Shades of Green Talk Wrapup

Evan 'N' Frank
Even Kane, my host in Chicago, was very hospitable!

On Sunday, I gave a talk for the Ethical Humanist Society in Skokie, IL, on the outskirts of Chicago. Back in November, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago asked me if I would be willing to talk about the benefits and risks of genetically engineered crops. The title of my presentation was Shades of Green, and I daresay it went well, especially considering that I have never given a talk of this kind before, and now I’m inspired to do more. I’m going to discuss a little of hat I talked about, what I thought worked, and what I thought needed to be improved.
First, I would like to thank the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago for this chance to speak at their first meeting of 2013. They are a community that provides a social environment for those who wish to live their lives in an ethical manner, and their members come from all walks of life. They covered my travel, and provided a little something for my troubles. And I was certainly made to feel welcome by my host, Evan Kane, who fed me some delicious barbecue on Saturday night, and took me in as his guest so I could rest up for the talk. He didn’t have to build a fire in his fireplace, but he did anyway! His friends Matt and Mariana engaged us some lively discussions of social definitions that I will never forget! Thank you.
I had barbecue the night before the talk. Delicious!

Now on to the talk. What was supposed to be about 30-35 minutes long ended up being almost 45, as there was so much to say. But I think there was a little something in there for everyone. I started by first talking briefly about myself and BFI, and then dove right into a crash course on the plant breeding continuum. Too often, genetic engineering is painted as a dichotomy between simply rubbing flowers together and jockeying genes around. I covered plant breeding, wide crosses, protoplast fusion, grafting, polyploids, mutagenesis, and genetic engineering. I asked them to think about how weird or familiar, natural or artificial each technique seems, and when I was done with the list, I quizzed them on it.
BFI! They all knew that genetic engineering was not allowed in organic agriculture, but what about the other techniques? I promised a fantastic prize to whoever could guess which were allowed in organic vs not allowed. I tried this once (sans prizes) at a presentation I gave for a bee club meeting, and it was an eye-opener for everyone. On Sunday, no one got exactly the right answer. When the guesses started being “the even-numbered ones” I realized it was time to reveal the answers, and hand out two homemade beeswax hand salves to the two people who were the closest to being right. If the organic rules are so intuitive, why would it be so hard to guess this pattern? Because there is no rational pattern to it – it is a historical and political accident.
Now it was time to talk about benefits and risks, and I listed some of the kinds of traits that are being grown on farms  and some traits to look out for in the future. Here, perhaps, if I had more time, I could have used a slide or two as “case studies” for the risks and benefits of each crop and trait. I mentioned the upsides and downsides to herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, but it might have been better another way. But this way they also got to see what else there is besides Roundup Ready Soy and Bt Corn. I ended this section talking about health concerns.
Next came Jeffrey Smith. It is difficult to condense all the different things that he talks about into a slide or two. One could spend an entire presentation on it. So then I decided, why not simply list all the health claims he makes about genetically engineered crops that I could find on his site on only 15 minutes? I took a deep breath, and read them out loud. When I was only halfway through the list, at liver disease, small body size and obesity, laughter came out. It kept coming until I finished with infertility and increased twin births! Clearly either genetically engineered crops are the worst possible thing imaginable, or Smith is throwing things up against the wall looking to see what sticks.
Next, I showed the graph that Smith brought to the Dr. Oz show to demonstrate that GE crops may have contributed to a rise in inflammatory bowel disease, and asked my audience what they thought about it. “It was already going up before GE crops” is what I heard (a very astute audience), and to drive the point home, I showed them the organic food sales vs autism graph that has been floating around the internet. I could hardly read the title. It had been somewhat of a mystery where this graph came from, so before my talk I tracked it to a denizen of BoingBoing who was apparently playing around with a graphing program and “accidentally” made a startling discovery. Since they included references to the data sources, I looked it up. The data is real – and I daresay few in that room will look at correlations the same way again.
Are Autism and Organic food sales linked? The data is real, the statistics are real, and the fallacy is real. From its creator: “I was practicing GraphPad and I think I may have discovered the ‘real’ cause of autism…”

We know from social science that even if you debunk claims, people may come away from it remembering the debunked claim – and may even think it was true. So I talked about the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences as well as the decade of EU-funded research report. Next, I talked about our GENERA project, and just how vast the research literature is. I closed this section by discussing how some knowledgeable scientists may go too far in their claims about the benefits or certainties of GE crops. Now it was time for Vandana Shiva.
I introduced Shiva, and gave three of her most prominent claims:

  • Says that GE crops are sterile due to “Terminator Genes”
  • Believes Bt Cotton causes farmer suicides in India
  • Believes GE ‘violates’ the integrity of life

I then quoted her book Stolen Harvest:

The “gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans.”

When I explained how seed sterility can’t spread through seeds, it was clear to the audience that this claim, like some of Smith’s, was quite laughable. Following this, I talked about the issue of farmer suicides, and the many factors that may contribute to it. But, as I said, published research has shown that Bt cotton has raised average farmer incomes, as well as reduced time spent in the field. Some pictures of Bt cotton later, and a discussion of the recent bovine-snake genome discovery, and the other claims were addressed. I talked about the complexities and ethical issues of cross-pollination, and shared Shiva’s recent revelation on that topic.
Here I would like to pause and reflect on this section, because I think it needed the most improvement. One audience member approached me after the talk and said that he was bothered by me making a joke out of farmer suicides. He was very polite about it, but I said that wasn’t what I did nor intended, and others standing around backed me up. However, there were funny things both before and after what is a serious issue, so I can see where the misunderstanding came from. I think if I were to do this talk again I would make it two slides, one for the laughs, and the other for what is not a laughing matter. It would also give me more space to talk about the complexity of that issue.

Mingling and answering questions

Finally, as my hosts were interested in the ethical dimensions of this issue, I talked about Golden Rice. I explained how it worked, that it worked, but that it is not yet available for farmers. I presented the precautionary argument, and the ethical dilemma of saving X number of people while potentially risking others. A real life Trolley Problem. Finally I closed with the role of science, and where values come in.
Pythagorean Crank & Herpotenuse
Pythagorean Crank & Herpotenuse

In all, I think people enjoyed it. One woman came up to me after the talk, and said that she was totally against GE crops but that now she was confused. Confusion is a good thing if it leads to reading and learning more, I said. In contrast to some of the kinds of discussions we get into online, people who disagreed did so with great civility, and everyone learned something from each other. I had some questions about Monsanto (I accidentally mentioned that they made NutraSweet when as one person pointed out it was saccharin), the safety of mutagenesis, and the difference in perception between biotech in medicine and in food. One question asked about permaculture, and one whether more food will just mean even more people. I had a good story about George McGovern that showed the opposite.
Afterward, I got to meet one of our readers, Dave D, who may have been more excited to be there than I was. He wanted to know how I got Jeffrey Smith to pose with Frank N. Foode, and it led to another tale I haven’t told on the blog about Smith, myself, some classes he has given online, delving into the source of just one of his claims, and the tricks of his trade he wanted want to keep secret. If you want to hear the tale, you might need to invite me to speak for your organization! (At least until I figure out the best way to tell this story.)
Marquee 1 Some discussions about labeling, honeybees, and non-gmo soy milk later, I was done and it was time to go catch a train back to Madison. The last question I got was “Can you give me five words about Monsanto?” I responded, “Good Science, Bad PR, Lawyers.”
Evan brought me back to the train station, but before that, I got to see something for the first time ever – my name on a marquee! Way cool. I think whether someone agreed or disagreed with a little, some, or all of my talk, it was an enjoyable experience all around. I hope that a few minds were opened up, and that some new ideas will spring forth and give diversity to what is an important discussion. It is too important for it to become clouded by multitudes of anecdotal claims, bad scientific arguments, and overzealous promotion. I hope I will have the chance to do this again.
(See the rest of the photo album here!)


  1. Gosh, I wish I could see this talk. And it would be great to sort of franchise it, so that we could all go to our local skeptics-in-the-pub, library salon, humanists, DIY bio folks, whatever meetings with these slides and a rough script. It sounds like it was engaging and effective.

  2. Great talk Karl, thanks for coming out.
    1) Many of the negative assessments I heard about the talk had to do with the inappropriate laughter. My girlfriend and I talked about it on the way home and we concluded the same thing as you. Some people were laughing at the funny bit while others were probably reading the serious bit on the one slide. I think you’re right, the timing needs to be controlled better with separate slides.
    2) When Dr. Folta talked on GMO for our vegan group in 2010 there were similar reactions. Few if any left jazzed or totally won over and such, I think, is science. What fun is a talk with qualifiers and shades of gray? The same wouldn’t be true for anti-GM talks/events tell you whut.
    3) Also, an EHS member approached us afterwards while we were waiting to talk to you and she basically wanted to know if you were anti or pro GMO. I asked if she heard the talk and she said yes. So I guess that’s a good thing?! 🙂 When we tried to explain you were “pro” she said “We should not have had him talk here!”. *sigh* Like the loud-mouthed guy who (also heckled Folta at our talked) was getting at: ‘Are you pro or anti Monsanto?!’. I think we also had members show up at our event assuming the talk would be “anti-GMO”. I must admit I exploit that assumption when I promote the GMO podcast as Vegan Chicago. 😉
    4) Other objections I heard in the lobby had to do with labeling, which I don’t think you covered. The “why don’t they want us to know” was parroted. The guy who had GMO handouts basically quickly ran off copies of this article on the Seralini rat study. He seemed VERY nervous, I dunno what his deal was. I let him be.
    Anywho, thanks again, it was a pleasure meeting you and Frank. I somehow didn’t know you were located so close to Chicago!
    Fight on,
    ps- I didn’t answer the quiz, didn’t wanna spoil the punchline. 🙂

  3. I also wish I could have been there, sounds like a great talk.
    Are the slides available? and what was the answer to the quiz? and what was the story about George McGovern? Shame the talk was not recorded or was it?
    I am planning to do a talk to my class on plant breeding methods on Monday but have heard through the grapevine there may a a rebellion brewing- I may be prevented from giving the talk by some of the activist students!

  4. Thanks, although I am by no means an expert in public speaking! Not yet, at least. But perhaps there is some way I can help interested scientists and geeks put together interesting talks about this topic!

  5. There was someone passing out handouts? I wish I had known – especially beforehand because then I could have addressed it in the talk.
    Ah, if that one guy with the Monsanto “nepotism” question was doing the same thing at the Vegan Chicago then that would explain why my answer didn’t satisfy him, as well as why he didn’t come up to me after the talk. I gave him some opinions, so that was what I thought, but his question was broad and I think you are right that it was more of a statement.
    I was thinking about how to add the labeling issue to the talk, but I knew I was already pushing it and hoped that it would come up in the Q/A – surprisingly it didn’t! But one guy afterward was trying to pin me down on the labeling issue as well as several other issues tangential to the topic, but I think my answers that the issues aren’t as simple as politics makes them out to be may have been befuddling. 🙂

  6. Oh I dunno if you heard the announcements after but one guy had fliers for events related to the anniversary of Roe vs Wade and then after that quickly mentioned he had contrary information related to the talk. Derp.
    In 30 or even 45 minutes it’s hard to cover all that ground. It’s good to get that contextual foundation info in though. Hopefully with that in their minds they can discover on their own that it’s “a bit more complicated” than they previously thought. 🙂

  7. Ah, I missed that part of the announcements. Must have tuned out figuring it was all organization business.
    You are right, hopefully they have some of the tools to evaluate claims for themselves, that was my main goal!

  8. God, that autism vs. organic food sales is a great graph ! With a correlation factor of .9971 no less ! I wish i was there. Maybe you can take the talk on the road.

  9. You are a great speaker – you always sound so confident! I had considered writing a post about my experience at the Wheat Growers meeting (which was great, of course) but I know my voice was super shaky at the beginning. I got much better, quickly, but was frustrated that I didn’t start out strong. Lessons in communicating the complex issues of GMOs from you would be super useful.

  10. Thanks! My trick was to do radio for 4 years. You have to see how timid and shy I was growing up to realize that being complimented on my speaking means a lot. And I am still learning… but I would always love to help others out.

  11. That sounds like a very nice presentation and time well spent. It is obviously very frustrating to go round and round with the same arguments and trying to counter mis-information.
    Here’s something I found very interesting and potentially helpful about getting buy-in from an audience that may be suspicious of your motives. Do you have a ready answer for the question: “Do you believe there are any reasons to be nervous about GE technology and how it is currently being used?”
    I heard a talk at my local university and that was the last question asked. The response was very good I thought. The presenter kept it simple and basically said, “First, don’t be afraid of any personal adverse health impacts from what is now in use. These are all safe to eat foods. However, I don’t like the concentration of power among a handful of seed companies and it is possible that this technology is fostering even further consolidation in the seed industry.”
    The other critique to think about is a more general one that applies to a wide range of technologies, including the invention of agriculture itself, i.e., the progress trap. The precautionary principle gets bashed a lot here, but as far as I can tell every advanced civilization in history has run into a progress trap at some point and then collapsed. It is difficult to avoid them because if your society doesn’t maximize its use of power it will likely be over-run by a society that does.

  12. Thanks! I mentioned a little about the issue of concentration of power, although it wasn’t phrased in the form of a personal opinion. I think it is a real issue, as with any technology, and unfortunately the discussion becomes “GE = monopoly, therefore GE must be stopped” rather than “how do we get the most societal benefits from GE while maintaining the incentive to develop GE?” One thing I did mention which got a couple nods was that some are trying to raise the regulatory costs so high that only Monsanto can afford to pay for them – essentially shutting others out of the market.
    The progress issue is interesting in many ways, because for one thing the definition of progress is often subjective. But when it comes to the development of technology there is something to be said for increasing efficiency, or providing new services and products that didn’t exist before, which has the negative consequence of economic harm to those who keep using older technologies. I used to hear my parents complain and complain about computer and phone technology putting some companies out of business because of the constant advancements in that area. But they now outshine me in terms of tech gadgets and computer technology, and wouldn’t go back to what they had before.
    Whenever I go to biotech-related conferences, there are usually always representatives from state governments who are trying to woo biotech companies to come to their state with their businesses. I have an excellent portfolio binder but has a South Dakota ad on the front of it as one such souvenir. The draw of economic prosperity is certainly a strong one, as economies try to outcompete each other. Probably the modern equivalent of the more ancient progress traps. Right now I think Europe is getting a little worried about what economic costs there will be from non-adoption of GE, in fact they readily acknowledge that they cannot produce enough food domestically and must import it from elsewhere.

  13. It is. In one fell swoop it debunks every other crappy “correlation” graph out there, and does so with humor and a poignant lesson for those who promote those graphs in the debate on food, or autism. That’s why I checked the data used as a basis for this graph before I presented it. The data is real, and the correlation is real.

  14. Here’s another graph, on numbered page 27:
    It depicts the number of India’s farmers suicides vs the introduction and use of Bt cotton through 2006. Though it’s a bit old now, it does seem to refute anti-gmo claims that Bt cotton is in some way responsible for the suicides. And, speaking of correlations, it looks to the eye that there may actually be a negative correlation between the suicide rate and the cultivation of Bt cotton in India.

  15. Yes, those are important graphs, thanks for digging them up. If I were to do the talk again, and split the Vandana Shiva slide into two slides, this would be on the second slide. There is a danger, of course, in concluding that the GE cotton has reduced farmer suicides from this graph, because it can always be other variables. But what it does show is that there is no positive correlation between farmer suicide rates and GE cotton cultivation in India whatsoever. Indeed, if anything it would somewhat suggest the opposite.

  16. Yes those graphs are great- I was putting them together in a presentation to show my students in response to their claims (no evidence supplied!) that Monsanto is causing thousands of farmer suicides;
    came across this report which is supporting that claim: and references the IFPRI paper.
    It is interesting that in the appendix they only show the graph from Andhra Pradesh, the one state where farmer suicides seem to have increased somewhat after the introduction of GE cotton (though of course there was also an increase in the late 1990s, before the introduction of Bt cotton) and of course ignore the overall conclusions of the report.

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