Saturday, April 21, 2012

Agent Orange, Monsanto, and a Little Clarificiation

On Tuesday I gave a talk at Florida State College at Jacksonville entitled "The Future of Food: Feeding More People with Less".  The talk described the challenges to modern agriculture, the need for conservation, improved production practices (including low-input/organic ag) and new genetics from breeding.  One of the key facets was transgenic technology to complement other improvements.

There was one person in attendance that was not a student, but a guy from the community that thought the topic was interesting.  As soon as I got into the GMO part of the lecture he began being disruptive.  I usually invite interaction, but his objections were relatively constant.  As usual, they were dogmatic and uninformed, tying nicely to the propaganda lines of the anti-GMO interests.

For my lecture I held up glyphosate resistance as a successful implementation of transgenics in agriculture.  Here a relatively innocuous chemical displaces others that are more dangerous.  Most of all, glyphosate resistant crops have paved an inarguable track record of success. There are some downsides, and I discussed them, including generation of resistant weed and some minor developmental effects on some animals.

He would have none of it.  "You know what glyphosate is, right?"

I was puzzled.  Sure I knew what it was, how it works, how it breaks down, etc.

"It is Agent Orange made by Monsanto", he continued.

I told him that it was not true, but of course, he knew better.  He knew it was the dreaded glyphosate, "Monsatan's Roundup".  I directed everyone to their smartphones and told them that the components of Agent Orange were synthetic auxins and not glyphosate.  But then I started to wonder, was I right?  So what is the relationship between Monsanto and Agent Orange?  What is Agent Orange?  

Agent Orange was a defoliant weaponized by the US military during the Vietnam War.  It was composed of a 50-50 mix of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, respectfully. These compounds are auxins.  Auxins are a class of plant growth regulator associated with cell division, elongation growth, and a large suite of other plant processes.  These two auxins are synthetic mimics of the natural compounds.  They work well at low concentrations because plants do not have a means to break them down easily.  Essentially, a plant grows itself to death.

The two principle plant growth regulators in Agent Orange

Who made 2,4-D?  It was manufactured by  several agrochemical companies, including good ol' Monsanto. Others were Uniroyal, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules and Dow Chemical.

So when the military wanted to defoliate large swatches of dense jungle for military operations, Agent Orange was the ticket.  Over 20 million gallons of the stuff was dumped over Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand.  Nobody could ever know the exact numbers for sure, but there are huge numbers of affected US military and Vietnamese civilians that suffered from the effects of Agent Orange.

Of course, the anti-GMO types don't care too much about facts, just shock value.  If you look at the sign on the right they do make an attempt to be somewhat honest with the mice type above the bottom words... can you see it? 

The problem was (well, the toxicity issue was) that 2,4,5-T was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, a potent dioxin that causes alterations of gene expression that can be carcinogenic.  Documented cancers from Agent Orange exposure include prostate cancer, respiratory cancers (lung, trachea/bronchus, larynx), soft-tissue sarcomas, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Hodgkins disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and multiple myeloma. 

Oh, by the way, no glyphosate.  Not a drop.  Kevin one, disruptive guy zero for those keeping score at home.

Beyond that my response to this guy was completely on target.  I asked him, "How can you blame the chemical or the company that makes it, when someone (in this case the US government) chooses to use it in an unethical manner?"

It is like if someone beat another person to death with an organic zucchini... in his eyes it would not make organic zucchini evil.  Unless of course Monsanto made organic zucchini.

This is the point of the matter.  This guy had the information wrong.  There was no glyphosate in Agent Orange.  The use of a plant growth regulator and its contaminants as a weapon is now manipulated to connect a major US health issue to Monsanto.  And the anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO, anti-scientists just love that. 

It is unfortunate to have the Agent Orange / 2,4-D tie because these synthetic auxins are the cornerstone of the next generation of herbicide-resistant plants.  The companies working with this technology will have to endure the mis-representation of their products by people that really know nothing about them.

And by the way, the instructor that organized the session said that everyone in the class verified my information, was impressed with how I handled the criticism, and "thought the disruptive guy was a dick."

Monday, April 2, 2012

More TEDx Credulity, A Sad, Sad Talk

Birke Baehr is undoubtedly a brilliant kid.  At eleven years old he has interests in food and the environment, making him a clear outlier from his peers.  Birke was a speaker at TEDx Asheville. In my parsing of TEDx talks to identify anti-scientific claims, his was clearly a standout for good and sad reasons. 

Again, as pointed out in previous posts, the outstanding reputation of TED talks was being hijacked by fringe interests to promote a non-scientific agenda, tarnishing the reputation of TED's credible brand.  

This YouTube video named "Monsanto Corporation Gets Owned by 11 Year Old Boy" exploits the credulity of youth and the approval of a credulous audience.  Plus, he never says anything about Monsanto, just the usual anti-biotech rhetoric-- all stated as fact, without evidence.

What is wrong with his talk?  Like a few TEDx talks I am currently discussing, they are weak on evidence and their agendas are showing.  As you listen to Birke, please read along the timeline below.  Pay attention to his claims, and measure them against scientific response.

First minute-- good setup using points we all can agree on. Yes, children are vulnerable to advertising and corporations do exploit that.  By starting on ground of clear consensus he can develop an intrapersonal relationship with the listener, even one skeptical at the onset.  Smart. 

At 1:05 he reveals the problem with his presentation.  He reveals the sources for his information.  He looked into modern agriculture on "the internet, in books and documentary films, and in travels with my family."  These are sources notorious for spoon-feeding a persuasive activist agenda that is not supported by the scientific consensus or peer-reviewed literature.  An 11 year old most likely does not have the critical thinking skills to synthesize this material in the context of legitimate science.

1:20  "A seed is manipulated in a laboratory to do something not intended by nature".  Okay.  Did nature intend any of the crops we eat to be grown in North America?  Did nature intend for crops to be cross bred, selected and mutated by chemical agents, acceptable by organic farming?  No on all accounts.  His determination of "natural" is arbitrary to fit the rhetoric.

1:27  "DNA of a fish, into DNA of a tomato, this is just creepy"  Maybe to him it is creepy, but a gene is a gene and such manipulations were thought to help grow tomatoes in cold, as well as give them long shelf life.  No such products are on the market, yet Birke and his supporter will tell you they are, despite no evidence.

1:40  "The food they (transgenic seeds) produce have been proven to cause cancer and other problems in laboratories".  He says this, it is not true.  He is now a puppet, lying for an agenda.  There are no peer-reviewed, published reports showing a causal link to cancer of any kind.

1:55  He talks about rats fed GMO products and liver and kidney problems.  These data come from one lab, one report (Seralini et al., 2007), where a small number of rats were fed the direct gene product doped into food. In this report, differences were observed in a subset of the animals, yet only data from the affected animals were shown. Such problems in meaningfully large studies have not been found, and experiments were not repeated. An expert panel revisited these data and published their conclusion that "analysis conducted by Séralini et al. (2007) provided no evidence to indicate that MON 863 was associated with adverse effects in the 90-day rat study."  Still, Birke makes that claim. 

2:00 "Let me tell you, just about all the corn we eat is genetically modified in some way"... yes, and it has been for over 20,000 years. Only instead of one gene at a time, it was 40,000. 

2:35  "Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed onto plants to kill weeds and bugs".  Yes. That is not just transgenic technology, and organic farmers use Bt too.

2:39  "Poisoning our water too".  I agree.  This is why we need more research into how to farm with less environmental impact.  Transgenics will be part of that conversation.

2:46  "Then they irradiate our food to try to make it last longer".  I could not find any information on this with regard to specific fruits or vegetables. However, it is safe and actually kills dangerous microorganisms.

3:06  The crowd goes wild when he says he wants to be an organic farmer.  That's a ballsy career choice for an eleven year old, and I hope he does it.  The crowd reaction gives you a hint of their likelihood to subscribe to a naturalist fallacy. 

3:54-4:00  "We can pay the farmer or we can pay the hospital"  He makes the claim that organic food is not more expensive when compared to the medical bills you'll incur from eating the products of conventional farming.  That is a real stretch and somewhat dishonest, unless there is evidence of such costs. 

More accurately, conventional diets are part of the lifestyle that allows us to live longer, requiring more health care.  We're not dropping dead from heart attacks at 40 so much these days.

Certainly I agree that food is important and diet and disease are inextricably linked. However, healthy conventional food is just as good as healthy organic food, and that's quite clear. Nothing wrong with organic food.  Nothing wrong with conventional food either. 

4:28  "I believe that kids will make better choices when they know about their food and where it comes from".  Absolutely.  I agree 100% and hope that we can teach that with a fair and even scientific hand.

4:54  The Frosted Flakes box again shows the agenda.  Make good food look like poison with no evidence of it being harmful.  Frosted Flakes are not my first choice for a healthy food, but the hyperbole shown is designed to generate fear, not to educate.

5:00  A swell of applause.  The crowd bought it. 

Once again, the TED name is exploited to provide an evidence-less presentation that appears to have content. Brike is a sharp kid, likable, and the perfect shill to sell an anti-scientific agenda at the expense of TED's reputation.  It is a rant against biotech and a commercial for organic farming.

My recommendation?  I'd love to see Birke keep learning about food and doing his best to be an organic farmer.  He should continue to learn and implement everything he can about low-input agriculture and how to make food more environmentally sustainable. That may include transgenic technologies and he should be open to that. 

He is homeschooled. I'd like him to read "Tomorrow's Table" by Drs. Pamela Ronald and Raul Adamchak. I'm curious what he would think.

Most of all, I hope his home school emphasizes hypothesis-driven science and critical thinking. From the sound of things he's being exposed to a feelgood agenda, promoted by those that subscribe to the naturalist fallacy and/or disdain Big Ag.

It also scares me that an audience is so blinded by Birke, that they stop thinking critically, and actually reinforce what he is telling them- claims against sound science without any good evidence.

Best wishes Birke.