Stuck in the middle with you

Clowns to the left of me,

Jokers to the right, here I am,

Stuck in the middle with you

 

More than once in the past couple months I’ve come close to pulling the plug on FaceBook.  What started as a fun and easy way to keep up with family and friends back home and stalk old girlfriends has devolved into an infinite do-loop of whininess, acrimony and vitriol over GMO’s, organic food, vaccines, and President Obama.  Of course, I brought a lot of this on myself based on the virtual company I choose to keep.  While my allegiances generally align with groups such as GMOLOL, GMOskepti-forum, and the Genetic Literacy Project, more and more I find myself just as appalled by their tactics and rhetoric as I am by those of the anti-GMO side.  I have many thoughtful and intelligent friends that think GMO’s should be labeled or even banned and I’m fairly certain none of them want poor African children to go blind.

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Quick aside here: Raise your hand if you have ever changed your mind on an important issue based on an internet meme.

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The problem in this type of discourse is that everything has become an all or nothing game.  If you concede even the slightest point to the other side, you have become a wishy-washy capitulator.  But the underlying problem is the answer in science is often “It depends.” In the GP blog and elsewhere, much has been made of the Pew Research poll that showed the biggest opinion gap between the scientists and the public was over GMO safety.  Had I been polled, I would have agreed that GMO’s are generally safe.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there are concerns. Heavy agricultural use of glyphosate is leading to the development of Round-up resistant weeds. Likewise, the potential of GMO crops out-crossing with native plants cannot be discounted.  Scientists working on GMO’s, of course, are aware of these issues and are constantly working on steps to manage and minimize these risks, but they could still come back someday to bite us in the butt – the risks, not the scientists.

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Another problem with controversies on the interwebs is that issues get over-simplified.  The endless argument over organic food is just stupid.   Saying organic production is better than conventional farming (or vice versa) is like saying Ford is better than Chevrolet:  You can’t compare without knowing which model: Pick-ups? Sedans? SUV’s?  Or  what’s being compared: Gas mileage? Crash safety? Resale value?  The same is true with organic vs conventional: What crop? Celery? Apples? Carrots? Lettuce? And what measure? Pesticide residue? Carbon footprint? Food safety?  The debate is an interminable game of whack-a-mole. I suspect anyone with access to ‘Web of Science’ and an afternoon to kill could come up with a couple dozen studies to support either side.  My personal view is I’ll pay a modest premium for organic produce if it clearly looks better, or in the case of small fruits that I can sample before I buy, tastes better than the conventional counterpart.

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The other issue in the social media wars is that we need to admit and accept the limits of our knowledge.  The Pew poll and other surveys indicate that most scientists agree that climate is changing due to human activity.  Again, I’m with the majority of scientists on this.  But only a small portion of those scientists are actually trained in climatology and understand and appreciate the nuances of the Global Circulation Model or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. What I know with certainty is that CO2 and other greenhouses gasses have risen consistently and dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.  How will that impact climate in 100 years?  I have no clue beyond what the climate scientists tell me.  Do I have any reason to doubt their projections of steady increased temperatures? None beyond the fact the GCM, like all models, is only as reliable as the data and assumptions it is built on.  Does this make me a right-wing climate change denier?  Hardly.  But I am self-aware enough to know what I don’t know.

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Bottom-line, even on issues where a vast majority of scientists agree, there are still unanswered questions and areas of uncertainty and always will be.  In the meantime, we still have to make policy decision with the information at hand.  Talking about these issues intelligently and respectfully will get us further than derision and mockery.

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In the meantime, if you open up FaceBook and I’m not there, you’ll know I’ve finally had my fill.

A 19th Century Garden Hero: Hero or villain today?

John Porter: Extension Blog Contributer
Extension Agent, Ag and Natural Resources
West Virginia University
John.porter@mail.wvu.edu

There’s been much ado in the press and on social media about the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food system.  While there is a scientific consensus on their safety, many still reject their use. While the controversy rages on, an innocent bystander has taken fire, mainly from the spread of misinformation on social media.  It seems that simple hybrids, produced through a selective, yet natural, breeding process have been mislabeled as genetically modified.  These misinformation sources point to heirlooms as the only non-modified (and thus safe) source of food.  The thought is that since the development of a hybrid is directed by humans, they are genetically modified.  This simply isn’t the case.

The truth of the matter is that all of the food crops that we plant have been modified at some point in history through human intervention, whether purposeful or not.  The simple act of seed saving is a selective breeding process selecting for the best and the tastiest. So even heirlooms are modified through human interaction.  The comparison of a hybrid to a GMO is starkly false.  I once saw someone explain it this way:  breeding a hybrid is like crossing a beagle and pug, making a GM crop is like crossing a potato and a fish.  While it is a simplistic comparison, it does make it a little easier to understand.

Many of the heirlooms we now have today were developed by breeders over the last century or so.  No one man had such an impact on agriculture as Luther Burbank, who was a prolific plant breeder and a well-known national hero.  However, in today’s anti-science fervor, would he be considered more of a villain than a hero?  That was the topic of one of my recent newspapers articles. Read more about Luther Burbank, 19th century garden hero.

 

Label GMO foods? Sure, why not?

Lots of coverage in the mainstream media these days over various initiatives to label GMO foods.   I think GMO foods should be labeled; but not for the reasons you might think.

My personal opinion on GMO foods is that their benefits outweigh the potential downsides.  I think GMO foods should be labeled to make the public aware of how much of our food supply depends on GMO’s and the cost of not using GMO’s.  Obviously this will raise some social justice issues since wealthy people will have more opportunity to opt out of buying non-GMO products than the poor but it’s the same problem we have with organic already and it doesn’t seem to cause much of a stir.  My hope is that once GMO products are labeled we could get to the point where the main discussion on GMO’s focuses on the rational and scientific questions, not the irrational and emotional.  This weekend our Sunday paper included a quote from a local anti-GMO activist who tried to link the rise in obesity to increased use of GMO’s.  How about we’ve become too sedentary and we’re eating too much, period?  Or this from the “Health Ranger” Mike Adams: “Roundup herbicide devastates soils, rendering them contaminated and unable to produce healthy crops using traditional (or organic) farming methods. Once a farm plot is destroyed with Roundup, that farmer is forever enslaved to a chemical-based farming protocol.”   Hmmm… last time I checked farms could be certified organic after three years without synthetic chemicals.

Which is not to say I don’t have concerns about GMO’s; there are issues with any technology.  The largest questions I see, and the ones that are most difficult to answer, relate to unintended consequences.  One of the biggest selling points of Round-up ready technology, for example, is that it enables farmers to manage weeds with glyphosate, a relatively safe product in the world of industrial-strength herbicides, in order to reduce tillage and maintain crop productivity.  But as farmers use more and more glyphosate, they are also selecting for Round-up resistant weeds.  How long until glyphosate is no longer effective? Difficult to predict, but glyphosate resistance has already evolved in many weeds.

On the other side of the equation, the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with a disproportionate increase in the least developed countries.  As the need for food increases, land and water resources will become more limited and catastrophic droughts are likely to increase.  While it is easy to demonize industrial agriculture, it’s difficult to envision feeding ourselves and the world without the technology it has developed.

Balance

By this time most of you have probably read all about Mark Lynas, the anti-GMO activist who decided that GMOs are actually a net benefit to society.  I’ve been asked by a few people to comment on how I feel about Mr. Lyna’s changing sides.  I think they expect me to be jumping up and down for joy.  But that’s not how I feel at all.  I’m happy when anyone decides to let research lead them to a conclusion rather than politics or gut feelings, but in this case it also makes me nervous.  This is because some people tend to travel too far towards one side or another.  I’m just as fearful of the damage that people who are radically pro-GMO may cause as I am of radically anti-GMO activists.  And, in my opinion, this guy just seems to be radical.  Saying that you have research that supports one side of an argument is fine, but in almost all cases there is research that supports the other side too, and you ignore it at your own peril.  Balance people — Balance.

An Interesting Video

Every once in a while someone sends us  a news story or a video to look at critically.  A couple of days ago Michael got in contact with us through Facebook and asked us to take a look at a video he saw recently and let him know what we thought of it.  This video was posted on Russ Bianchi’s website (he goes by the name Uncle Russ).  He includes a short note with the video which says “ALL Genetically Modified Organisms, Ingredients, Crops, Livestock, Food, Drugs, Cosmetics, Beverages, Packaging, Flavors, Fragrances, Colors! Soaps and Detergents are UNSFAE AT0ANY EXPSURE LEVEL and are proven to cause cancers, disease and premature DEATH”.  Wow.  All that from a video?  Must be a heck of a video.

 

Here’s the video.

 

As far as I can tell, The party responsible for this video is Media Roots which is defined as “a citizen journalism project that reports the news from outside of party lines while providing a collaborative forum for conscious citizens, artists and activists to unite.” Too bad they didn’t include scientists who know something about genetically modified crops.  According to Youtube this video has been viewed over 250,000 times.

I can’t tell you exactly what the other garden professors think of it (it may not be printable), but from my end, much of this video is absolute hogwash.

But, having said that much of this video is hogwash, I must give credit where credit is due.  The first part of the film which explains how genes are moved from one organism to another was, in my opinion, pretty well done.  Sure, there were parts of it that a serious molecular biologist would complain about, but for the average person I thought it was a nice explanation.  In fact, after seeing this first part of the film I was expecting to see some really serious and thoughtful critiques of genetically modified organisms – because there absolutely are some good critiques of genetically modified organisms out there.  Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed.  Let me go through the major problems that this video raised one by one and explain why they’re faulty arguments (I won’t go through all the problems, just the major ones):

  1. Genetically Modified crops show lower yields – Yes, this is sometimes true, genetically modified crops aren’t genetically modified to produce more, just to resist certain pests that might reduce yields (or resist certain herbicides that help control pests).   So the maximum yield for genetically modified and non-modified crops are usually pretty similar if the farmer growing the non-genetically modified crop controls pests with pesticides, or doesn’t see the pest for some reason.
  2. Genetically Modified crops have poisons in them – Yes, this is sometimes true.  Genetically modified crops may have genes from Bacillus thuringiensis in them (In the video this name was misspelled and the species was capitalized – which is a big deal to a scientist).  What the video didn’t mention is that this is an organic pesticide that has been used for years with, as far as we can tell, no adverse effects to humans.  The report about people being hurt in the Philippines is a complete red herring.  This supposedly occurred in 2003 and all of the data that we have points to a problem besides GMO corn pollen – in fact, the data points to a flu outbreak.   This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that GMO corn pollen hasn’t been implicated in a similar incident since then.
  3. Genetically Modified Insulin is bad! – This one does have a grain of truth.  GMO insulin is cheap and available, which is why it is used.  In the vast majority of patients there appears to be no difference between it and naturally acquired insulin.  But it does seem as though some people do have a negative reaction.  It terms of deaths, I can’t find much that is trustworthy to corroborate what was said on the video.

I have been chastised previously for being pro-pesticide, pro-GMO, pro-Monsanto, etc.  I don’t blame people for saying this because, let’s face it, I do end up defending these things sometimes because their opponents often use bad science.  But saying that I’m for these things is going a little far.  There is good science and information out there that calls into question the value of certain pesticides, GMOs, and even Monsanto.  Look up the new genetically modified Kentucky bluegrass that may be coming out soon.  Look up atrazine.  Look up how Monsanto protects its patents.  These are things I’m opposed to.  Another thing I’m opposed to is saying that something is bad without having a good understanding of it.  If you’re going to make a video that 250,000 people watch then do your homework and get as much of it right as you can.

Bt in the Bloodstream!

Over at my favorite blog (besides this one of course!) Garden Rant, Amy Stewart posted about exploding watermelons — which Linda blogged about below — and about how Bt from genetically engineered food had found its way into our blood stream (and the bloodstream of unborn children).  Sounds pretty scary doesn’t it?  I’m not going to tell you it isn’t a little troubling, because it is, and I absolutely do not think this finding should be disregarded.  But the truth is that I’m not too worried about Bt in the bloodstream for the following reasons:

1.  The world’s ending on Saturday anyway, right?

2.  It’s impossible to tell from this study where the Bt toxin came from — I do think it probably came from transformed crops — HOWEVER, as scientists we can’t make that assumption.  We eat Bt all the time EVEN IF WE EAT NO TRANSGENIC CROPS because this bacteria is found all over the place.  I would have liked to have seen testing between people who eat transgenic food and people who eat no transgenic food.

3.  The Bt toxin is extremely specific in terms of what it affects in an insects gut.  It’s unlikely (but not impossible) that it would react with anything in our bloodstream (or an unborn child’s bloodstream).

4.  There are arguments over whether transgenic crops are sprayed more or less than than non-transgenic crops — but for insect control transgenic crops are generally sprayed less — and non-transgenic crops are sprayed with some seriously nasty stuff including nerve toxins.  If I get to pick my poison I’ll go with Bt any day.

5.  As a rule you should NEVER worry until a second study confirms the findings.  This paper is important enough that you can be sure that within a year someone else will try something similar.  If the findings hold my concerns will increase somewhat.

6.  Finally, the dose makes the poison.  Bt has been fed to various mammals for years to determine the effects that it has on them — and it generally has little effect, even over long periods of time.  These animals, obviously, had the toxin in their blood (just because it wasn’t tested doesn’t mean it wasn’t there).

It should be no surprise that when we eat something with a toxin in it, that toxin gets into our blood.  When you eat garlic — toxins from the garlic get into your blood.  When you eat hot peppers — capsaicin (an insecticide) gets in your blood.  When you drink alcohol — you get the picture.  Is it bad for things to be in the blood?  It depends entirely upon the thing and the concentration.  This article talked about fetal issues so lets use a fetal example — Aspirin is considered a bad idea during pregnancy — it can get into the unborn child’s bloodstream.  However, low doses of aspirin can reduce risks of pre-eclampsia.  By the way, a chemical very similar to aspirin is also known as a fungicide….(actigard).

So, there are my reasons for not being too worried.  Could I change my mind — YES.  Could I be wrong — YES.  BUT as a scientist who reads a lot of what I’ll call “reactionary/radical articles” I have my doubts when I read about the next thing that’s going to kill us all.  If we responded to every troubling article we’d never leave our houses.  BUT there’s always that one important article that warns us about something real — and we need to be on the lookout for it.  My reaction to the Bt threat — this isn’t it — but time will tell whether I’m right or wrong.

A word about GMOs from our visiting GP

I gave a talk to a group of gardeners last year about vegetable and community gardening.  There was a wide variety of gardening experience represented, but one statement from a seasoned gardener bothered me a bit.  And I think my response bothered him a bit too.  I haven’t thought much about it until recently, when a high school English teacher I know told me a student expressed similar ideas in her class.  The erroneous idea from my audience member was this: our tomatoes are being poisoned with ‘germetically modinified’…something something.  The arguments have lost me beyond that (because there aren’t any).  And really, there hasn’t been much talk about sex on this blog recently, so that should be remedied too.  Therefore, I would like to take the platform offered by the Garden Professors to talk about plant breeding.

 

 

Fig. 1: Jaune flammee, which has at least one gene from at least one of its parents that causes the fruit to have very little lycopene.

Conventional” breeding is when a plant breeder selects parents and offspring and tests them for desirable characteristics (traits).  It works the same way as breeding works in nature, except that we humans have a goal we’re working toward.  Firm, 5-oz, disease-resistant, crack-resistant tomatoes, for example.  In nature, the offspring that survive and reproduce the best in a given environment are ‘blindly’ selected and tend to stick around (Darwin, 1859).  Male (sperm) cells are transferred to female (egg) cells by a plant breeder, or a bee, or the wind, or a beetle, or a fly or bird or bat or moth (etc.).  The sperm and egg fuse to form an embryo, which grows to become what we’d call a plant.  In both natural and artificial selection of tomatoes, no non-tomato DNA has been added, and no tomato DNA has been removed.  By the classical definition of ‘genetic modification’, there has been none.  I suppose this paragraph was only incidentally about sex, and probably a disappointment to some.  Sorry.

Fig. 2.  Tainan, a tiny heirloom

The confusion of the issue may lie with the Flavr Savr tomato.  This was developed (yes, genetically modified) in the mid-90’s to resist softening during ripening.  It has a couple bits of manufactured DNA in it to make this possible.  The Flavr Savr is no longer grown or sold in the marketplace (that was SO 1990’s), and to my knowledge, no other transgenic tomatoes are either.

 

Fig. 3.  Rutgers, historically much-cultivated and like all other tomatoes we can buy, bred conventionally.

Confusion may also lie with the plant hormone ethylene.  Ethylene is made from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, but it’s also made by plants.  Keep your bananas away from your carnations, right?  Bananas make ethylene gas, which causes carnations and snapdragons to senesce (die).  Tomatoes make ethylene as they ripen.  If you harvest tomatoes a bit early, but not too early, they are hard enough to ship but will still turn red later.  If you expose these pre-ripened tomatoes to ethylene gas, they will ripen more quickly and uniformly.  That’s what happens to a lot of the tomatoes in our stores.  They are not genetically modified, they are treated with a plant hormone.  That’s not unusual at all.  Ethylene is used to ripen bananas, and to help make cucumber seeds (by eliminating male flowers from female parents).  It’s used in growing ornamental plants quite a bit too (but not as much as many other hormones, and especially hormone inhibitors).

So please, if you are someone who tells anybody who will listen that the tomatoes in the store are GMOs, stop it.  They’re not.