Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Rebuttal to Dalyn Houser's Orlando Sentinel Opinion

When I was asked to do a point-counterpoint for the Orlando Sentinel I was hesitant. Why give an activist's non-scientific opinions the illusion of equal weight to my facts and science? 

In anticipation of the other writer preparing a poorly-researched anti-GM rant, I wrote my counterpoint to address the vacant arguments, and Dalyn Houser's anti-GM piece fell right into it.  Houser is a representative of Florida PIRG (Public Interest Research Group- ironically not doing much research, especially in science for the public interest).  Every single point is an argument from ignorance or a typical trot down non-scientific thinking.  Sadly, there is outright false information that further fuels misunderstanding of this topic. I don't know if she's outright lying or just misinformed, but neither adds good science to the public understanding.

To further illuminate that point, I've copied it here and go through each point, providing the scientific perspective in bold. 

Americans deserve to know what they're eating: Front Burner
By Dalyn Houser Guest columnist
12:00 AM EDT, May 9, 2014
HOUSER: The use of genetically engineered crops has greatly increased in frequency over the past several years. Biotechnology giants like Monsanto and DuPont have quickly gained a dominant share of the market by supplying farmers with genetically engineered soybean, corn, cotton and other seeds.

Ok! So far so good?

HOUSER: So, what's the problem with this rapid acceleration of genetically modified food?

Here it comes!

HOUSER: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, better than 90 percent of the top U.S. crops — such as corn, cotton and soybeans — are genetically engineered. That's a major jump since the turn of the decade.

Ok!  Still correct.

HOUSER: With that, comes the concomitant rise of pesticide and herbicide use in the United States. Conventional pesticides and herbicides used on farms more than doubled from 400 million pounds in the mid-1960s to 850 million pounds in 1980. Agricultural pesticide use jumped again in 1994 — up 11 percent from the previous year.

I'm not sure exactly where this statistic comes from, but basically there's more farmland, and yields have also doubled since then. Also, pesticide? She's lumping herbicides, fungicides, insecticides into one group probably.  The fact is that PER ACRE herbicide use is up slightly because the number of kg/acre due to the use of glyphosate. Glyphosate' increase precisely offsets other herbicides (Duke et al., 2012).  Yet glyphosate has a vastly lower toxicity and environmental impact quotient- more compound still means fewer effects and impacts on the environment.  Insecticide use has been cut in half on corn and cotton according to the NAS 2010 assessment (figs 2-7 and 2-3). 
HOUSER: This escalation poses a potentially harmful impact on our health and local ecosystems due to the fact that most GM crops already are engineered to produce their own pesticides.

Ms. Houser swings and misses and shows her absolute ignorance on the topic she is trying to discuss.  The protein in GM crops that is toxic to earworms has no effect on non-targets (Wolfenbarger et al., 2008) including humans (Betz et al, 2000). Ecological effects are nothing compared to those of broad-spectrum conventional or organic pesticides.

HOUSER: Genetically modified crops also are resistant to chemicals, which include Roundup. This allows farmers to kill weeds with this chemical, glyphosate, without harming their crops. The ability of the plant to be unaffected by chemicals has resulted in the increased use of glyphosate.

I covered this earlier.  Glyphosate works well and has low impact on the environment (e.g. Kleter et al., 2008, Duket et al 2008). 

HOUSER: Some studies suggest the increased use of glyphosate, patented by Monsanto in 1970, may be linked to a number of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson's disease, infertility and cancers. However, longitudinal research on the topic is lacking.

Yes, patented by Monsanto in 1970, and patent run out in 2000 or so.  Again, the mention of disorders to bring fear with no evidence.  The work she refers to is unpublished, in vitro, or other cherry-picked articles noting spurious connection.  Research is not lacking.  Read the MSDS, or any of the thousands of papers on the topic. 

HOUSER: The main point here is that we are unaware of the impact of these chemicals on our bodies, which are being increasingly added to our body burden (the aggregate volume of toxic chemicals existing in the human body at a given time) as they entrench and blanket our environment.

No, the main point is that she is unaware. Is it again an argument from ignorance. Glyphosate is well understood.  There is no "body burden" as we understand how the compound is metabolized and removed from the body. Upon ingestion of this compound that "does not pose a risk to humans" (Williams et al 2000),  95% is gone in urine and stools within hours, the rest is metabolized by specific cytochromes in the liver (Williams et al, 2012). 

HOUSER: The amount of herbicides and pesticides used on farms for agricultural purposes will only increase with the current state of political affairs. 

Not sure where she's going. 

HOUSER: Most commodity crops are not eaten as-is, but are made into additives like high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils that go into the wide array of junk foods present on grocery-store shelves across America. Corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton are some of the most heavily subsidized commodity crops turned into artificial syrups and sweeteners.

No, most commodity crops are eaten as-is.  They are used for animal feed (70%) with a significant amount going to renewable fuel. Probably 10-15% are used in human food.  Wheat and rice are not GMO.

HOUSER: So, not only are we subsidizing junk food, but also the majority of crops are becoming GMOs — of which we are unsure of the biological and ecological consequences.

Again, the argument from ignorance. Junk food is a problem, but that's because of consumer demand, not because of transgenic crops. 

"The majority of crops are becoming GMOs" -- majority?  You mean, six?  Corn, cotton, soy, canola, sugar beet, papaya.  Maybe some minor, minor acreage of squash... okay seven. 

HOUSER: Since it is clear that legislative reform is slow in coming regarding Big Agribusiness, Florida PIRG, a statewide advocacy organization, has campaigned to promote corporate accountability by putting pressure on grocery-store chains to label GMOs. Doing so will set the stage for broader enforcement of these policies in the future, through regulation.

Think about this.  Here is a woman that has no idea what she is talking about that is working with a group to go after companies by "putting pressure on grocery store chains to label GMOs".

This means that they are using lies and bad information to force companies to adopt their political policies.  It is more food terrorism.

She states that her goal is to "set the stage for broader enforcement of these policies"...   What policies?  Regulation?  These are among the most tightly regulated organisms on the planet. 

HOUSER: It is the consumer's right to know what our food contains.

It is a consumer's obligation to learn, and a guest author's obligation to check facts.  The ingredients are on the side of the box or on the back of the can.  That is what your food contains.  The process it took to get there does not matter. Whether it comes from GM, conventional or organic, sucrose is sucrose, soybean oil is soybean oil.  

HOUSER: Since late 2013, China has rejected shipments of American corn. The reason: China doesn't endorse genetic modifications to food products.

FALSE.  China has been growing GM crops for over a decade.  80% of Brazil's GM soybeans, and significant corn supplies to go China (see Reuters article 2013).  25% of US GM corn goes to China.  To say that China "doesn't endorse genetic modifications to food products" shows her thin knowledge and/or intent to manipulate the reader.

China rejected some shipments that contained corn from the US, Brazil or Argentina when a line called Agrusure Viptera was detected.  This Syngenta product has genes against corn borer that have not yet been approved in China, and the application for approval has been in consideration since 2010.  They do not reject GM, just this one product that has not yet negotiated China's regulatory process. 

HOUSER: The Wall Street Journal recently reported rejection of GM foods by foreign nations has so far cost grain companies $427 million in sales. 

Probably true.  Is that a compelling statistic?  I'm guessing that the 275,000 farmers that use GM in the USA probably saved $427 million in fuel costs by using glyphosate instead of tilling to control weeds this month alone!  Remember, farmers use the technology because it saves them money and allows fewer inputs that cost money and end up in the environment. Lost sales? What a lame argument. It is a drop in the bucket compared to what the gains are in the field. 

HOUSER: Polls consistently show more than 90 percent of the public supports labeling in the United States, and now American companies are losing business to other nations that have outlawed GMO consumption.

There is no country that has "outlawed GMO consumption".  There are three countries (Peru, Kenya and Saudi Arabia) that I know ban growing them and importing products. Certainly not the EU or Japan, etc. Again, most of the GM shipped and used there is in the form of animal feed. Even places that label GM food (like Europe and China) accept imports no problem.  90% of the public wants labeling only means that the fear mongers like Ms. Houser have inspired their fears rather than educate them.   We know that is true, and the 90% comes from fear due to bad science and opinion pieces like this.  

HOUSER: It's just smart business sense for companies to give their customers what they want.

Then label food as non-GMO and those that fear science can go make their decisions.  Don't expect the taxpayer to finance a new bureaucracy because people don't understand science. 

HOUSER: I would say let us have some accountability in our food and have proper testing conducted of the food we are consuming, and the damage we are accountable for in the environment.

Wow.  I'd say let's have more personal accountability to actually research a topic before writing an opinion piece about it.  This just perpetuates the nonsense. 

Get this straight-- here's someone with limited knowledge of the subject that was compelled to craft a poorly-written and erroneous opinon from fear and ignorance.  It is the perfect set up for my associated article that says there is no debate, not two sides.

I welcome Florida PIRG and Ms. Houser to contact me at any time.  We can talk about the science, talk about the facts, and maybe they can focus on real issues in our state and on our planet.  PIRG claims a mission toward a 'more vibrant democracy'.  That starts with education, especially in science.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Vegetarian Conference Goes Looney

Seriously.  I've been following the announcement that Jeffrey Smith is appearing as the science expert at Veg Expo 2014 in Vancouver, BC.   I'm disappointed, but also blown away because I usually find the hardcore veg/vegans to be a more sophisticated bunch and generally in tune with science. Today I found out who else was part of this scientific extravaganza!

Jeepers Canada!  You're better than this and certainly yous vegans and vegetarians deserve better, eh?  This panel is taking on a subject it does not know much aboot.  You're about to get hosed!

Actually, veg/vegans-- you are being set up for manipulation.  Some local anti-GMO group (like Left Coast) is not sponsoring this to support your diet choices, they are using this to appeal to your dietary choices to infect you with anti-scientific nonsense.

How do GMOs affect Canadians?
Let's ask this esteemed group that know nothing about modern biotechnology. 

What a line up! 

1. Jeffrey Smith -  We'll someday soon look at his movies the same way we now look at "Reefer Madness".  It is baseless, alarmist propaganda, scientifically bankrupt and created to scare.  With the internet and science moving so rapidly we should be able to hold him accountable in the next decade. I feel bad for the guy, he's on the wrong side of science and will land squarely on the wrong side of history. 

2.  Rachel Parent -- As I've said before, I like Rachel for being an articulate young woman and standing up for what she believes.  However, a big part of her maturation into a strong and informed woman will be to learn to stand up for what she knows.   I hope she studies science and learns to think critically.  It is sad that she is being used to promote un-scientific nonsense.

3. Ian Walker -- The President of Hippie Foods and Left Coast Naturals has a strong anti-GMO record.  He is quoted on the Organic and Non-GMO Report as saying, “Our products are all about staying true to the way nature made them, GMOs stand for the opposite."  Clearly he's not a scholar in crop domestication or what "natural" really is.  Nature didn't make much that is in his product line.  Every single item was graced by human intervention in genetics. 

4. Thierry Vrain - A former scientist and leader of a Canadian biotech effort, he now speaks on the dangers of GM foods.  He has some cred from publishing good science in the 1980's. Today he's an island in the scientific community, and is one of the people that leads the rest of us to wonder what the heck happened to that guy... why did he bail out on his training and use of evidence to make a conclusion?  

5.  Samantha Shorkey-- Winning Vegan Fitness Competitor. An article of the top 10 foods for vegan athletes says, "Consuming GMOs (genetically modified organisms) can create health complications." Once again, a clear statement that another member of this expert Canuck-heavy panel has no idea what they are talking aboot. She looks like she has that fitness thing nailed down-- let's talk science sometime! 

6. The Vegan Project -- Seems like a nice idea built around a good site for veg/vegan, but they do have a few mentions of "the harmful effects of GMOs".

7. Adam Hart -- Not much about his expertise on GM issues, but certainly an author and snack-mix purveyor with something to gain by vilifying transgenic technology. 

8. Erin Cebula -- Entertainment reporter and producer.  No visible scientific training or public opinions easily found on the internet.

9.  Janna Webb -- Creator of Joga.  Sloppy typewriting and poor proofreading once left many wondering about the exciting new "Joga" Class at the local gym.   Actually, a little look at it and it sure seems better than yoga.  Again, not a big history on GMO science.

So there is their slate of presenters!  Seems like they all have a bone to pick or something to sell, but not a whole lot of hard science coming your way! 

That's too bad.  I think the veg/vegans do deserve better.  I applaud their efforts and choices, I'm just sad that they are destroying their scientific persuasion and credibility by sponsoring people that know nothing about science and farming, scare the hell out of them about science and farming. 

Bottom line vegetarians and vegans- you are being swindled. I'm betting it is anti-GMO groups behind this and nothing to do with veg/vegan at all.  I won't go into details because you are smart enough to figure this one out. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

VegExpo, Smith and Conference Credibility

Accidentally a Vegetarian

In March of 1994 I stood on the scale and it read 235 lbs.  I looked in the mirror after a shower and the Michellin Man was starring back at me. I was a grad student, worked 16 hour days, didn't eat right, no exercise, and lots of beer. Genetics were not on my side either, as everyone else in my family had weight problems and the issues that went with them.

It was time for a change.

I lumbered across the parking lot of my apartment complex in a slow jog that was physically taxing. I probably squeezed out 400 yards total, but I'll never forget that feeling.  Things had to change, and that first foray across the blacktop was a turning point.

The fact is that GMO technology could make plant products that fill gaps in the vegetarian/vegan diet, making it more attractive to those interested in the healthful benefits of a plant-based diet that are uncomfortable potential deficiencies. 

One of the other shifts was to an entirely plant-based diet. Meat cost too much, I had no money, and I thought if I could cut out processed food and meat, I could save a few bucks and maybe be healthier. How true it was. Within one year I was at 165 lbs and running 50 miles per week

Of course, that was neither healthy nor sustainable.  Eventually I'd end up between 190-200 lbs to this day, with some excursions upward that remind me to dial up the exercise or dial down the beer and junk food.

After losing the weight I never wanted to go back to an animal-based diet.  The food smelled greasy and unappealing.  It was a turn off to be eating muscle tissue.  I never was a militant vegetarian speaking out against meat, I never forced my decision on others.  I never asked for a special accommodations, and most people never knew I was not a meat eater.

I enjoyed an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet for 16 years.  In 2010 at the age of 43, I found myself suffering through recovery from competitive sports and workouts.  Fatigue, muscle soreness... the doctor suggested incorporating some fish or some meat to round out protein I was not getting from my normal diet.

It worked.  Long story short, my first meal off-the-wagon was a BBQ sliced pork. I got it down, and a few meals later was feeling well again, but enjoying meals less.

To this day I don't care for eating birds or beef.  Pork is okay, and ironically the more you disguise muscle, like grinding it into sausage, the more I like it. Probably 80% of my calories come from plants, 10% from dairy/eggs and 10% from meat.  Still, if I had one meal to pick it would be fresh vegetables from my garden or local farmstand in a big salad with dried cranberries and nuts. Hands down.

I get the vegetarian thing and wish we all did more of it.  That's why I was so happy to get the invitation from Vegan Chicago to come talk about GMO foods.  Here were some people concerned about science and diet, and realized they might have the "science" of GMO=bad wrong.  I have many vegan friends from this talk to this day that understand how GMO may actually help the issues around food, contributing toward more vegetarian/vegan choices.

Vegetarians Should Embrace Science, Not Fear Mongering

This is why I'm just shocked when I see Veg Expo 2014 and see they have a markedly anti-GMO agenda.  Worse yet, they invite Jeffrey Smith as a "world expert on GMO".  As I've discussed, if you want to see one movie that is based on fear and little science, watch "Genetic Roulette".  If you want to see a smear on science with no scientific base visit Smith's Institute for Responsible Technology.

Why would an important food movement with many outstanding facets to offer attach themselves to a non-scientific agenda inviting Smith as a "world expert on the health dangers of GMOs"?  

The general public still sees vegetarianism and veganism as crackpot fringe ideas with little scientific merit. Instead of inviting a scientist to talk about how technology can enhance veg/vegan options, now they can all get scared silly by silly Smith's non-science nonsense. It simply turns off the science minded in their cause, leaving on the malleable emotional folks that make any organization a drag.

They could invite an actual scientist that cares about vegan/vegetarian issues.  What if you could safely engineer plants to produce the nutrients missing in a veg/vegan diet?  What about plants that produced more vegan-needed amino acids (e.g. lysine, trypophan), vitamins (like B12) & trace elements (like iron)?  All of this can be done with metabolic engineering, it has been done!  What if plants could be developed from GM that were more amenable to processing in veg/vegan foods like garden/boca burgers, etc?  That's the tip of the iceberg!  Science can make your cause stronger, but instead you invite a non-scientific fear monger to address this conference.

The risk they run is alienating scientifically-minded individuals with similar health/food/ethics/environmental concerns. They trivialize a conference and lead people to question its scientific foundation. They also tie their commendable concept to a known activist hack that speaks from a place of fear and not science.

If it were me I'd move away from the fear-based nonsense of Smith and invite a forward-thinking scientist to speak instead.  Talk about he future of food, the future of vegetarianism and veganism and how GMOs might contribute to safely and effectively advancing these important ideals.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What Was the Real Message in Last Night's Cosmos?

It was Sunday night and I nestled into position.  The television flickered in a darkened room and the swelling music of the Cosmos remake primed me for another trip with Neil deGrasse Tyson flying in his hybrid toe nail clipper / kazoo.

The story was about Dr. Clair Patterson, the University of Chicago (later California Institute of Tech) scientist that sought to identify the age of the earth by measuring lead levels in a meteorite fragment.  Lead is the end product of radioactive uranium decay, so if you can detect and quantify lead in a sample from the beginning of the universe, you can estimate the age of the universe. 

The problem was that his readings were crazy because there was lead everywhere. Why?

Turns out, all of the experimental noise he was detecting came from residues of leaded gasoline. Exhaust and lead dust was prevalent everywhere before the preparation was banned in the 1970's. 

The story tells of Robert Kehoe, a scientist from the auto industry who championed elaborate studies designed to diffuse fears of lead being dangerous. He clearly was promoting a bogus agenda that insulated the auto and oil industries from culpability and kept profits flowing. And THIS is what Mother Jones grabs on to.  See, scientists are all corporate-owned weenies.  EOM. 

I hope Tyson is simply dressing for the clean room and  not (mildly humorous 1980's hair joke removed because it was clearly going to be purposely misrepresented by those trying to hang me on something).  That (period-specific hair style worn among some men, including African-Americans) died shortly after leaded gas! Ironically, Mother Jones points out the evils of corporate financial sponsorship, but then urges you to shop Best Buy on the same page.

Kehoe being a stooge for Big Oil was not the story here.  The real story was that Patterson used tools of science to identify the problem-- that lead was in the environment and that cars and humans were the cause. He warned of the problems, stood up to corporate goons and let his integrity and honesty shine.  He stood up for the truth, for science, and followed what the data said.  Period. 

That is the real message of Cosmos last night.  Science won, corporations lost, mostly because of the efforts of a scientist that saw the data, stood by it, and fought for the truth. 

I was a little disappointed with that interpretation by MJ-- then I see it was written by Chris Mooney, a guy that has his head screwed on right... 

My guess is that he was referring to the reality, that anti-climate change science is supported by those with an interest in fossil fuels.  Anti-biotech science is funded by Greenpeace and others that don't want this technology to reach those that need it.  I'm guessing that's how he intended the slant. 

Unfortunately, it will be interpreted by the masses as another key piece of evidence that deGrasse Tyson, one of our science heroes of our time, admits to corporate collusion and scientific misconduct defining the outcomes of scientific discovery.  

And of course, you know how this is going to end... 

Monday, April 14, 2014

GMO Labeling: I'll Agree When...

As a scientist, I cannot understand how anyone can think GMO labeling makes sense.  To be fair, I have identified a standard for when I'll accept GMO labeling. 

I'll fully support labeling when someone can answer the question at the end of this blog entry.

This is sucrose, table sugar.  From a conventional sugar beet.

This sucrose from an organically grown sugar beet.

This is sucrose from a glyphosate-resistant sugar beet.

You are at the store buying table sugar.  What is the difference?
Why are you afraid of the last one?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jenny I Got Your Number...

I have to admit, I've always been oddly intrigued with Jenny McCarthy.  She was very attractive yet an idiot, hot but raw, a booger-eating, cross-eyed, glamour model.  It was that curious mix of unsophisticated trash meets easy on the eyes...

She was from the South Side of Chicago and about my age, so it was no surprise that I made extra money in grad school tutoring her younger sister, an athlete at the place I found my Ph.D.  It only heightened my intrigue. I was getting genetically closer, an odd kind of inadvertent stalking.

Time would tell that she was a semi-talented writer and actress. More time would tell that she was an adamant anti-scientist, arguing against vaccination for children and eventually honing her argument the vaccine schedule. Her claims of toxic compounds in vaccines and their direct implications in autism didn't match the science, but her appeal to the mommy factor made her a household name.  She gained credibility in medical advice that eclipsed that of many "Big Pharma owned" pediatricians.

She's a complete paradox.  Beautiful, yet gross, clever, yet stupid.

Last night I was watching Tosh.0 and spit my Buzz Aldrin across the room.  Jenny McCarthy is on a commercial.  The champion of exposing children's exposure to 'toxins', is promoting e-cigarettes.  

Don't vaccinate kids because risks are just too high.
Nicotine's risks must be mild in comparison. 

The dusting of aluminum adjuvants and other trace bits of formaldehyde and viral coat proteins were the basis of Jenny's crusade for a decade.  She claimed, with no reservation, that vaccination caused her son's autism.  She later claimed to have cured it with diet and vitamins, the typical Hollywood cure all. 

One of her claims is that there are no long-term studies on vaccines.  I wonder how long those e-cigs have been carefully studied in controlled trails?

Her scientific acumen leaves a lot to be desired, but the true irony is that she now promotes use of a nicotine delivery device.  Nicotine is one of the most plant toxins. It causes horrible addiction and is linked to many health problems. 

Furthermore, e-cigs appeal to young smokers that want all of the buzz-n-cool-factor without the smell of smoke and a place to flick the ashes.  Today they are becoming a problem, as a product designed to help smokers quit now is becoming a new drug of choice.  Today, 40 percent of poison center calls are related to e-cigs. 

As per form, Jenny McCarthy engages an opportunity for self promotion and fails to realize the irony.  Here she promotes a non-necessary product with proven health effects-- while maintaining that the safe and necessary public health activity of vaccination is harming children. 

Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to?