (2015). Money For Nothing: Why Homeopathy Is Still Pseudoscientific Nonsense That Does Not WorkThe Credible Hulk. Retrieved 13 August 2017, from http://www.crediblehulk.org/index.php/2015/12/02/money-for-nothing-why-homeopathy-is-still-pseudoscientific-nonsense-that-does-not-work/

[48] Ghost-Hunting Mistakes: Science and Pseudoscience in Ghost Investigations – CSI. (2016). Csicop.org. Retrieved 13 August 2017, from http://www.csicop.org/si/show/ghost-hunting_mistakes_science_and_pseudoscience_in_ghost_investigations

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The One True Argument™

Anyone who has spent much time addressing a lot of myths, misconceptions, and anti-science arguments has probably had the experience of some contrarian taking issue with his or her rebuttal to some common talking point on the grounds that it’s not the “real” issue people have with the topic at hand. It does occasionally happen that some skeptic spends an inordinate amount of time refuting an argument that literally nobody has put forward for a position, but I’m specifically referring to situations in which the rebuttal addresses claims or arguments that some people have actually made, but that the contrarian is implying either haven’t been made or shouldn’t be addressed, because they claim that it’s not the “real” argument. This is a form of No True Scotsman logical fallacy, and is a common tactic of people who reject well-supported scientific ideas for one reason or another. In some cases this may be due to the individual’s lack of exposure to the argument being addressed rather than an act of subterfuge, but it is problematic regardless of whether or not the interlocutor is sincere.

The dilemma is that there are usually many arguments for (and variations of) a particular position, so it’s not usually possible for someone to respond to every possible permutation of every argument that has ever been made against a particular idea (scientific or otherwise). The aforementioned tactic takes advantage of this by implying that the skeptic is attacking a strawman on the grounds that what they refuted was not the “real” main argument for their position. In comment sections on my page, I’ve referred to this as The One True ArgumentTM fallacy. It’s a deceptive way for the contrarian to move the goalpost while deflecting blame back onto the other person by accusing them of misrepresentation. The argument being addressed has been successfully refuted, but instead of acknowledging that, the interlocutor introduces a brand new argument (often just as flawed as the one that was just deconstructed), and accuses the person debunking it of either not understanding or not addressing The One True ArgumentTM.

Some brands of science denial have brought this to the level of an integrative art form. If argument set A is refuted, they will cite argument set B as The One True ArgumentTM, but if argument set B is refuted, they will either cite argument set A or argument set C as The One True ArgumentTM. If argument sets A, B, and C are all refuted in a row, they’ll either bring out argument set D, or they will accuse the skeptic of relying on verbosity, and will attempt to characterize detailed rebuttals as some sort of vice or symptom of a weak argument (even though the skeptic is merely responding to the claimant’s arguments). I really wish I was making this up, but these are all techniques I’ve seen science deniers use in debates on social media or on their own blogs. Of course, the volume of the rebuttal cannot be helped due to what has come to be known as Brandolini’s Law AKA Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle (coined by Alberto Brandolini), which states that the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

The argumentation tactics of sophisticated science deniers and other pseudoscience proponents (or even the less sophisticated ones) could probably fill an entire book, but this is one that I haven’t seen many people address, and it comes up fairly often.

For example, many opponents of genetically engineered food crops claim that they are unsafe to eat, and that they are not tested. Often when someone takes the time to show that they are actually some of the most tested foods in the entire food supply, and that the weight of evidence from decades of research from scientists all across the world has converged on an International Scientific Consensus that the commercially available GE crops are at least as safe and nutritious as their closest conventional counterparts, the opponents will downplay it as not being the “real” issue. In some cases they will appeal to conspiracy theories or poorly done outlier studies that have been rejected by the scientific community, but in other instances they will invoke The One True ArgumentTM fallacy. They will claim that nobody is saying that GMOs are unsafe to eat, and that the problem is the overuse of pesticides that GMOs encourage, or that the problem is that the patents and terminator seeds allegedly permit corporations to sue farmers for accidental cross contamination and monopolize the food supply by prohibiting seed saving.

Of course, these arguments are similarly flawed. GMOs have actually helped reduce pesticide use: not increase it, (particularly insecticides) [1],[2],[3], and have coincided with a trend toward using much less toxic and environmentally persistent herbicides [4]. Plant patents have been common in non-GMO seeds too since the Plant Patent Act of 1930, terminator seeds were never brought to market, the popularity of seed saving had already greatly diminished several decades before the first GE crops, and there are still no documented cases of non-GMO farmers getting sued by GMO seed companies for accidental cross-contamination.

However, although the follow up arguments are similarly flawed, the fact is that many organizations absolutely are claiming that genetically engineered food crops are unsafe. I’m not going to give free traffic to promoters of pseudoscience if I can help it, but one need only to plug in the search terms “gmo + poison” or “gmo + unsafe” to see a plethora of less-than-reputable websites claiming precisely that. The point is that it’s dishonest to pretend that the person rebutting such claims isn’t addressing the “real” contention, because there is no one single contention, and the notion that the foods are unsafe is a very common one.

Another example occurred just the other day on my page. I posted a graphic depicting some data showing how effective vaccines have been at mitigating certain infectious diseases. A commentator responded as shown here:

I responded thusly:

Putting aside the fact that information on vaccine ingredients is easy to obtain (they are laid out in vaccine packaging inserts), and the fact that increasing life expectancy and population numbers suggest that, if there is any nefarious plot to depopulate the planet, the perpetrators have been spectacularly unsuccessful so far, the point is that this exemplifies The One True ArgumentTM tactic.

Another common example is when scientists meticulously lay out the arguments and evidence for how we know that global warming and/or climate change are occurring. There are many common contrarian responses to this, some of which employ the One True Argument fallacy, such as when the contrarian claims that nobody actually rejects the claim that the change is occurring, bur rather they doubt that human actions have played any significant role in it.

Of course, the follow up claim is similarly flawed, since we know that climate changes not by magic but rather when acted upon by physical causes (called forcings), none of which are capable of accounting for the current trend without the inclusion of anthropogenically caused increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as CO2. This is because most of the other important forcings have either not changed much in the last few decades, or have been moving in the opposite direction of the trend (cooling rather than warming). I’ve explained how solar cycles, continental arrangement, albedo, Milankovitch cycles, volcanism, and meteorite impacts can affect the climate with hundreds of citations from credible scientific journals here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

 In this instance, although it has become more common than in the past for climate science contrarians to accept the conclusion that climate has been changing but reject human causation, there are still plenty who argue that the warming trend itself is grand hoax, and that NASA, NOAA, (and virtually every other scientific organization on the planet) has deliberately manipulated the data to make money. If you doubt this, all you need to do is enter “global warming + hoax + fudged data” into your favorite search engine to see an endless list of webmasters making this claim. In fact, in one study, the position that “it’s not happening” at all was the single most common one expressed in op-ed pieces by climate science contrarians between 2007 – 2010 [10]. Their abundance even increased towards the end of that time period, so it’s flat out untrue that the push-back against the science has centered only on human causation and/or the eventual severity of the problem. 

The truth is that there was never anything nefarious going on with the temperature data adjustments. Similar adjustments are performed on data in most scientific fields. They were completely legitimate and scientifically justified. There have even been additional studies in which the assumptions and reasoning behind the ways in which the data was adjusted have been scrutinized and compared to data from reference networks, and the same procedures produced readings that were MORE accurate than the raw non-adjusted data: not less [5],[6],[7].[8].[9]. This is nicely explained here, but I digress; the main point here is not just that the follow-up arguments tend to be similarly flawed, but rather that this technique could in principle be used indefinitely to move the goal posts ad infinitum.

It’s easy to see that this also forces a strategic decision on the part of the skeptic or science advocate. Do you nail them down on their use of this tactic? Do you respond to the follow-up argument they’ve presented as the “real” issue? Do you do both? If so, are there any strategic disadvantages to doing both? Would it make the response excessively long? If so, does that matter? If so, how much can it be compressed by improved concision without sacrificing accuracy and/or important details? Disingenuous argumentative tactics like these put the contrarian’s opponents in a position where he or she has to make these kinds of strategic decisions rather than simply focusing on the veracity of specific claims.

As I alluded to earlier, this is not a free license to construct actual strawmen of other people’s positions and ignore their explanations when they attempt to clarify their arguments and their conclusions, because people do that too, and that’s no good either. But the One True ArgumentTM fallacy refers specifically to when a refutation to a common argument is mischaracterized as a strawman as a means of introducing a different argument while trying to construe it as the skeptic’s fault for addressing the argument they addressed instead of some other one. It’s dishonest, it’s based on bad reasoning, you shouldn’t use it, and you should point it out when others do. 

References:

[1] Brookes, G., & Barfoot, P. (2017). Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996–2015: impacts on pesticide use and carbon emissions. GM crops & food, (just-accepted), 00-00.

[2] Klümper, W., & Qaim, M. (2014). A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PloS one9(11), e111629.

[3] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. National Academies Press (pg. 117-119).

[4] Kniss, A. R. (2017). Long-term trends in the intensity and relative toxicity of herbicide use. Nature communications8, 14865.

[5] Jones, P. D., & Moberg, A. (2003). Hemispheric and large-scale surface air temperature variations: An extensive revision and an update to 2001. Journal of Climate16(2), 206-223.

[6] Brohan, P., Kennedy, J. J., Harris, I., Tett, S. F., & Jones, P. D. (2006). Uncertainty estimates in regional and global observed temperature changes: A new data set from 1850. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres111(D12).

[7] Jones, P. D., Lister, D. H., Osborn, T. J., Harpham, C., Salmon, M., & Morice, C. P. (2012). Hemispheric and large‐scale land‐surface air temperature variations: An extensive revision and an update to 2010. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres117(D5).

[8] Hausfather, Z., Menne, M. J., Williams, C. N., Masters, T., Broberg, R., & Jones, D. (2013). Quantifying the effect of urbanization on US Historical Climatology Network temperature records. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres118(2), 481-494.

[9] Hausfather, Z., Cowtan, K., Menne, M. J., & Williams, C. N. (2016). Evaluating the impact of US Historical Climatology Network homogenization using the US Climate Reference Network. Geophysical Research Letters.

[10] Elsasser, S. W., & Dunlap, R. E. (2013). Leading voices in the denier choir: Conservative columnists’ dismissal of global warming and denigration of climate science. American Behavioral Scientist57(6), 754-776.

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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.

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A Compilation of Studies and Articles on GE Food Safety and the Scientific Consensus

The following is a list of studies and articles on GE food safety and the scientific consensus, which I’ve complied for convenient access. It will be updated periodically.

waitingtofindharm

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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!

 

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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

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The International Scientific Consensus On Genetically Engineered Food Safety

The term Scientific consensus is, by definition, an evidence-based consensus. It does not necessarily refer to 100% unanimity among all human beings, nor even among 100% of people trained in science. Rather, it refers to a consilience of scientific evidence upon which an overwhelming majority of scientists (whose areas of expertise are most pertinent) concede to what the evidence is showing.

It does not mean that every single nuance of every tangentially related question is known with absolute certainty. It just means that no credible reason remains for denying the implications of the evidence with respect to the bigger picture.

Many areas for which there is strong scientific consensus continue to be controversial topics among laypeople (i.e. GMO safety, vaccine efficacy and safety, evolution, Anthropogenic Global Warming, water fluoridation etc), but this is due almost exclusively to a combination of a lack of sufficient competence at evaluating the veracity and meaning of information related to a particular scientific field, and/or motivated reasoning rooted in staunch ideological opposition to something about the particular field of study and its findings. The Skeptical Raptor  explains the concept of scientific consensus in more detail here.

When we speak specifically of the scientific consensus with respect to the safety of Genetically Engineered Foods, which have had the misfortune of being stuck with the semantically misleading colloquial term of “Genetically Modified Organisms” (or just GMOs for short), we’re actually making two different claims:

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). 

I can go into greater depth on point two in a later post, but insofar as point one is concerned, there is a formidable body of evidence to corroborate that conclusion, and an international scientific consensus based on it. Let’s take an overview of the evidence for this.

According to this assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: a literature review.

“Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance. If required, a 90-day feeding study performed in rodents, according to the OECD Test Guideline, is generally considered sufficient in order to evaluate the health effects of GM feed. The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”

Here is an overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research, which incorporated nearly 1,800 studies into its analysis. The authors concluded the following:

“We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”

The authors also acknowledge the discrepancy between the prevalent scientific viewpoint and public perception, and thus suggest the following:

“An improvement in the efficacy of scientific communication could have a significant impact on the future of agricultural GE. Our collection of scientific records is available to researchers, communicators and teachers at all levels to help create an informed, balanced public perception on the important issue of GE use in agriculture.”

I can’t argue with that.

This study on Unintended Compositional Changes in Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: 20 Years of Research came to the following conclusion:

“It is concluded that suspect unintended compositional effects that could be caused by genetic modification have not materialized on the basis of this substantial literature. Hence, compositional equivalence studies uniquely required for GM crops may no longer be justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty.”

Here is a 100 Billion animal study with trillions of data points incorporating nearly 29 years of data (both prior to the introduction of GE foods and since) on the prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. It did not reveal any unfavorable or perturbed trends in animal health or productivity.

Genera is a database with around 400 studies.
It’s only a fraction of the total number of studies that have been done on various aspects of GM crops. There are closer to 2,000 studies (at least) that exist, so the database is still a work in progress, but I like this database because it makes it easy to search by author, by document type, by funding type, by funding source, by subject matter under study, by crop trait, by date, by whether or not it’s open access, by publication status, by journal or a whole bunch of other search options.

Moreover, here are statements from independent national and international scientific bodies demonstrating the overwhelming international scientific consensus:

American Association for the Advancement of Science submitted the following:

”The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

This statement is from the American Medical Association:

”There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods. Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

Here is the World Health Organization’s position:

”No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

Although they have not declared an official position, the authors of this paper by The Royal Society of Medicine concluded the following:

”Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”

The American Council on Science and Health submitted the following:

”[W]ith the continuing accumulation of evidence of safety and efficiency, and the complete absence of any evidence of harm to the public or the environment, more and more consumers are becoming as comfortable with agricultural biotechnology as they are with medical biotechnology.”

This statement was by the American Phytopathological Society:

”The American Phytopathological Society (APS), which represents approximately 5,000 scientists who work with plant pathogens, the diseases they cause, and ways of controlling them, supports biotechnology as a means for improving plant health, food safety, and sustainable growth in plant productivity.”

The American Society for Cell Biology takes the following position:

”Far from presenting a threat to the public health, GM crops in many cases improve it. The ASCB vigorously supports research and development in the area of genetically engineered organisms, including the development of genetically modified (GM) crop plants.”

This statement is from the American Society for Microbiology:

”The ASM is not aware of any acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. We are sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition, better taste and longer shelf-life.”

The American Society of Plant Biologists had this to say:

”The risks of unintended consequences of this type of gene transfer are comparable to the random mixing of genes that occurs during classical breeding. The ASPB believes strongly that, with continued responsible regulation and oversight, GE will bring many significant health and environmental benefits to the world and its people.”

The International Seed Federation issued this statement:

”The development of GM crops has benefited farmers, consumers and the environment… Today, data shows that GM crops and foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts: millions of hectares worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops and billions of people have eaten GM foods without any documented harmful effect on human health or the environment.”

Here’s one from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology:

”Over the last decade, 8.5 million farmers have grown transgenic varieties of crops on more than 1 billion acres of farmland in 17 countries. These crops have been consumed by humans and animals in most countries. Transgenic crops on the market today are as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts, and likely more so given the greater regulatory scrutiny to which they are exposed.”

Here’s one from the Crop Science Society of America:

”The Crop Science Society of America supports education and research in all aspects of crop production, including the judicious application of biotechnology.”

The National Academy of Sciences said this:

“The introduction of GE crops has reduced pesticide use or the toxicity of pesticides used on fields where soybean, corn, and cotton are grown. Available evidence indicates that no-till practices and HR crops are complementary, and each has encouraged the other’s adoption. Conservation tillage, especially no-till, reduces soil erosion and can improve soil quality. The pesticide shifts and increase in conservation till-age with GE crops have generally benefited farmers who adopted them so far. Conservation tillage practices can also improve water quality by reducing the volume of runoff from farms into surface water, thereby reducing sedimentation and contamination from farm chemicals.”

The International Society of African Scientists made the following statement:

”Africa and the Caribbean cannot afford to be left further behind in acquiring the uses and benefits of this new agricultural revolution.”

The Federation of Animal Science Societies stated the following:

”Meat, milk and eggs from livestock and poultry consuming biotech feeds are safe for human consumption.”

The Society for In Vitro Biology said this:

”The SIVB supports the current science-based approach for the evaluation and regulation of genetically engineered crops. The SIVB supports the need for easy public access to available information on the safety of genetically modified crop products. In addition, the SIVB feels that foods from genetically modified crops, which are determined to be substantially equivalent to those made from crops, do not require mandatory labeling.”

The Society of Toxicology had the following to say:

“Scientific analysis indicates that the process of BD (Biotechnology-Derived) food production is unlikely to lead to hazards of a different nature from those already familiar to toxicologists. The safety of current BD foods, compared with their conventional counterparts, can be assessed with reasonable certainty using established and accepted methods of analytical, nutritional, and toxicological research.”

Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture – Prepared by the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences:

“Foods can be produced through the use of GM technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and in principle health promoting – bringing benefits to consumers in both industrialized and developing nations.”

There is  a pervasive myth that still lingers in anti-GMO circles (mostly in the US) that European scientists are more incredulous of GE food science than American scientists, that there exists some secret European science that nobody else has access to, and that this is the reason for some of the cultivation restrictions in certain European countries, but as this article explains (with direct references to official EU documents), this is not the case.

In fact, the EU themselves funded almost two decades of GMO research.

Although the commission has shied away from adopting an official position, their 18 year research project concluded the following:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” (page 16).

And here is a further elaboration on the EU’s position, policies and procedures.

The Union of the German Academies of Science and Humanities Commission Green Biotechnology Inter-Academy Panel Initiative on Generically Modified Organisms Group of the International Workshop Berlin concluded the following:

“In summary, the evidence suggests it to be most unlikely that the consumption of the well-characterised transgenic DNA from approved GMO food harbours any recognisable health risk.”

And  this:

”Food derived from GM plants approved in the EU and the US poses no risks greater than those from the corresponding conventional food. On the contrary, in some cases food from GM plants appears to be superior with respect to health.”

French Academy of Science said the following:

“This analysis shows that all the criticisms against GMOs can be largely dismissed on strictly scientific criteria.”

The following is a consensus document on GMOs Safety from 14 Italian scientific societies.

In case you don’t read Italian, their concluding remarks translate to roughly the following:

“GMOs are regulated by a regulatory framework that is unmatched in the food industry and therefore they prove to be more controlled than any other food product.

All the analysis for food safety assessment must also be carried out before placing them on the market.

It is appropriate to focus the analysis not so much on the technology with which these plants are produced, but rather on genetic traits inserted, following a case-by case evaluation.

GMOs on the market today, having successfully passed all the tests and procedures necessary for authorization must, on the basis of current knowledge, be safe to use as human and animal food.”

Finally, the National Academies Press published this impressively comprehensive work on the Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.

They evaluate each trait on its own individual merits and cover everything from food safety and environmental impact to biodiversity, gene flow between GE crops and weeds and non-GE crops, as well as crop yields, soil health and even economic and social repercussions. It’s rather spectacular actually, and probably worth bookmarking. A PDF copy is free on the condition that one creates an account on NAP (or at least signs in as a guest). If nothing else, at least check out their “key findings” (page 214) in which they state the following:

“The evidence shows that the planting of GE crops has largely resulted in less adverse or equivalent effects on the farm environment compared with the conventional non-GE systems that GE crops replaced. A key improvement has been the change to pesticide regimens that apply less pesticide or that use pesticides with lower toxicity to the environment but that have more consistent efficacy than conventional pesticide regimens used on non-GE versions of the crops. In the first phase of use, herbicide resistant (HR) crops have been associated with an increased use of conservation tillage, in particular no-till methods, that can improve water quality and enhance some soil-quality characteristics. That farmers who practice conservation tillage are more likely to adopt GE crops suggests the two technologies are complementary.”

 

Moreover, 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. Not even the oil giants, several of which are 20-30 times as huge as the biggest biotech companies, are capable of buying off the entire global scientific consensus in a particular field.

In summary, there is an overwhelming international scientific consensus with regards to genetically engineered crops. The notion that “Big biotech bought off every study and credible scientific organization in the world” is the secular science-deniers’ version of “the devil put the fossils there to test our faith.”

Although some people may invent increasingly elaborate conspiracy narratives to dismiss the international scientific consensus as an illusion or a nefarious plot to deceive all the non-scientists, there is simply no credible evidence for this nor any plausible means by which a conspiracy of that scale could exist.

No, the RepShillian Shape-Shifters aren’t colluding with the Great Big PharMonSatan to control the intergalactic food supply and poison everyone for the Shilluminati Shadow Government’s depopulation operation for the NWO.

It’s time for a reality check.

BOOM!!!

Credible Hulk

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Image via AxisMundiOnline.

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Genetically Engineered crops and seed saving myths.

By the time genetically engineered seeds came along, the practice of buying new seeds every year had been common place for more than half a century. There were and are a few reasons for this:

Firstly, by the 1930s, commercial hybrid crop varieties began to proliferate. When one replants second generation seeds from hybrids, one gets a mixture of inferior varieties, so it was in farmers’ best interest to buy new seeds each year. This was especially true for corn farmers, who had by and large been relying almost exclusively on hybrids for roughly a half a century before GE technology came along.

Secondly, buying seeds each year grants farmers certain quality assurances which would let them be confident that either their seeds would be of high quality, or that they’d at least have some recourse of action in the event that the seeds didn’t perform as advertised.

Thirdly, the plant patent act of 1930 meant that plant breeders could procure intellectual property rights on certain varieties of seeds. If everyone just bought the seed once and then made as many copies as they ever wanted, the patents would become meaningless, and there’d be less incentive for innovation in plant breeding. In principle, this is not all that different from software licensing agreements and other forms of intellectual and/or artistic copyrights in which unchallenged piracy would ostensibly permit unlimited copies to be made for free, in which case the concept of intellectual property rights would be rendered meaningless.

Yet, there is one myth that often gets used as a criticism against genetic engineered crops. This myth usually takes the form of “I’m not anti-GMO, but farmers always used to save seeds, and the GMO companies have made it so that nobody can do that, and thus everyone is forced to buy new seeds every season.”

By framing this as though it were an indictment of GM seeds, this myth implies a false premise; namely, it presupposes that buying seeds every year was something that wasn’t already normal prior to GMOs, and that it’s something unique to GMOs.

Moreover, farmers who don’t like signing contracts or who dislike a particular seed company’s contracts have other options. The reason why GE seeds are popular is because, once all the cost benefit analysis is done (taking seed prices into account of course), many farmers deem the advantages of the GE seeds to vastly outweigh whatever minimal benefit they might gain by avoiding annual seed contracts.

I’ve sometimes even heard people claim that the patents somehow allow Monsanto to “force people to use their seeds.” I’m singling out Monsanto here simply because they are invariably the one company accused of this when I hear people make this claim. However, this is of course complete nonsense. That has never happened. A seed company can’t force anyone to use anything. Farmers choose to use thee seeds they do on the basis of a variety criteria, not least of which is the question of whether they permit them higher outputs for fewer inputs. Moreover, contrary to what such myths imply, most farmer’s don’t find these stewardship agreements particularly onerous:

The popularity of these myths is yet another example of why it’s important to maintain some healthy skepticism with respect to popular public discourse on controversial subject matters. These myths spread because too many people are accepting claims from laypeople (and/or from people with an ax to grind) at face value instead of fact-checking and asking professional farmers questions about it.

Here are some you might consider asking if you’re unsure of the veracity of a particular popular notion about farming.

Ask the Farmers

Farm Babe

The Farmer’s Daughter

The Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter

If you want to bounce some ideas off people in a great discussion group, try Food and Farm Discussion Lab.

I am pretty sure I’ve forgotten some people, but I will amend this later as they come to me. Remember to check out my facebook page too. – Credible Hulk

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