The day I unwittingly became a pro-science activist

Written by Jeff Fountain

fun facts
What kinds of Fun ‘Facts’ Fester in yonder tent? Credit: Jeff Fountain

Early this September I attended the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa.  It’s an event that’s centered around the pure food movement, heirloom vegetables, and anti-GMO activism.  The speakers included Joseph Mercola, Jeffrey Smith, Andrew Kimbrell, and my personal favorite pseudoscientist, Vani Hari, a.k.a. the Food Babe.  For those unfamiliar with Food Babe, she is an anti-GMO, pro-organic public figure who attacks food and agricultural companies for what are essentially harmless practices.  The reason I mention her is because she inspired me to start my own Facebook parody page called Food Hunk, which is what sort of drove my foray into ‘activism’.  Food Hunk is to Food Babe, what Stephen Colbert is to Bill O’Reilly.  I joined a community of other wonderful Food Babe critics such as Chow Babe and Science Babe, with my page being a bit of a broader commentary on fallacious ways of thinking, such as the all-too-common naturalistic fallacy.
I’ve been interested in science all of my life, but only in the last few years have I become more involved with skepticism and the idea that you don’t need to be a scientist to think like a scientist.  As usually proliferated on social media, a constant barrage of anti-GMO fear mongering flooded my Facebook feed on a daily basis. I started trying to counter these claims with sound science.  Because many of those spreading erroneous info were good friends, I felt compelled to actually know what I was talking about and inform them, instead of simply calling them out their ignorance.  I became active in various online forums devoted to exploring the issue of genetic engineering, and found myself learning from some of the best science communicators on the topic.  Upon realizing that I couldn’t learn enough, I decided to go back to school and learn about biotechnology.  I’d recently left my fifteen-year career working in the wine industry and was exploring my passion for science.  My wife found a certificate program at CCSF called Bridge to Biosciences where I am enrolled today.  I am nowhere near as educated as many of the people I correspond with about science, but I’m always trying to learn and never pretend to wield knowledge I don’t have.  In my opinion, this is one of the most important components of skepticism.  If more people only stopped pretending to know what they do not know, we wouldn’t see the blatant misinformation that so predominantly surrounds the topic of GMOs.
Recently I was in a GMO enthusiast forum, when I noticed a post from Karl at Biology Fortified.  He mentioned the Heirloom Expo and was asking if anyone from the Bay Area was going to attend.  Santa Rosa is only about an hour from where I live, and so after realizing I didn’t really have anything planned for the day I thought, “How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to introduce Food Hunk to Food Babe?”  I put on my ‘I love GMOs’ t-shirt, (carefully concealed under my sweatshirt) and hit the road to Santa Rosa.
MAM
Zen Honeycutt at the Moms Across America booth. Credit: Jeff Fountain

My modest intention was to snap a few pictures and possibly end up with a nice photo of the Hunk and the Babe for my Facebook page.  At this point I was still sporting a hoodie over my pro-science t-shirt.  I had an ongoing line of communication with my pro-GMO internet collaborators, joking that I felt like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or a democrat at a Tea Party rally.  I truly began to feel alone, particularly as I walked past the booths of anti-biotechnology organizations like GMO Inside and Moms Across America.  They were handing out flyers damning GMOs as if they were trying to rid the world of malaria, and here I was secretly concealing my ‘I Love Malaria’ t-shirt.  Thankfully I felt like I had all 7000 member of the Facebook group (GMOLOL) cheering me on and offering suggestions for questions to ask the speakers.  My initial intention of possibly snapping a few photos to use as gags, started to turn into a feeling of not wanting to let my compadres down. I decided to try and pose some questions to Vani Hari.
I sat down near the front of the stage so I could easily pose a question if given the chance.  I had my question planned out.  The Food Babe’s most recent scare-campaign was directed at Starbucks Coffee for their Pumpkin Spice Latte.  In her ‘investigation’ she cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer as having grouped one of the chemicals found in caramel color (used in the beverage) as a ‘possible carcinogen’.  What she fails to mention is that the IARC also groups coffee itself as a possible carcinogen (group 2B), along with pickled vegetables and the cell phone in your pocket.  In fact the highest level they categorize (group 1, two levels above 2B) includes outdoor air pollution and alcoholic beverages.  If we are to use Food Babe’s judgment of what is ‘harmful’, we would be at a much higher risk by enjoying a nice glass of wine in the outdoor seating of a quaint little bistro in LA.  My question would be simple: “According to the IARC, what poses a higher risk of carcinogenic exposure, caramel color or the coffee itself?”  I never got a chance to ask her that question.
fudbabe
Vani Hari, aka the “Food Babe” spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). Credit: Jeff Fountain

What I’m going to recount next may resemble conspiracy, but I’m almost certain that Food Babe knew exactly who I was when she entered the auditorium.  Before going on stage, she stared right at me (I was only about 15 feet away), and summoned her handlers and event coordinator. They all whispered covertly for half a minute while occasionally glancing over at me.  For a moment I thought I might be asked to leave.  Keep in mind that I am still wearing my sweatshirt over my GMO shirt, and at this point I hadn’t spoken to anyone at the event about my intentions of being there.  But I had been all over Facebook posting about it in public groups.  I also know that she, or more likely someone that works for her, ironically pre-banned members of a Facebook group called Banned by the Food Babe.  You see, she has a reputation for immediately silencing anyone who dares ask actual science questions on her page, and so a group was created for people to discuss their bannings.  Many members were surprised to find out that they had been preemptively silenced just by joining this public group.  Thus, it makes logical sense to conclude that she must also know about the various Food Babe parody pages, and my face is plastered all over mine.  In fact, after hearing her speak and noticing just how concerned she was about herself and her image, I’ve concluded that there is no way that she could NOT know about a semi-popular Facebook page that is making fun of her.  My suspicions were further confirmed when I later saw her walking alone through another area of the expo.  She spotted me and quickly looked away.  She then met up with her handlers and they pulled the ‘don’t look now, but that’s the guy’ routine, which of course means all four of them simultaneously turned around and checked me out as they scampered away.  At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I only wanted to ask her a question.
Vani’s talk conveniently ran long and she decided not to field questions.  She stuck around to take some photos with fans, and when I tried to join the party, she avoided me like the plague.  I decided that since there would be no ‘Food Hunk meets Food Babe’ photo op, there was no more need to hide my true identity.  The sweatshirt was coming off.
Strangely, the very first interaction I had with anyone while wearing my pro-GMO shirt was with the infamous Jeffrey Smith himself.  For those unaware of Jeffrey Smith, he is an anti-GMO, pseudo-science promoting author, documentarian, and former politician for the obscure Natural Law party.  He was walking alone when I asked if I could take a picture with him.  He said, “Absolutely not. Not with an ‘I Love GMOs t-shirt’” I responded “Why, don’t you love insulin?” He kind of snickered so I asked one more time, “Please, just one picture?” He refused and walked away.
It was fascinating wearing my ‘I love GMOs’ t-shirt to the event.  I was receiving looks of real, visceral anger.  I even experienced some schoolyard bullying type of behavior, with people purposefully refusing to move as I walked by, or sticking out their elbows hoping to get a jab.  I remained respectful, never antagonizing anyone, even when people remarked about my shirt or my questions to the panel in disgust.  The best way I can describe it is this: through their lens, they were like a convention full of astrophysicists, and I was a moon landing denier.  They just couldn’t fathom how uninformed I was.  Yet when they questioned me, they were surprised at my tangible knowledge and desire for respectful conversation.  This wasn’t what they were expecting; they were either hoping to teach me something, or to be rude or hostile.  Still, I hesitate to keep referring to ‘them’ as if they are the enemy.  The people at this expo were mostly just good, well-intentioned people who want to do what’s right.  The problem is they don’t realize how full of crap the Jeffrey Smiths and the Vani Haris of this world are.  If everyone realized it, there wouldn’t be any Jeffrey Smiths.
food is medicine
It wasn’t all anti-GMO posturing at the expo, there were also some heirloom crops. Credit: Jeff Fountain

The Q & As with Andrew Kimbrell (another well-known GMO oppose) and Jeffrey Smith had me the most wary.  I have a decent understanding of the science behind genetic modification, but nobody can obfuscate and use ‘sciencey’ sounding double-talk like these guys.  Finally, opportunity struck and I asked if Andrew thought there was any inherent danger to GM technology, and whether there could be ‘good’ or useful applications for genetic modification through gene transfer.  I continued by citing examples of recent advancements in disease treatment. (Gaucher’s disease, Ebola, etc.)  To paraphrase, he responded by discussing the difference between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.  My guess is that he knew this jargon would only serve to confuse and simultaneously impress the majority of the audience.  He then completely twisted and botched the science into concluding with “No. There are no good uses because it doesn’t work” even though I just given him perfect examples of beneficial applications.  As Karl later explained to me, he has latched onto the canard that “genetic engineering is based on obsolete science” and he brings up the 1-gene-1-protein hypothesis and that genetics has disproven that.  He twists this to mean that GMOs don’t work.  However, the fact that some genes can code for different proteins does not in any way imply that transgenes don’t work – or even that they code for multiple proteins.  Nevertheless, Mr. Kimbrell can get away scot-free giving people a meaningless phrase like “GM does not work.”  Forget about the fact that he just spent half an hour trying to frighten a gymnasium full of people about the dangers of herbicide resistance, and Bt expressing corn – both traits introduced by GM technology that clearly “works.” Unfortunately, the majority of the audience doesn’t see the contradiction in these statements.
For the next speaker, Jeffrey Smith, I didn’t have questions prepared.  I just wanted to listen and pose whatever questions came up.  Eventually, he ended up living up to his M.O. by trying to scare people with debunked claims of GMO causing “leaky gut,” and links to autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes.  I asked him if that were the case, why do we see the same rates of these diseases and conditions in the European Union? He at first stammered about the EU still using glyphosate, but he had just said that it was the Bt corn causing the leaky gut, not the glyphosate resistance.  So I followed up by asking if it was because of pesticides, and not because of any inherent defect or danger in GMOs?  He started citing the debunked Seralini study, directing his attention towards an audience that probably didn’t know any better.  And then to my disbelief he said something to the effect of, “We know that correlation does not imply causation, but with what we know about Monsanto, and the government, and the industry-funded studies, and the USDA,… that’s when you get the causation.”
I said out loud to myself, and probably audible to a few people seated around me, “No, that’s when you get a conspiracy.”
After the Smith talk, I was standing outside the auditorium and reporting back to my siblings-in-arms on my smart phone.  An older white-haired farmer-type gentleman (a guess for sure – I don’t know what he did for a living) followed me out of the building and wanted to talk. He carefully whispered while looking over his shoulder, “I tell ya, you got a lot of balls wearing that shirt here with these people, but I think you’re right.  I listen to these guys, and the science is just not there.”  We talked for a few minutes and it was one of my favorite moments of the event.
expo collage
Lots going on at the expo. Credit: Jeff Fountain

I soon learned that a documentary film crew was at the expo, and after talking with one of them, I learned that they were interested in the questions that I posed to the speakers, and wanted to ask me more in an interview! Food Hunk in a film? Of course!
I don’t know how much of this, or if any of it is ever going to see the light of day in the documentary that was being filmed.  I know they can film countless hours of footage and most of it hits the cutting room floor.  I found out later that the director was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago. He took a few minutes to interview me on camera about what I was doing there, and I got to tell him about my page.  Again, I seriously doubt that any of it will be used in the film, but I’ll forever be able to tell my friends that I was interviewed by an Oscar nominated filmmaker about ‘Food Hunk’.  I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.
Overall I’m happy with how things went in my first small attempt at pro-science activism.  But can we really call the act of simply asking questions ‘activism’?
I do know one thing: If this event comes back around next year and it’s hosting the same brand of anti-science speakers, I’m going to be there again.  Only this time I’m going to be more prepared, and I’m bringing friends.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Kavin Senapathy for providing editorial input for this post.

Written by Guest Expert

Jeff Fountain left his career in the California wine industry to study biotechnology full-time as a student at CCSF’s Bridge to Biosciences internship program. His love of science is only matched by his dislike of pseudoscience, which led him to create Food Hunk, a popular Facebook page that parodies the anti-GMO ‘pure food’ movement.

Guest Expert

Written by Guest Expert

The strength of the discussions on Biofortified depend on the diversity of expertise, perspectives, and backgrounds of our contributors and guest experts.

101 comments

  1. Good for you. Next time you don’t need the t-shirt. No need to be in your face about things. Just the questions, skepticism and civil conversation would be enough. And obviously there are others in the audience who may appreciate it 🙂 If Idaho were closer to California, I’d join you! Besides, I would love to see some actual stuff on heirlooms. That is, if they actually did talk about them at some point 😛

  2. Wow Mercola *and* Food Babe. Sounds like a real fount of reliable information. :eyeroll:
    It’s too bad too because I do really like a lot of heirloom fruits and veggies and would gladly attend an event for that alone.

  3. Oh that sounds fun! I’m an organic chemist, can you take me with you? I love to throw down some polite science at folks.

  4. So…let me get this straight. You went with the deliberate intention of trolling the hosts of the conference and are shocked when you got a negative reaction to your behavior?

  5. Nicely done Jeff. I’m glad you went and added some sanity to that event. I was originally going to go, but didn’t. Glad I didn’t. It sounds awful.

  6. T-shirt aside, you have a lot of guts just going and asking tough questions. Thankfully we have people like you willing to shoulder the hostility in the name of science communication. Thanks for that.

  7. Thank you for the kind words. I understand what you mean with the shirt. Initially my intention was to maybe get a few photos I could use for a little comedy on my page. I never would have worn it if I knew I was going to be ‘putting myself on stage’ as it were. There were some fantastic varieties of produce on display and I was able to sample a few, unfortunately none of the speakers were there to talk about such things. My brother who lives just a block away from where the event was held, told me he had a conversation with another farmer who said. “I used to like going to these type of events and actually talking about the food, but now they’ve let the wackos take over.”

  8. Nice report!
    The sad thing about Vani Hari is that there’s plenty of fodder for a watchdog type activist with food products on the market regarding bad marketing and bad science without any need to resort to lying, scaremongering and bad science.

  9. “The people at this expo were mostly just good, well-intentioned people who want to do what’s right. The problem is they don’t realize how full of crap the Jeffrey Smiths and the Vani Haris of this world are. If everyone realized it, there wouldn’t be any Jeffrey Smiths.”
    Oh, I think that you’re giving these people too much credit!
    Personally, I wouldn’t describe people who scare others with misinformation nor people failing to discover the truth for themselves as “good, well-intentioned people”
    Good report, though.

      1. Well, what is your impression of the attendants when you talked to them? My experience is that most people would dig in and double down because they would otherwise have to admit to themselves that they allowed themselves to get mislead. It’s embarrassing.

  10. Funny thing is that I used to be like the people at that convention: totally into organic farming and vegetarian, but that changed when I went back to college and studied biology with the intention of becoming a chiropractor.
    Hormones and physiology are much more fascinating.

  11. “for what are essentially harmless practices.” – You talk about being pro-science, but, the science really isn’t there YET to indicate that GMO is safe. The absence of an obvious/discovered negative does not prove it’s positive, all it means is that we haven’t found the negative yet. Any legit scientist knows this. How do we know that all these so-called “pro science” types aren’t the modern day equivalent of the doctors that used to say that cigarettes are good for us? We don’t know this, not yet.

    1. “..the science really isn’t there YET to indicate that GMO is safe. The absence of an obvious/discovered negative does not prove it’s positive, all it means is that we haven’t found the negative yet.”
      What could you NOT say that about, Alejandro? What have you eaten this week that has been safety tested more than the current GM crops on the market? How about this month? What have you eaten in your life that has been tested more?
      The ‘science said cigarettes were safe’ argument is one that I hear often. This argument assumes that at one time there was a consensus among scientists and scientific organizations that cigarette smoking was harmless. This is simply not the case. Of course this didn’t stop tobacco companies from putting pictures of doctors puffing on lucky strikes in their ads, but that in no way means that there were mountains of peer reviewed studies that were either faulty or fraudulent. In fact once the studies on tobacco started amassing and being looked at as a whole, we see scientific consensus actually working to inform the public and affect change. So the cigarette comparison is actually a good example of the science showing us what is real, DESPITE the wants of big business or even the wants of the consumer.

      1. “The ‘science said cigarettes were safe’ argument is one that I hear often. This argument assumes that at one time there was a consensus among scientists and scientific organizations that cigarette smoking was harmless. This is simply not the case.”
        Thank you for that. That scientists/government at one time endorsed DDT, smoking, agent orange, transfats (insert your poison of choice) as safe and we now know how wrong they were is a tired and intellectually lazy argument. I agree, and I would be fine being corrected if someone were able to provide contradictory information, but I don’t believe that at one time, there was some scientific / government effort that studied physiological consequences of cigarette consumption, that there was at some point in the past widespread acceptance among scientists and health officials that smoking was risk free, and the public was told “Cigarettes are perfectly safe. Smoke away citizens!”
        I agree with you, our current understanding of the risks of cigarettes evolved quite differently than what is implied in that argument and is a poor parallel to public perceptions of risks with ge technology. Tobacco in many different modes of use has always been a cultural indulgence among segments of the population that before the 1950’s or so, few health or regulatory scientists paid attention to. Long before cigarettes arrived on the scene, people smoked pipes, cigars, rolled their own cigarettes, etc.. Commercially made cigarettes merely increased the convenience and lowered the cost of smoking, and made indulging in tobacco a more socially compatible, accessible, and appealing personal and collective indulgence, particularly expanding smoking among women and younger people. It wasn’t that no one smoked and then there was some scientific study showing smoking to be safe and then everybody started smoking. There never was a scientific consensus that has since changed. It is probably more accurate to state that over time, there was a growing suspicion among the health and scientific community and eventually the general public that the social phenomena of changing smoking habits ( more of the population indulging and at higher rates) might be a factor in a rise in rates of lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Public and private research began to be devoted to studying the question of whether there was a connection, including publicly funded research, and over time, a scientific consensus emerged that our smoking habits were indeed increasing the risk of acquiring certain fatal problems. Yes, tobacco companies did coopt a handful of researchers and used doctors in their advertisements in an attempt to counter growing public concern in response to the emerging scientific consensus, but it would be quite a rewriting of history to say that was the scientific consensus.
        In contrast, commercial availability of genetic engineering as a means of crop improvement arrived after years of effort to harness this methodology, which built upon a lot of pioneering work to understand how the genetic system worked and to understand if even the limited genetic changes through directly editing DNA affected the plant or organism. For each new event, we engage, for commercial and regulatory reasons, in assessing whether there has been any adverse change in nutritional composition of the wheat, corn, etc and in agronomic and other important characteristics of the plant. And while there are certainly legitimate questions to ask about whether the process of genetic engineering might cause harmful changes in plants or food derived from them, the weight of the evidence, including publicly funded independent research in countries such as in Europe whose public has been slower to embrace the use of the technology, have built a growing consensus that there is no inherent or novel risk to food safety or security. In this case, the Seralinis, Carmens, etc. have been the outliers and in my view, have not provided compelling evidence to the contrary.

      2. Jeff, there’s a difference between eating GMOs and smoking cigarettes. We knew who was smoking and how much. We could correlate health effects to cause. There’s absolutely no way we can do that with any particular GMO. All cigarettes were basically the same. All GMOs are different. Some people smoke, some people don’t. Everybody eats.
        Also, there is a difference between engineering pharmaceuticals and engineering crops – and one thing that contributes to that difference is the difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Also, the environment is significant with regard to control. And of course, the target. It’s possible for a person to support medical applications of GE, some agricultural applications, or none at all. It’s not the case that a person should love one kind of GMO because they love another kind – even if they don’t even know why they hate one or love another. (in other words, you’re not advancing the science by asking someone who says they hate GMOs if they also hate insulin)

        1. “All GMOs are different.”
          “..you’re not advancing the science by asking someone who says they hate GMOs if they also hate insulin”
          It’s not advancing the science to say that you hate GMOs, period. You are trying to defend someone who has said publicly, time and time again that there are NO useful applications for GM technology. Is this a person who is ever going to stand on a stage in front of hundreds of unsure people and say, “Genetic modification has proven to be very beneficial for ______, yet I find it troubling when used for_______”? The answer is no. His job is to scare people into doing exactly what you are trying to accuse me of doing: grouping GMOs into one thing. Only in his case he wants to group them into one EVIL thing.
          I’m not sure exactly what you are trying to say with the smoking comparison. On the one hand you’re saying that there is no way we can correlate health effects to the consumption of genetically modified foods, yet on the other hand you are suggesting to Keith that there may be chronic illnesses associated. Why?
          “..there is a difference between engineering pharmaceuticals and engineering crops – and one thing that contributes to that difference is the difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes.”
          I understand there are differences between the two, and I have a pretty good understanding of what those differences are. I will let the experts handle the very specific science behind what goes in to modifying one over the other, but I am absolutely willing to listen to your theory as to WHY there should be an added inherent risk associated with the consumption of GM foods as opposed to their conventionally bred counterparts. The comparison with the medical applications had a lot to do with showing that the techniques ‘work’. (something that the speakers mentioned can’t even muster up enough honesty to admit)
          Of course there can be associated risk with engineering a plant, you could unwittingly engineer it to be extremely toxic. Good thing we test them. What I would like you to show me, is how these techniques carry higher risk than other technique that is commonly used. Can you? Neither can they.

          1. All I said to Keith was there was a failure to differentiate between chronic and acute illness.
            I really can’t explain the differences in risk between conventionally bred and GE food in a blog comment. In some cases the risks are comparable or even less for GE. But in some cases they are much higher. There are publications that explain these relative risks better than I can.
            http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094
            The more important question is: is our approval system adequate to the task of protecting the public as we move into direct consumption of whole GE foods, and GE foods engineered with more complex traits. That is a lengthy discussion again inappropriate for a blog comment. It’s also covered in the latter part of the above publication.
            I’ve never attended an event like the one you did. It must have been hard to try to be the voice of reason. Seeing those looks of “real, visceral anger” and hearing the whispers must have been somewhat unnerving. I’m not familiar with the scene so I can’t really understand the insistence on drawing these inaccurate equivalencies in order to defend biotech foods. Maybe if I were there it would make more sense. As you can probably tell, I’m not committed to biotech foods. My feeling is there are a limited number of situations in which they would prove useful. In most cases other options are faster and stronger, imho.
            http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews

        2. Mlema wrote:

          Also, there is a difference between engineering pharmaceuticals and engineering crops – and one thing that contributes to that difference is the difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes.

          I can’t let this one stand. This is a reference to insulin, I assume. However, there’s insulin being produced by eukaryotic expression systems and insulin is far from the only biologic on the market. Of all the other biologics on the market many use eukaryotic expression systems. Vaguely alluding to differences between eukaryotes and prokaryotes does not let anyone off the hook if they are going to claim some magical property of transgenics makes them dangerous.

        3. Please elaborate on why prokaryotes are ok to engineer but eukaryotes are not. Since I engineer both for a living, I would really like to know why.

          1. I didn’t say either one was not “ok” to engineer. But I hope you’re being facetious in asking the difference between them. Significantly, they have different transcription and translation mechanisms.

          2. So there are differences between prokaryotic and Eukaryotic expression systems but this really has no actual relevance to safety, for the most part? If that’s how you see it we are in agreement. If this is so, though, I’m not sure what the point of bringing this up was.

          3. Can you then please explain exactly what you meant with the following statement with particular emphasis on the reference you made to differences between prokaryotes and eukaryotes:
            “Also, there is a difference between engineering pharmaceuticals and engineering crops – and one thing that contributes to that difference is the difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes.”

          4. Tom, not all GE pharmaceuticals are engineered using prokaryotic cells. Insulin is. But I’m guessing you wish to point out my error in saying that one difference between engineered drugs and engineered plants is the types of cells used in development. Did I guess that right?

          5. No. You still haven’t explained why you even bothered to bring up prokaryotes and eukaryotes. What was your point? My point is that it doesn’t matter whether you use prokaryotes or eukaryotes for either pharmaceuticals OR food. Transgenic bacteria are used not only for pharmaceuticals but also to produce vitamins and other food additives for human consumption.
            By the way – Eli Lilly makes recombinant insulin with the help of E. coli (a prokaryote) under the brand name Humulin but you are obviously unaware that Novo Nordisk has been making their recombinant insulin (called Novolin) in baker’s yeast (a eukaryote) since the late 80s.

          6. Thanks Tom. I appreciate you pointing out my errorz. If you had been at the expo you could have put them in their place when they objected to Jeff’s question about GMO insulin and GMO in agriculture.
            For myself, these two aren’t equivalent for a number of reasons. But at least I’ve now learned that the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes isn’t one of them.
            For Jeff and myself it’s the blind leading the blind and we have to flounder around until someone like yourself, who’s in the know, decides to explain things to us. I still think that engineering Cry toxins into as many crops as possible is a bad idea. And while I think some of the medical engineering we do may be high-risk, I think the benefit to individuals who need it and choose to use it makes it worthwhile. Especially in light of the testing and regulations imposed on pharmaceuticals, and the follow-up and enforceable liability.

    2. “The absence of an obvious/discovered negative does not prove it’s positive, all it means is that we haven’t found the negative yet.”
      Actually it does prove it. Trillions of meals served to humans and livestock without ill effects, is strong evidence of safety and that our regulatory regime is working.
      When things do go wrong with our food supply, people get sick or die, so if GMO’s had this effect, it should be easy to observe and so far we haven’t noticed any adverse effects.

        1. The value of that animal feeding data is that it represents a robust, additional line of evidence that supports the claim that GMO animal feed has not caused harm. It did not fail to do anything, it’s just another data set that contributes to our understanding.

          1. BBBlue – I didn’t suggest otherwise. I just pointed out the problem with saying that we’ve proven safety – or “When things do go wrong with our food supply, people get sick or die…”
            Every GMO is unique. Human consumption of whole GE food (not carbohydrate or fat extracts) is still limited. And I find only one study on bt eggplant (for instance). It was done by Mahyco (Monsanto), and has been interpreted as showing adverse health effects according to the only review i have found.
            study:
            http://www.envfor.nic.in/divisions/csurv/geac/images/cry1AC/TOXICOLOGY%20AND%20ALLERGENICITY%20STUDIESvol1.pdf
            review:
            http://www.testbiotech.org/sites/default/files/Report%20Gallagher_2011.pdf
            Are we happy with this as the full extent of safety study on a food we are expected to eat as a diet staple? It’s one thing to evaluate the gross appearance and weight of an animal at slaughter and find it’s feed did equivalent work. It’s another to say that same food is safe for children to eat.

          2. Sorry, got a little off topic there – I just meant that it’s poor reasoning to say that because people aren’t getting sick and dying, GMOs must be safe. There are many, many elements that come into play when attempting to evaluate how or even if GMOs have affected health. It’s not food poisoning.

          3. Mlema, I would check review studies on Bt Brinjal. This one for instance, describes numerous feeding studies.
            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21865863

            Acute oral toxicity studies in rats, mucous membrane irritation test in female rabbit and primary skin irritation test in rabbit were assessed by Intox, Pune in 2003. Multilocation field trials of five hybrids (MHB-4, 9, 10, 80 and 99) and effects on non-target and beneficial insects were studied in 2004. Sub chronic oral toxicity study in Sprague Dawley rats (Intox, Pune), assessment of allergenicity of protein extracts using Brown Norway rats (Rallis, Bangalore), responses as a dietary feed ingredient to common carp (Cyprinus carpio) growth performances (Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Mumbai) and ICAR second year trials for five hybrids (MHB-4, 9, 10, 80 and 99) was performed during 2005. Chemical fingerprinting of Bt and non-Bt brinjal (including alkaloids) (Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad), sub chronic (90 days) feeding studies using New Zealand rabbit (Advinus Theraputic, Bangalore), effect on performance and health of broiler chickens (Central Avian Research Institute, Izatnagar), subchronic (90 days) feeding studies in Goats (Advinus Theraputic, Bangalore), feeding studies in lactating crossbred dairy cows (G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar) and socioeconomic and risk assessment studies have been done.
            Large scale field trials were conducted by the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research to evaluate agronomic performance and environmental impact of Bt brinjal hybrids during 2007–09. Several other studies include germination and weediness studies, aggressiveness studies, soil microbiota studies (two years), substantial equivalence studies, protein expression studies, baseline susceptibility studies (two years with 29 populations), food cooking and protein estimation in cooked fruits, molecular characterization were performed during 2008–09.

            Naturally, I grabbed the PDF for GENERA…
            🙂

          4. Thanks for finding this paper Karl. I spent a little time with it, but I don’t have time to compare the relevant references tonight, maybe you can help me to check them out. The paper appeared in C.S. Prakash’s “GM Crops”. It would appear that the various safety evaluations listed in the paper were all a part of the same assessment done by Mahyco (Monsanto India) – as covered in the paper I linked to above. Not all the ones listed were actually done. The study names “Report of the Expert Committee (EC-II) on Bt Brinjal Event EE-1” as the source of all of the information on the safety tests. Here’s that report:
            https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/17300824/report-of-the-expert-committee-ec-ii-ministry-of-environment-and-
            there are easier places to read it, but I thought this page was interesting for the accompanying papers below (including one on integrated pest management for brinjal)
            Also, Judy Carman’s review of the safety studies:
            http://gmojudycarman.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IHER-Submission-1st-to-India-re-GM-brinjal-typos-corrected-Jan09.pdf
            Just curious, in GENERA, how would you categorize and characterize the GM Crops paper with regard to how it reflects on: equivalence, environment, safety for consumption, etc.?

          5. The Forum is the best place to discuss this. But briefly, I would have to read the whole Brinjal paper through to make a determination as to how it would be rated, but it sounds like they have feeding studies described, as well as compositional analyses (equivalence), and some research on environmental impact, so it would probably hit all of those categories. The abstract mentions effectiveness at controlling the target pest, so efficacy might be included as well, although I didn’t see that part of the paper when I glanced at it.

          6. Karl, the paragraph you quoted is the full extent of the mention of testing done on bt brinjal. There are no references for these studies – only the “Report of the Expert Committee” for every single one. I linked to the Expert Report above.
            But here is a comprehensive listing of what was done for India’s pre-commercialization evaluations.
            http://www.moef.nic.in/divisions/csurv/geac/brinjal_part-I.pdf
            There’s been no other research as far as I can tell. But I did see what Gallagher was talking about in his review when I looked through this pdf.

        2. Well GMO has been in our food chain for 20 years or so. We would also be detecting chronic effects given this amount of time. But there was good reason to believe that we wouldn’t see such effects even when a particular GMO was released.
          For example, a BT corn variety isn’t expected to cause much problem to human health since the BT toxin already had a solid record of safety for human consumption that goes back several decades. Otherwise, the BT corn was equivalent to existing cultivars and is assumed to carry the same low risk of harm. And yet it still went through a regulatory process.
          And yes, every GMO is unique which is why every event is goes through a regulatory process.

          1. Because we would have observed a chronic condition already nor is there a plausible mechanism suggesting that we would see one in the future.
            I’m not sure why you’re not understanding the significance of a null result.

          2. Well, what does chronic exposure to Bt toxin look like? Because that’s pretty much the question you’re asking. If there hasn’t been chronic exposure issues in the past with this pesticide, one wouldn’t expect there to not be any issues in the future.
            But hypothetically, I would predict symptoms first to manifest themselves in the gastrointestinal tract since it would be the primary route of exposure.
            You seem to suggest that there is a risk that the currently regulatory regime hasn’t considered or tested for that is unique to GM crops. Tell the authorities what it is and they’ll test for it. But don’t say something like “unknown risks”. This is just handwaving.

          3. I don’t think we’ve eaten any Cry toxins. Unless we’ve eaten some bt sweet corn.
            Our twenty year exposure to GMO proteins has been very limited due to the fact that we’ve so far used only oils and sugars extracted from GE crops.
            Gastrointestinal symptoms would reflect an acute reaction. Chronic allergenicity or toxicity would be reflected in inflammatory disorders or diseases, or cancer, or any number of other problems not necessarily traceable to eating a particular food – especially an unlabeled one.
            Frankly, I agree with the authorities – we have no evidence of harm. I just think that statement doesn’t mean too much for a couple of reasons I hope I’ve just explained. Also, just because humans aren’t susceptible to the lethal mechanisms of cry toxins in the bug gut, doesn’t mean that there aren’t humans who might be allergic to the proteins – which would be inhaled in flour made from the plant, or by harvest workers. We’re making a fundamental change in our environment by engineering a large amount of biomass to produce these proteins where they didn’t used to be.

          4. “I don’t think we’ve eaten any Cry toxins. Unless we’ve eaten some bt sweet corn.”
            You’re probably right. Kindly inform the activists that advocate labeling such products is a pointless exercise, if you don’t mind.
            “Gastrointestinal symptoms would reflect an acute reaction. Chronic allergenicity or toxicity would be reflected in inflammatory disorders or diseases, or cancer, or any number of other problems not necessarily traceable to eating a particular food – especially an unlabeled one. ”
            You bring up a couple of issues here. First, you seem to think that if we fail to see an acute reaction, then we can still have an unknown chronic reaction and I don’t think this is true.
            Second, you bring up the issue of traceability. This is often done with the use of lot numbers and batch records. Labeling a food product as “contains GMO” does nothing to improve traceability.
            “Also, just because humans aren’t susceptible to the lethal mechanisms of cry toxins in the bug gut, doesn’t mean that there aren’t humans who might be allergic to the proteins – which would be inhaled in flour made from the plant, or by harvest workers.”
            An allergic reaction seems like it would be fairly straight forward to test and as far as I know, we do this for GM crops that produce novel compounds. And if the test is negative, what would be your opinion then? In fact, the cases where I know that the test was positive resulted in immediate termination of that particular crop’s development. Isn’t this evidence of a robust regulatory regime?
            You bring up workers in harvest and plant facilities which is interesting because these people would likely have the highest exposure levels. If they are suffering no ill health effects from these organisms, then can’t we effectively say that the products are “safe”?

          5. “We’re making a fundamental change in our environment by engineering a large amount of biomass to produce these proteins where they didn’t used to be.”
            You just described ‘agriculture’.

          6. Given how common Bacillus thuringiensis is in the environment I’d be utterly flabbergasted if humans haven’t been exposed to pretty much the full range of Bt toxins (there are many, with varying specificity to different groups of insects and nematodes etc) for probably as long as we’ve been practicing agriculture.

          7. Just about everyone would have eaten BT with their lettuces, spinach, celery and just about anything else that might have soil on it.

          8. to those below: I have to reply here because of the way the thread is. Our exposure to Cry toxins has been incidental. And for those of us who aren’t working with them in our immediate environment it still is. But this paper gives some things to consider.
            http://www.biosafety-info.net/file_dir/212769580449f14502b779c.pdf
            Keith, chronic health problems don’t have to start with acute symptoms.
            Jeff: “You just described ‘agriculture’.”
            You are the perfect counterpoint to Food Babe.
            Chris,Ewan – I think the link talks about these things pretty thoroughly.
            Thanks all.

          9. “Keith, chronic health problems don’t have to start with acute symptoms”
            This isn’t what I said.
            I meant that if there are no acute exposure symptoms than there probably won’t be any chronic exposure symptoms for a given compound like BT.
            This is mainly because you wouldn’t expect to see symptoms at lower exposure levels if you don’t already see them at higher exposure levels.
            You seem to be holding on to the idea that something can not harm a person initially but ambush us later through some unknown and unmeasurable force.
            It’s a moot point anyway because pesticides need to be tested to determine the level where you don’t see adverse affects in the test animals–the No Observable Effect Level (aka NOEL) and BT toxin was no exception. In fact, it was nearly impossible to feed test animals enough BT to cause any harm whatsoever.
            I think this rules out complications due to chronic exposure.

          10. Mlema writes:

            to those below: I have to reply here because of the way the thread is. Our exposure to Cry toxins has been incidental. And for those of us who aren’t working with them in our immediate environment it still is. But this paper gives some things to consider.
            http://www.biosafety-info.net/file_dir/212769580449f14502b779c.pdf

            Quoting the article:

            The minimum dose of Bacillus cereus estimated to cause disease is 10^5 cells or spores (range 200-10^8) (Schoeni and Lee Wong, 2005). B. cereus and B. thuringiensis are unreliably distinguishable on the genetic level, meaning that if B. thuringiensis were capable of causing disease it would probably be no more pathogenic than B. cereus.

            Bringing in Bacillus cereus seems like a strange red herring to me. It’s essentially saying that if B. thuringiensis were something different it would be something different (so what?). One could similarly point out that Bacillus. thuringiensis and Bacillus Anthracis are unreliably distinguishable on the genetic level (which they are) and that a conservative cutaneous critical dose for clinical infection of Bacillus anthracis in man may be estimated to be approximately 10 spores, meaning that if B. thuringiensis were capable of causing disease it would probably be no more pathogenic than B. anthracis but might cause significant mortality (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7995358 ). Like the comment bringing in the pathogenicity of B. cereus, it’s a totally arbitrary comment and I don’t understand how it would contribute to the discussion.
            The reasoning seems confused.

          11. cosmicaug, this little part of the paper is to give some context on the safety of Bacillus thuringiensis. As others have pointed out, it’s everywhere and hasn’t caused a health problem as such.

          12. Sure. I just do not understand how knowing the infectious dose for Bacillus cereus does anything to provide a context for potential harm of Bacillus thuringiensis (much less specific Cry toxins) anymore than knowing the infectious dose of Bacillus anthracis would.
            Maybe I’m just pretty obtuse.

    3. ‘the science really isn’t there YET to indicate that GMO is safe’ Alejandro, if your definition of safe is that there is 0% chance of any bad happening, ever…. then I would defy you to find for me ANY science on ANY product or process that proves 100% safety. Science rarely deal in statistical absolutes…even for things like organic agriculture. So this ‘consensus’ argument is pretty much a red herring.

      1. error in logic: we can’t prove any one thing to be 100% safe, therefore GMOs are more likely to be safe than not.

        1. I think you are reading something into it that wasn’t there. I do not see where the “more likely” claim was made. To me, the reply to Alejandro on that point echoed the unasked question about artificial coloring in coffee, that there is often a great divide between actual risk and perceived risk. And then there is the whole debate one can have related to the precautionary principle.

          1. I think the issue at hand is: how much and what kind of study do we need to determine that GMOs are safe to eat?
            I think Alejandro is saying that he doesn’t believe we’ve been thorough in investigating the effects, so we may, in time, find that there were problems we didn’t see. Tobacco companies did their best to influence the “science” – and there are documents that prove their deceit. Monsanto hid it’s knowledge of the toxicity of PCBs (also documented and available for review online), and people in Anniston are still dying. I agree it’s good to take a long view.
            And I think loreneaton is misinterpreting what Alejandro’s saying as being a demand for 100% no risk. I suppose I implied that loreneaton is saying GMOs are safe. I could be wrong. Perhaps loreneaton will tell us if that’s what was meant.
            I feel I must say: I think we have a much more open society than existed when tobacco and pcbs were killing us. I’m just an average citizen, yet I have access to most of the studies done on GMOS and can decide for myself whether or not I think they’re evaluated properly and how much of the industry rhetoric is truthful.

          2. Mlema – Have you considered submitting comments to USDA when it posts petitions for deregulation for public comment? USDA posts the information submitted by the developers and everyone is welcome to critique the data and tell the agency what to do. Similar opportunities are available in Canada, Australia, Korea and Japan. As someone who is up on the relevant literature and is able to critique it, your input could be useful.

          3. ‘I think loreneaton is misinterpreting what Alejandro’s saying as being a demand for 100% no risk. I suppose I implied that loreneaton is saying GMOs are safe. I could be wrong. Perhaps loreneaton will tell us if that’s what was meant.’
            What I would like is for Alejandro to DEFINE safe. Is it zero tolerance or is it that the GMO’s are as safe as their non-GMO counterpart? If it is zero tolerance then all organic food needs to come off the shelves as well.
            Alejandro says, ‘all it means is that we haven’t found the negative yet.’ This is true of all food and every technology on the planet….without exception. Where does ‘yet’ end when you need an infinite number to make a decision?

  12. Two thoughts that might have improved your attendance and your write up.
    1. You could have gone wearing no message on your clothing but a friend of yours could have worn that shirt. You could have better observed the reaction and still engage in the conversation.
    2. You could make your writing more accessible to all by removing your political bias. Two digs towards the conservatives and none towards liberals may turn off half of your potential audience.

    1. I don’t think drawing an analogy to Colbert and drawing an analogy to being a democrat in a Tea Party rally really count as “digs” against conservatives. I suppose he could have said it was like being a banker and walking around through Occupy Wall Street…
      Yes having someone else wear the shirt and observing reactions from another vantage point could also provide some interesting information as well. Some ideas for future conference and expo reporting!

  13. Alejandro, when a first time user feels nauseous, dizzy, and often pukes studies are not necessary. Good chance it is bad for you. trying to make an analogy between tobacco and g.e. food is waaayy weak at best and deliberately misleading at worst. You really need to do better.

  14. Jeff, you are braver than I am and you survived. So, more tactful as well.
    Kevin, I have seen you mention being blocked from anti sites before. Only one I am blocked from is adams. Should you want something posted I will be glad to cooperate.

  15. Here is another conference that is likely to be filled with anti-science people opposed to GMO’s for anyone in the Kentucky area:
    http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateU&navID=LatestReleases&page=Newsroom&topNav=Newsroom&leftNav=&rightNav1=LatestReleases&rightNav2=&resultType=Details&dDocName=STELPRDC5108959&dID=203986&wf=false&description=USDA+Announces+Meeting+for+the+National+Organic+Standards+Board%3B+Invites+Public+Comments
    “The U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will have a public meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, from October 28-30, 2014. In advance of the meeting, USDA is accepting public comments.
    The NOSB meeting, which occurs twice a year, provides a forum for the public to discuss issues concerning organic production and processing. The meeting will take place at the Galt House Hotel, 140 North Fourth St., Louisville, Ky. 40202.”

  16. Cobbled this together from what i’ve seen on FB and added a stanza or two:
    Mine eyes have seen the science of GMO’s and it is strong.
    The antis have no evidence and know that they are wrong.
    They try to convert us all with their pseudo-science song.
    But we won’t play along !
    They chasten all their faithful with an anti-corporate drill.
    And claim sterile seeds will outbreed life until it’s still.
    And if you dare to counter they will scream, “YOU’RE A SHILL!”
    But we won’t play along !
    Glory, glory biotechnology!
    Feeding billions from sea to shining sea.
    The anti’s fervor borders on theology.
    Science will set us free!
    When anti’s hold their lectures they scan their audience
    for any sort of discord or frowning countenance.
    They will tolerate no science based dissidence.
    But we won’t play along !
    They march against Monsanto, dozens at a time.
    They ask that you eat organic but they won’t give you a dime.
    And if you like fast food, they will scream about pink slime!
    But we won’t play along !
    Glory, glory biotechnology!
    Feeding billions from sea to shining sea.
    The anti’s fervor borders on theology.
    Science will set us free!
    So come and join us now all ladies and gentlemen,
    to accelerate our discoveries in food and medicine.
    Whether greater yields, more nutrients or for insulin.
    For GMO’s, our support is strong!
    Glory, glory biotechnology!
    Feeding billions from sea to shining sea.
    The anti’s fervor borders on theology.
    Science will set us free!
    Science will set us free!

  17. Mlema,
    I certainly agree that GMOs could cause chronic problems in some people that wouldn’t be obvious. But isn’t the same thing true of *any* new crop strain? Or indeed, of any new food at all? I’ll bet there’s never been a long term study to rule out chronic disease from eating M&Ms. I’ll bet there’s no study to see if kiwi fruit has caused chronic disease in Americans since if was introduced and became popular here.
    So, in all seriousness, why should GMOs be held to such a higher standard?

  18. Transgenic plant breeding isn’t equivalent to selective breeding. Some kinds present a different set of risks for unintended consequences. That’s why we have to have a higher standard for GMOs. And we do. But some scientists question whether our current safety assessments are appropriate to the task in some cases.
    This can’t really be compared to m&ms. And I don’t know anything about kiwi. I know that starfruit has a neurotoxin that’s deadly for people with kidney disease. Guess how we found that out?

    1. ‘Some kinds present a different set of risks for unintended consequences.’ Care to elaborate? Selective breeding has given us some nasty unforeseen things (celery, potatoes, etc). What nobody seems to want face up to is that except for the insertion of the gene of interest at the beginning of the process , the breeding schemes are nearly the same; you are introgressing the gene and selecting for activity and the fitness of the plant as a whole.

    2. What, in your opinion, are the different risks inherent to transgenics? A given gene could have risks (e.g. allergenic potential), but those risks would apply whether it was introduced by transgenics or by selective breeding. Of course, transgenics let you potentially introduce genes that couldn’t be introduced by breeding. But are there risks to transgenics that go beyond that? Is there any good reason to be suspicious of all transgenics, regardless of what gene(s) were transferred? I have yet to see one, but I’m more than willing to hear your thoughts.
      Respectfully, this can definitely be compared to M&Ms. Your position seems to primarily be that (paraphrasing) ‘we can’t be sure that GMOs aren’t causing chronic health problems.’ That’s true, but it’s just as true for M&Ms, kiwis (the fruit AND the bird!), Post-It notes, blog comments, and anything else you can possibly imagine.
      The question should never be “Are we sure that X isn’t causing chronic health problems?” It should be “Is there a reason to think that X may indeed be causing chronic health problems?”
      So again: what’s your reason, if any, for thinking that GMOs really might be causing chronic health problems? And more importantly, what’s your reason for thinking any such problems are specific to GMOs?

  19. Jeff, I really appreciate your pro-science perspective and the insights you shared in the National Heirloom Expo article. I am simultaneously excited about the potential in GE/GMO research & development, yet lost on whether GMO foods are completely safe or not, because the science is complex and I’m no expert. I wish there was an objective (non-partisan) science-based “shared pool of knowledge” about GMOs, that scientists, critics, Joe Consumers like me, regulatory agencies, etc. could use as a basis for decisions on regulations, safety measures, family diet, etc. Seems like all the info out there is either sponsored by the GMO industry or its critics, so the real truth is hard to extract. I wish the culture surrounding GMOs could somehow be elevated to one of open dialog, as you suggest in this discussion thread (“Genetic modification has proven to be very beneficial for ______, yet I find it troubling when used for_______”). Anyway, thanks for your refreshing antidote to psuedoscience!

  20. Keith, I hope you’ll look at the paper I linked to immediately above. It talks about things to consider as we increase the presence of Cry proteins in our food crops.
    On another note: Chronic health problems from GMOs wouldn’t necessarily appear as allergies to the protein that was engineered into the plant, but rather, possibly, as reactions to proteins or other components formed by the altered genetics of the plant – things not tested for pre-commercialization. These wouldn’t necessarily cause acute symptoms.
    We test the plant for “equivalence” – which isn’t well-defined and includes only basic nutrients, expected possible toxicity (based on historical toxicity in the parent), and, separately from the new plant: homologues to known allergies of the added protein (as manufactured by bacteria)- not the proteins in the plant as it’s growing in the field under various conditions.
    Since I’m not a toxicologist, I don’t have any authority on these matters, but it seems that this is the subject people want me to defend my views on, even when they’re not toxicologists either. We know a lot more about genetics than we did when GMOs were first being developed. We have means of testing them for safety that we’re not employing in many cases due to expense, and due to not really understanding all the information we’re able to gather that way. The FDA consultation is voluntary. I am absolutely sure that no biotech company would purposefully attempt to commercialize an unhealthful plant, nor would the FDA take any shortcuts in examining new plants (although the FDA often must rely on the developer’s assurances regarding research results). I simply don’t think the current protocols could prevent the harm that’s possible from continually more complex engineering and engineering goals. The inherent risks are related to what we’re trying to do and how we’re accomplishing it. So, for myself, I have to ask: how does the benefit compare to the risk (and expense)? I answer this in different ways depending on the plant.
    As I said before, I think at this point the ecological concerns of the GMOs we’ve made most popular are more concerning than the health risks to people. But, for example, I’ve linked (above) to what may be the full extent of safety testing on bt brinjal – which is now being grown and eaten in Bangledesh. So, you may decide for yourself whether or not you think it’s safe to eat bt eggplant as a major part of your diet. Remember, when we engineer a particular bt toxin into a plant, and decide that plant is safe, it doesn’t mean that every plant we engineer that same protein into is similarly safe. Every event is unique and should be tested as unique. But currently, in the US, if the protein is safe, and we can show that’s all we’ve engineered, then as long as the other aspects of the new plant are equivalent, the new plant is considered safe.
    To the moderator – I understand that this comment is probably too long, but I don’t think I could have answered Keith’s questions more briefly. I don’t think I need to write any more on this though.
    Keith, hopefully you get where I’m coming from at this point, and thanks.

    1. “Chronic health problems from GMOs wouldn’t necessarily appear as allergies to the protein that was engineered into the plant, but rather, possibly, as reactions to proteins or other components formed by the altered genetics of the plant ”
      You understand that they don’t just genetically modify a plant and stick it into the ground, right?
      I only ask this because normally the plant then gets back-crossed into the existing cultivars several times until only the gene, alone is incorporated.
      So I would think some unintended effects on the plant made during the modification (the event) would be breed out.
      “The FDA consultation is voluntary. ”
      MMM. Kinda-sorta.
      Strictly speaking it’s voluntary, but no corporation that I know of is going to be dumb enough to launch any product without consulting the FDA to insure that they are on the same page.
      I’ve sat in one of these consultations myself (for medical devices-not GMO’s) and they’re not that big a deal. So there isn’t really a compelling reason for these consultations to be avoided.
      For crops modified to produce BT, the FDA would likely give deference to the EPA in any case.
      When the nutritional content (such as golden rice) of the crop is altered then I would expect the FDA would take a more active role because this would impact labeling.
      “Remember, when we engineer a particular bt toxin into a plant, and decide that plant is safe, it doesn’t mean that every plant we engineer that same protein into is similarly safe.”
      I believe this is already covered in the regulatory regime in place since every modification is a separate event. I don’t think anybody suggested that BT eggplant was safe because we already engineered BT into corn. It still had to go through it’s own regulatory hurdles.
      “Keith, hopefully you get where I’m coming from at this point, and thanks.”
      I do. Accept for the why you had singled out GM/GE as something inherently more hazardous then mutagenic breeding for example. Or molecular breeding. Or embryo rescue. All of which requires human intervention in a laboratory. Most critics don’t even seen to know about these other technologies and some of them can even be certified organic.
      It all seems arbitrary to me.

      1. Keith, I guess i’m posting all over the place. This is the paper I meant when I said “immediately above”:
        http://www.biosafety-info.net/file_dir/212769580449f14502b779c.pdf
        We have approved GMOs based on the safety of the same trait in a different plant – even though each invariably has different effects. For example, where are the feeding trials for bt sweet corn? I don’t think any were done because the trait is considered safe. That’s because our protocol tests the safety of the protein, not the plant it’s engineered into (although sometimes we do feeding trials) Not all changes can be removed with subsequent breeding. Some aren’t evident – those that appear in response to environment, or aren’t found with the tests done for substantial equivalence (metabolic changes that wouldn’t effect basic nutrition, for example).
        “I’ve sat in one of these consultations myself (for medical devices-not GMO’s) and they’re not that big a deal. So there isn’t really a compelling reason for these consultations to be avoided.”
        Interesting. Why do you say they’re not a big deal? I would tend to agree. It seems more or less that the developer simply assures the FDA that the food is safe to eat. And the FDA says: ok, you’re responsible for the veracity of that statement. How exactly does that assure safety?
        The USDA decided to forego regulatory review for Scott’s glyphosate-resistant Kentucky Bluegrass, even though a number of scientists said it had the potential to be a nuisance weed.
        http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2011/07/usda-deregulate-roundup-gmo-tom-philpott
        This has nothing to do with food, but with regulation. If you search with this:
        New York University’s Center on Environmental and Land Use Law, Emily Marden
        You should find Ms. Marden’s paper on how our regulatory practices for GMOs were developed- and some insight into their haphazard nature (imo)
        I didn’t want to post the link because it’s a mile long.
        It’s interesting how the timbre of agencies like the USDA has changed over the years. For example, read starting on page 774 regarding the NAS’s criticisms of the USDA regulatory framework on GMOs. As our public institutions were increasingly undermined with budget cuts beginning in the late 80’s, the strength of these agencies to serve as check and balance to the industry has waned.
        These are my views on the last few decades of economics and politics of course. But I don’t see that there’s any way to separate these issues from one another. GMOs came into the market in a unique time.
        Also, where did I single out GE as something inherently more hazardous than mutagenic breeding? I specifically (somewhere above in my comments) linked to the NAS diagram that shows mutagenic breeding to be the riskiest for unintended changes.
        Personally, I’m indifferent to whether the food is a hybird from a weedy ancestor or could never have come into existence outside the lab. I’m interested in whether it worsens environmental or health problems. Our regulatory system has some holes in it that are particularly noticeable in the face of some kinds of GMOs.

        1. “That’s because our protocol tests the safety of the protein, not the plant it’s engineered into (although sometimes we do feeding trials) Not all changes can be removed with subsequent breeding. Some aren’t evident – those that appear in response to environment, or aren’t found with the tests done for substantial equivalence (metabolic changes that wouldn’t effect basic nutrition, for example).”
          So how is this more risky than outcrossing with a wild relative where we get god-knows-what in the plant’s genome? I believe that a flood resistant rice strain was developed this way–a domesticated rice cultivar outcrossed with a wild variety that possessed a flood tolerant gene. Accept that along with the gene of interest came thousands of other genes we didn’t necessarily want. But according to you, “not all changes can be removed with subsequent breeding”, but apparently they were and the crop was introduced with a lot less regulatory oversight than a GM variety.
          So I’m still puzzled about why you see a GM variety having greater risk than varieties developed by other methods.
          Also, identifying risks doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of the technology. We are still delivering lethal voltages of electricity to every home in America and nobody seems to mind.
          “Interesting. Why do you say they’re not a big deal? I would tend to agree. It seems more or less that the developer simply assures the FDA that the food is safe to eat. And the FDA says: ok, you’re responsible for the veracity of that statement. How exactly does that assure safety?”
          I say that they’re not a big deal because an FDA consultation resembles about a dozen other meetings that go on in a company in regards to new product development.
          And in cases where there’s regulatory oversight from the FDA, it’s stupid to just submit a packet to the FDA blindly. It tends to get rejected because even if we follow the regs in good faith, it is often not in the desired format or they have additional questions, so it’s better to consult with the FDA as early in the development process as possible and get all our ducks in a row. As far as I know, every regulatory affairs officer in a company does this. It would be stupid not to because it could delay the launch of a product.
          “The USDA decided to forego regulatory review for Scott’s glyphosate-resistant Kentucky Bluegrass, ”
          I read the link and it seems to be regarding a petition to deregulate. I’m not sure what the problem is.
          “…even though a number of scientists said it had the potential to be a nuisance weed.”
          I’m not sure how. In every lawn and garden in my neighborhood, the weeds try to invade our lawns, not vice versa. Perhaps it’s different in your universe.
          “As our public institutions were increasingly undermined with budget cuts beginning in the late 80’s, the strength of these agencies to serve as check and balance to the industry has waned.”
          Well I know the FDA and EPA are as big a pain in the arse as ever. But I’m just a chemist so who knows.
          I don’t know about the USDA and APHIS, but if Arctic Apples and Aqua Advantage salmon are an indication, it seems they are as vigorous at checks and balances as ever. These GM variaties have not been deregulated and it has been some time since the companies involved had submitted their packets.
          “Our regulatory system has some holes in it that are particularly noticeable in the face of some kinds of GMOs.”
          If “noticeable holes” concern you about GMO’s then the holes in regulation regarding more conventionally developed varieties should be enormous, and yet, you admit that these don’t concern you as much.
          To be honest, you seem to be one of those people that has reacted to some of the fearmongering about the GM technology without realizing that risks such as health and environmental impact or resistance or allergies that are identified is pretty much the risk of agriculture in general.

          1. “To be honest, you seem to be one of those people that has reacted to some of the fearmongering about the GM technology without realizing that risks such as health and environmental impact or resistance or allergies that are identified is pretty much the risk of agriculture in general.”
            Exactly my point when I said, “You just described ‘agriculture'”. But apparently that makes me the pro-science equivalent to Food Babe. 😉

          2. But no, the risks aren’t the same between GMO agriculture and agriculture in general. Of course, GE agriculture has all the risks of agriculture, but it also present new risks. That’s why our regulatory system hasn’t measured up to its task of assuring safety for consumption or environment. It wasn’t designed to deal with GE crops and it hasn’t been brought up to date.

          3. Keith — Interested in your thoughts on the following question. First, from your experience, would it be possible to assign a confidence rating to ge varieties in terms of how confident we are that the genetic manipulation has not resulted in and adverse, unknown, unforeseeable alteration of the plant. (I.e. some hidden or undetected change in composition of food or feed components or in plant metabolism or transcription either because of evaluation error or evaluation inadequacy, or because there are yet undiscovered phenomena that we are not aware of to even know to evaluate for.) I doubt that we will ever reach a point where we say we can know with absolute certainty that a plant variety we develop ge or otherwise, has absolutely no potential to have an adverse consequence that we have overlooked. But, perhaps it would be possible to say something to the effect that we are 90%, 99% 99.9% confident that such undetected risk does not exist.
            I’ve contemplated in my own lay mind but with some familiarity with regulatory systems, an evaluation protocol that sets some level of confidence in safety, say a 99% confidence level. Then, the types and amounts of evaluation would depend on what evaluation is necessary to arrive at that confidence level. We could then determine if incrementally costly and involved evaluation is required. If we are at 99.9% confidence, does it add much to safety or justify the investment to say require 2-year feeding trials if it only raises our confidence level to 99.99%

          4. As a rule of thumb in my experience, a 95% confidence level would be considered a marketable product based on my experience. But there’s more to it than confidence levels.
            Risk analysis factors heavily into product development and what regulatory pathway is taken. Drugs , for example, are considered high risk since they are designed to have a therapeutic effect on the body and any mistakes or flaws in the design can result in serious injury or death of a patient. So the regulatory pathway for drugs is a lot more rigorous.
            GMO crops (at least the current generation) have a different design goal in mind and the resulting changes aren’t considered significantly different from the current crops to justify classifying it as high a risk as a drug, at least for now. But, if for example, a company develops a GMO crop that delivers a vaccine or antibiotic, it will likely be regulated as a drug and pass through a more rigorous regulatory process.
            How likely a flaw in the design will be detected is also factored into risk and in the case of GMO crops, detection is highly probable; if there is something wrong in our food supply, we know it almost immediately because the effects are easy to observe and trace to their source (relatively). This can often be tested with feeding studies. If it doesn’t harm a lab rat, it’s not likely to harm a human.
            In regards to “unintended effects”, or “unknown effects “, let me ask this: Who is more likely or better qualified to determine this? The company who developed it? The regulatory agency? Or mommy bloggers and conspiracy theorists on the internet? Possibly an independent scientist or agency might be able to suggest something, but it has to be something we can test and there needs to be a good explanation as to why we haven’t seen the effects after 20+ years.

          5. Thanks for indulging me. Based on the accumulating record of lack of harm, the state of knowledge in relevant scientific disciplines, and steps in the development including regulatory oversight, I might assign closer to a 99% confidence rating that the ge varieties placed into service thus far do not contain some unforeseen or unknown hazard, manifesting itself either short term or long term, that adversely affects the health of humans or animals regularly consuming food or feed products derived from these varieties as part of the food supply. I am a heavy eater of potatoes and tomatoes, and I myself am pretty confident that I am more likely to be harmed by all the naturally occurring solanine I consume in my diet on a regular basis than some undetected, unknown substance that shows up in my food that is the result of some unforeseeable or undetectable change resulting from the ge DNA manipulation.
            My impression is that the scientific understandings in relevant fields are themselves sufficient that we are at perhaps 95% confidence that the results will match our expectations, i.e. that we are not surprised by some outcome that suggests that we have overlooked some phenomenon or don’t understand the science well enough. Even if there is a 5% uncertainty that any single ge manipulation could alter the plant’s DNA in an unknown way that resulted in a change in the composition of food products derived from them that we did not or could not predict based on scientific competence alone, we reduce any remaining uncertainty in several ways 1) we perform lots of candidate gene insertions, analyse the genome and select only the few where the insertion is most favorable, we then backcross these selected plants having the insertion event into our existing varieties to narrow the traits transferred to the existing varieties to the desired gene, and these are observed and evaluated in actual growth over multiple years, and finally we evaluate the composition of the final food product. At that point, perhaps we are at a 98-99% confidence rating and then feeding trials probably up the confidence to somewhere between 99-100% that we have not missed something.
            Not ruling out that there could be sensible analytical protocols that could be added to further eliminate uncertainty (the seat belt concept, my odds of being killed or severely injured in a car accident during any single trip might be 1 in a million, but the sensible, low cost and minimally disruptive precaution of wearing a seat belt reduces those odds to 1 in 10 million, but perhaps adding a rollbar on top of the seat belt maybe only reduces the odds to 1 in 10.1 million). I personally believe the gmo skeptic argument will not be won on food safety especially for agronomic traits, if it is not already lost (will agree that the risk perception dynamics change if the ge intervention is for deliberate change of composition for vaccine or antibiotic production, and perhaps risk dynamics are different for bt and nutritional manipulations like golden rice). I myself perceive that the frankenfood concept is slowly fading as a motivator of public opinion, and the argument will increasingly focus on what I believe to be the more relevant and consequential external question of whether the ge intervention delivers sufficient societal benefits or causes unacceptable societal disruption.

          6. These are pretty much my sentiments also.
            I think that biofortification will finally settle the issue in people’s minds. It’s hard to argue that something is bad for you when certain nutritional profiles have been enhanced (ie: golden rice).

  21. qetzal, thank you. Not all transgenics present the same level of risk of unintended changes. For example, crossing closely related species using agrobacterium carries a lower risk of unintended consequences than biolistic transfer between distantly related species.
    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10977&page=64
    And all these risks can be mitigated to a certain degree. But as we increase the manipulation (as in engineering different nutritional profiles) we increase further risk of changes in gene expression and metabolism – which have to be closely examined in a way that we don’t usually have to do for typical conventionally bred plants. But it wouldn’t hurt to examine truly novel conventionally bred plants in a closer way. There are notorious examples of conventional plants developing unhealthful changes (everyone likes to point out the celery, and I’d suggest the entire publication above for a discussion that attempts to continually balance these new considerations against historical examples).
    I believe that at this point in time the vast majority of GMOs we’re growing present more ecological problems than they do present health problems (for humans). But I think it’s important that a plant like bt brinjal (eggplant) that’s now being grown in Bangledesh, and will be eaten as a diet staple (similar to how we eat potatoes perhaps) should be thoroughly investigated by feeding trials. And I think those ought to be done independently and should be open to scrutiny.
    Through transgenics, we can introduce genetic changes that would likely never happen through conventional breeding. These changes can have (and have had) unintended consequences, and research has shown that to be the case. Again, I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not proposing that it’s dangerous to eat any particular GMO food. I’m just saying that it’s not scientific to say: GMOs are safe to eat and we have proof in the fact that we’ve been eating them for years. We haven’t been eating them in the way that people will be eating bt eggplant, or bt sweet corn (and I’m not saying those aren’t safe either) – we don’t really know what the consequences are. And if these foods are safe to eat, it doesn’t mean that another GMO is safe to eat too.
    I don’t see an equivalency to m&m’s, which are a known quantity and which are eaten with choice (maybe not educated choice, but choice). With GMOs, we’re altering the genetics of a living organism in a way that doesn’t have the “built-in” safeguards of natural reproduction. And then we’re introducing that to the open environment of agriculture and the food supply.
    Finally, once more, I’m not saying that GMOs are causing chronic health problems. I’m saying that we wouldn’t know if any particular GMO was causing a health problem because our regulations don’t require the kind of testing that would reveal some kinds of problems that can arise in genetic engineering. It’s a useful technology and it would suck to lose it because it turned out that an overzealous industry engineered something detrimental. Or, – even if it wasn’t the food itself but just a plant resistant to a bunch of toxic pesticides that ended up hurting people who then got mad and decided it was GMOs that made them sick.

    1. Mlena writes:

      Not all transgenics present the same level of risk of unintended changes. For example, crossing closely related species using agrobacterium carries a lower risk of unintended consequences than biolistic transfer between distantly related species.
      http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10977&page=64
      And all these risks can be mitigated to a certain degree. But as we increase the manipulation (as in engineering different nutritional profiles) we increase further risk of changes in gene expression and metabolism – which have to be closely examined in a way that we don’t usually have to do for typical conventionally bred plants. But it wouldn’t hurt to examine truly novel conventionally bred plants in a closer way. There are notorious examples of conventional plants developing unhealthful changes (everyone likes to point out the celery, and I’d suggest the entire publication above for a discussion that attempts to continually balance these new considerations against historical examples).

      I don’t want to examine the assumptions underlying that table to determine whether I think we should agree with it or not. I will take it at face value and make a couple of observations about it:
      One is that it is notable that the implicit regulatory assumptions in the differential regulation of biolistic transformed plants and A. tumefaciens transformed are actually reversed. That is, there are generally much greater regulatory impediments to the approval of A. tumefaciens transformed plants than the biolistic transformed counterparts.
      The other is that, as you obliquely touch upon, the table you provided is presnting a variety of scenarios of what we regulate as conventionally bred plants (that is, for all practical purposes, not at all) which present higher risk than other categories of breeding involving genetic engineering.

    2. Mlema, your own link shows that some non-GM methods are more likely to have unintended genetic effects than some GM methods. Yet as far as I can tell, you seem to lump all GM products together and say they need extra scrutiny, long term feeding trials, they could be causing chronic health problems that we haven’t recognized, etc. In contrast, I have yet to see you raise any similar concerns about any non-GM methods – even though your own cites suggest they’re riskier!
      If you truly believe the figure in your citation, you should be calling for more long-term safety studies on any crop made using a riskier approach. At minimum, you should be insisting that any crops made using mutation breeding, radiation, &/or chemical mutagenesis deserve the highest scrutiny of all.
      Perhaps I’ve just missed it, but I don’t get a consistent, risk-based message from you at all.
      And as for M&Ms, I’m not saying they are causing chronic health problems either. I’m saying we wouldn’t know if any particular candy was causing a health problem because our regulations don’t require the kind of testing that would reveal that kind of problem.
      The point that you seem to keep missing is that the mere fact that “X might be causing chronic health problems” is not a reason to insist on long-term feeding studies. Such studies are only reasonable if the chance of problems is above some threshold. Obviously, you think M&Ms are below the threshold, but you haven’t given a justification for that. It’s certainly not because we’ve actually done any such studies on M&Ms.
      But that’s not really the point. The real point is that you seem to think foods made from non-GM crops are similarly below the threshold, and don’t require long-term feeding studies. Whereas all foods made from GMOs are above it. That’s completely inconsistent with your own citations.
      If you consistently argued that we should do long-term testing on all new food crops made using methods with high risk for unintended changes, I would consider that rational and respectable. Instead, you consistently argue that we should do such testing on all new crops made with GM, even though by your own admission some GM methods are much less risky than some non-GM methods. This suggests to me that your actual objection is to GM per se, and not the degree of risk that can rationally be assigned to any given type of GM.
      Again, if I’m wrong, please feel free to explicitly state that you only favor long-term testing for risky cases, whether GM or not, and that you do not favor long-term testing for low risk cases (again, whether GM or not).

      1. qetzal, I thought I had explained that I would like to see safety testing commensurate with risk for unwanted changes – based on independent scientists’ decisions about what that risk is.

        1. Good to hear. However, going back to your second post on this thread, you said”

          I really can’t explain the differences in risk between conventionally bred and GE food in a blog comment. In some cases the risks are comparable or even less for GE. But in some cases they are much higher. There are publications that explain these relative risks better than I can.
          http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094
          The more important question is: is our approval system adequate to the task of protecting the public as we move into direct consumption of whole GE foods, and GE foods engineered with more complex traits. That is a lengthy discussion again inappropriate for a blog comment. It’s also covered in the latter part of the above publication.

          The thing is, your own link claims that the riskiest method of GM (biolistic transfer from distant species) is not as bad as the riskiest non-GM method (mutation breeding). So it seems rather biased to ask if the system is adequate to protect from the risks of GM food, when the riskiest foods of all aren’t even GM! (A claim that’s actually consistent with the fact that there are many indisputable cases of human being harmed by non-GM foods, versus few if any proven cases for GM foods.)

  22. cosmicaug, I’m interested in how the regulatory impediments to the approval of A. Tumefaciens are greater than for other kinds of transformed plants. Can you tell me more about that? It’s my understanding that all GMOs are regulated in the same way, and that’s why many proponents get angry – pointing out that mutagenic breeding is much riskier.
    Yes, the table does show a number of scenarios – both conventional and GMO.
    I’m not sure what I said that you’re taking issue with. I do agree that it would be best to evaluate each plant based on the risks it presents. Do we agree on that? Maybe we disagree on what sorts of risks each presents? Not sure.

    1. Mlema writes:

      cosmicaug, I’m interested in how the regulatory impediments to the approval of A. Tumefaciens are greater than for other kinds of transformed plants. Can you tell me more about that?

      Supposedly, if you transform in this manner your variety becomes regulated as if a plant pest or pathogen were involved. This makes about as much logical sense as anything coming from the anti side but I guess the regulatory framework was created ad hoc and never involved any particular logic (other than it sort of works).
      Your very example of Kentucky Bluegrass is an example of how that regulatory patchwork works (or in the case of the Kentucky Bluegrass, you might say it doesn’t).

      I’m not sure what I said that you’re taking issue with. I do agree that it would be best to evaluate each plant based on the risks it presents. Do we agree on that? Maybe we disagree on what sorts of risks each presents? Not sure.

      sounds about right.

  23. cosmicaug – many scientists are calling for an overhaul of our regulatory system. Some want it to be more lax, others want it tightened. Both say it should be based on the science. So, obviously, there’s a lot of disagreement about “the science”.

  24. I would like to complement Mlema, Cosmicaug, Keith Hayes and qetzal for your very civil and I think highly productive exchanges. This conversation is a welcome contrast to most discussions on this topic.
    Mlema, you are obviously well read and I appreciate that you actually attempt to explore mechanisms and develop rationale for why genetic engineering may present risks rather than just stop at lay assumptions and hurl unfounded accusations. I’ve complemented you in the past, and again I would say that I appreciate your respectful, intelligent questions, your probing and challenges. Even if I do not always come away with you having won me over, I think it is good that the questions are asked and explored, and in any event the quality of understanding for those following along is enhanced.
    Keith, cosmiccaug, and qetzal (any others I overlooked) I am very impressed with how you have been respectful and the insights in your exchanges. I never fail to come away from quality conversations like these that those of you working in this field are very knowledgeable, that you take pride in your work and justifiable confidence in the value and safety of biotech applications in crop genetics. There are a lot of forces out there painting folks like you as willfully wreckless with this technology, and I really don’t think that is in your DNA.

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