The Redskins suck and so do GMOs

Written by Nikolai Braun

empty seats
Empty seats at FedEx Field by Ron Cogswell via Flickr

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area watching Redskins football with my family. I haven’t seen a Redskins game since I moved away from the area in the early 2000’s, and now I couldn’t name more than 1 player currently on the team. But I have a strong opinion about them: I think they suck. They are terrible and their incompetent owner has destroyed the team.

Why do I have a strong opinion on something that I know almost nothing about? I read about it on the internet.

I regularly read the news in the Washington Post, and occasionally open a Redskins story. These stories are usually opinion—not reporting on facts and figures—just entertaining screeds about the incompetent owner of the Redskins torpedoing yet another opportunity.
Is my opinion correct? Possibly. I looked up the Redskins record for 2014, and they were 4-14. But is there more to the story? Do they have the best pass rush in the league, or special teams, or attendance, or something like that? I don’t know. There is almost certainly more to it than my understanding of the situation, because I don’t know very much about the Redskins. But I am the proud owner of this opinion, and good luck convincing me to change my mind.

So what would change my mind about the Redskins?

empty seats at 'skins game
Gametime at FedEx Field by Ron Cogswell via Flickr

The most unlikely scenario would have me watching all the Redskins games and learning all the players’ stats so I could form my own independent opinion based entirely on empirical data.  This just isn’t going to happen. I already have weekend rituals that involve me actually playing sports, hanging out with friends and being outdoors—no time to invest in a new hobby.
A slightly more likely scenario is if I hung out with a sports nut who talked about the Redskins all the time. He backs up his informed opinions about sports with statistics and elaborate theories. If his opinion of the Redskins was different from mine, I might argue my position at first. But I can’t cite any relevant facts to support my opinion, other than my general feelings on the topic. After a few discussions, I would probably change my mind about the Redskins and adopt the sports nut’s arguments as my own.
My opinion could also change if the general feeling of the Redskins performance around me was different.  If my friends made comments about their personal opinions that the Redskins are okay, or if my Facebook feed occasionally had something positive about the Redskins, or my Dad called me up and said how much fun going to the Redskins game was, I could change my opinion. Rather than knowing one sports nut who is an expert, it would be many different people in my life who all had little pieces of a story, and I took a bit from all of their opinions and experiences to form my opinion.

GMOs also suck

Marching against Monsanto, Vancouver BC by Rosalee Yagihara via Flickr
Marching against Monsanto, Vancouver BC by Rosalee Yagihara via Flickr

I’m not deeply entrenched in a “the Redskins suck” lifestyle.  I don’t go to those clubs, I’m not on their email list, I don’t see many of those Facebook updates. I just read a newspaper article now and then. The vast majority of people are in the same boat when it comes to GMOs.
Genetic engineering is really complicated. I’ve been a plant scientist for over a decade and there are always new things (and old things) that I need to read up on. Understanding biotechnology is my job. We can’t expect non-plant scientists to put in that kind of time. Most of the public has more important things to think about, so they just take the closest available opinion to them: a meme in their Facebook feed, a sign at the natural foods store, or an opinionated family member, for example.
While the media is sharing more positive, neutral, and informed stories, anti-GMO misinformation is pervasive. There are very few people fighting this battle, but they are making a lot of noise.

How can we change this opinion?

When people do expose themselves to new perspectives, there is a dramatic shift in opinion. For example, in the recent Intelligence Squared debate on GMO food, the pro-GMO position resoundingly won the debate. But that only reached a small segment of the population. Who has seen anti-GMO misinformation show up in their Facebook feed in the last week? I know I have.

Who's this guy?  What's his deal?
Who’s this guy? What’s his deal?

Most papayas are GMO. But when was the last time anybody (on the US mainland) ate one of those? Are they even food, or are they decorative, like a gourd? I can appreciate the good that GMO technology has done for the papaya industry, but that story has no relevance in my life. Every American has eaten GMO corn or soy as an ingredient in processed foods. But not knowingly. They didn’t knowingly make that choice.
A farmer made a choice when they planted the seed. But I don’t know any farmers. I don’t know their thoughts about pesticides, fuel costs, discing, amaranth, commodity markets… nothing. While there are more and more farmers on social media all the time, most farmers are too busy feeding the world on razor-thin margins to get out there in the media and chat about their feelings on GMOs.
I think we need to start approaching this conversation differently. Both my business partner Keira Havens and I are biotechnologists by training, and we want the promise of biotechnology to be fully realized and democratized—using all the tools of nature to sustainably develop the food, fuels, medicines, and other undreamed of innovations that we need and want. But that means we need to get people outside of farmers and scientists involved and engaged with biotechnology.

What if GMOs became a normal part of people’s daily existence?

Beautiful biology, and the start of a new conversation.
Beautiful biology, and the start of a new conversation.

Gardening is a popular hobby in the United States. Everyone loves a pretty flower. What if there were GMO flowers that everyone and their grandmother could plant in their front yards? A genetically modified flower that changed color, available at any garden store. You could water it, care for it, watch it grow, bloom, and change color. You could make opinions on GMOs based on your first-hand experience. People would talk about it at work, or not. It would show up in pictures on Facebook, or not. The personal experiences one has with these GMOs would enter the public consciousness.
Everyone would see that the pretty GMO flower next to their mailbox is just a flower. It needs water just like every other flower and it dies off in the fall just like every other flower. There’s nothing frightening about it, it’s just part of a beautiful garden.
That’s why I’m excited to be working with Revolution Bio to make beautiful biotechnology that anyone can buy and plant in their front yard. We want to expand the conversation about GMOs, with a flower that gives people a new set of experiences to associate with GM technology: appreciation, wonder, and delight.

Written by Guest Expert

Nikolai Braun is an experienced synthetic biologist, scientific group leader, and biotech product developer. He has a PhD in biophysics from UC, Davis. He is interested in networking, business opportunities, and fun new ways to make the world a better place. Nikolai co-founded Revolution Bioengineering, the beautiful biotechnology company, and now is the leader of the micro- and molecular biology programs at Luna Innovations.


  1. Puzzled. I can’t tell if I should feel amused, appreciative, or manipulated.

  2. I think this idea makes a lot of sense. All of us have gaps in our knowledge – even in things we are supposedly experts in. That’s what makes life interesting – filling in those gaps by always learning more! But unfortunately this often means we fill the knowledge gaps by relying on the easiest source of information, especially when it’s not easy to get first hand info. With biotechnology, it’s almost impossible to get first hand info. If there were more consumer oriented traits in the grocery store that would help a lot, but people still wouldn’t get to see the traits in action. So, biotech traits in garden flowers makes a lot of sense. I would love some color change petunias in my garden! It’d be even cooler to have edible GMOs that people can grow, but that’d require FDA approval.

  3. I would be hesitant to believe anyone who told you they knew everything. Especially if that person is totally outside of their field, such as a lawyer talking about genetics.

  4. To generalize about Mercola is foolish. He publishes endless articles and includes many experts. I won’t change your mind and you, whoever you are, certainly won’t change mind. Also just because you find a review that apparently you accept, for whatever reasons, doesn’t make the reviewer correct either. Did you actually read it? Do you have the background to understand it or is your mind just made up like your opinion of Mercola? By the way the reviewer is a renowned weight loss surgeon, is a”leading advocate of culinary medicine”, hardly an expert in GMO’s.

  5. To generalize about Mercola is easy. The overwhelming majority of what Mercola publishes on his website is wrong. It’s main purpose is to get people to purchase generally useless supplements from his on-line shop.
    Perhaps we should start with his current article about Druker’s book.
    First sentence: “Genetically engineered (GE) foods are a serious threat to our environment and our health.”
    Wrong in the first sentence. There is no credible evidence that either of these is correct. In fact medical and science societies as well as regulators across the globe have repeatedly found no risk to human health of genetic engineering as a technology.
    According to Druker and Mercola, this is all some sort of massive conspiracy. The courts are also in on the take as they dismissed Druker’s lawsuit.

  6. We can go back and forth about Mercola. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion on him. I obvioiusly disagree. Just saying the overwhelming majority of what he publishes is wrong, doesn’t make you right. As far as your GMO stance, it also is your opinion. There are many, including scientists who disagree. You welcome to eat as much GMO’s as you like also.

  7. Are you trying to protect me or win the argument? I see you have a vested interest in GMO’s although you state all views and opinions are your own. Really? By the way quackwatch is run by a quackpot, Stephen Barrett, a discredited psychiatrist. You should get your info from better sources, maybe Mercola! Warnings from the FDA are not necessarily the worst thlng, his opinions are just not in line with the pharmaceutical or biotech industry. That doesn’t even make him wrong either.

  8. By the way, have you actually ever looked at Mercola’s site? You don’t have to agree with everything he says but there are literally thousands of articles and numerous different topics. Experts from all different sciences are also interviewed. I would find it hard to believe someone couldn’t learn something from his site.

  9. Mercola certainly does have thousands of wrong articles on his site. It’s not necessary to individually debunk every single one of them as his track record for correctness is so close to zero that it’s easy to make a gross generalization about him being wrong and be correct about it. (yes, he does sometimes get the date right, so you can’t quite say “zero”). Mercola is out to sell supplements, and will do or say ANYTHING to do so. Facts are irrelevant to him, as is the health or welfare of those who read his nonsense. His “experts” are anything but that. It’s a shame he seems to have you hooked tho.

  10. Gee it sounds like you have a personal problem with Mercola. Did he do something to you? I don’t get the emotional issue surrounding him. All his information is free. There are no monthly dues or anything. You can take it or leave. He does sell supplements but it’s your choice to buy or not.

  11. It is very common to be an expert in a field and be self-aware of all the gaps in your understanding. You know enough about a topic to know the things you don’t know (If that makes sense) It is just as common to be a novice or outsider in a field and have a made-up mind on things. My mind is totally made up on yoga pants as pants, and I know nothing about fashion.
    With GMOs I know that the issue cannot be distilled down to slogans like “GMOs suck” or “GMOs are awesome” because it’s just too complicated. I do come down on the side of GMOs are a useful tool for agriculture and other technologies, but I understand a lot of the relevant arguments against them, and I am fully aware they are not a panacea for all the world’s problems.

  12. Thanks for your reply. It sounds like an almost Rumsfeldian reply, “there are things we know, things we don’t know…. I was making a little joke by saying “trust us we’re Monsanto” because the reputation of Monsanto is less than stellar in most people’s minds. I come down against GMO’s because of the precautionary principle and it seems there definitely are problems associated with them. Also just the idea that one company can essentially control the food supply is just too much. It may be that some GMO’s are better than others but to just across the boards try to make all plant life genetically modified seems to have no purpose except to own it and that’s not right.

  13. I gave you an example where Mercola was wrong. It was the first line of an article. And it was not just a little bit wrong, as in a difference of opinion. It was completely opposite to what the overwhelming majority of evidence shows. This does not bode well for the correctness of the rest of the article.
    I also provided sources for the correct information.
    All you have been able to provide in defense of Mercola is that all his information is free. Well, you know what? Free, but wrong information is still completely useless.

  14. Ellot, Most people open with their strongest argument, which is why I am amazed that you chose Mercola to illustrate your point. Do you honestly believe that he is an authority on science or medicine, or are you just being provocative on this thread?
    A random Google search yielded this authoritative article about homeopathy:
    It includes the wonderful statement:
    You May Feel Worse When You Start Homeopathy….It’s known as a “healing reaction.”.

  15. yeah I have a personal problem with a man who has no problem with pushing damn lies without regard to harming the people who believe them.
    but as to your apparent insistence on having the last word, you can have it. I don’t have the patience to argue over the likes of mercola. However having the last word doesn’t mean you’ve changed mercola’s lies into facts.

  16. Peter, I find it completely odd that your strongest argument, the one that you open with, is an attack on Mercola, who actually had very little to do with that link (only an interviewer) and secondarily bring in homeopathy, which has nothing to do with the subject on hand at all. You follow this up with your own comment, whlch is also quite irrelevant. I will say this about homeopathy, it doesn’t have the potential for harm, which is quite different than GMO’s.

  17. Actually I should thank you for bringing up Mercola and homeopathy. Unlike GMO’s and roundup ready, which was recently classified as a potential carcinogen, I can choose whether I want to read anything on Mercola’s site or buy anything there, and the same goes with homeopathy. I can take it or leave it, whether you, Peter believe in it or not. That is not true with GMO’s, is it Peter? In fact because Monsanto is spending millions I cannot even know whether a food is raised in that fashion, right? Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way, after all Monsanto and Syngenta are making products that will feed the world and benefit all mankind.

  18. Is there a specific claim of Mercola’s you’d care to put up for investigation, or do you expect a full rebuttal of an entire book?

  19. Do you know something about my work record that I’m not aware of? Because I’m not sure how working in companies that sequence human DNA makes me have a “vested interest” in GMOs when I don’t even work with plants.
    The FDA’s warnings are specifically about making unsubstantiated claims. That doesn’t have much to do with pharmaceuticals or biotech. It has more to do with making up potentially harmful stuff with nothing to back it up.

  20. I apologize if I wrongly characterized your background. The thing is your name is linked to an organization, biology fortified, which is a pro GMO organization, so of course I assumed something. Logical, right? On the other hand you ignored the link I provided, in which Mercola was only an interviewer (not even the messenger), and decided to attack him, ignoring the information that was presented by the author of a book.
    Actually the FDA restricts all “natural products” from making claims. That doesn’t exactly translate into “making up potentially harmful stuff with nothing to back it up”. There are many potentially beneficial substances that cannot make claims because of the regulatory system. Only patented pharmaceuticals to be able to make claims.

  21. In reply to Ellot:
    “Only patented pharmaceuticals to be able to make claims.”
    I would like to point out that this claim is completely wrong.
    Claims can be made for any substance which has an evidence base supporting those claims. The substance does not have to patented and does not have to be a pharmaceutical (in the narrow sense of the term).

  22. I could be wrong but when your organization uses a mascot, frank n foods, as a cute way to introduce the goodness of GMOs, I would lean toward the fact that the organization is promoting GMOs. I guess Frank n Food is not enough so plushies are here.

  23. Think about what you just said. A plushie named “Frank N. Foode” to “introduce the goodness of GMOs.” If that were the case, why would it be named after a derogatory term?
    People throw up barriers to learning about genetically engineered crops. Frank’s purpose is to break through those barriers to learning by using humor, bringing along the facts and both positive and negative science-based interpretations of those facts. If people can have a laugh for a moment they might then be open to having a discussion. For more info, see Frank’s About page.

  24. You know you’re right Karl, I don’t know what I was thinking. The entire issue needs some humor, so your pro GMO (not!) (humor alert) organization can give the real unbiased scientific facts to the laymen. Hey Karl, I just thought of another good one, what did one GMO plant say to the non GMO one? You need some new Jeans! Ha Ha! I might have to work on that a bit but give me some time, Ok? Thanks for clearing everything up.

  25. Karl, I was wondering if you could give me an idea of the facts of GMOs? What are the positive things and negative things your organization talks about after using humor to break down barriers for laymen? Thanks

  26. Anastasia, sorry for the delay. Your analogy is not particulary apt. Nikolai Braun is a Ph.D in plant molecular biology. He IS in that field. So my statement makes perfect sense, “trust us we’re Monsanto!”. Btw, do you have family from NJ. My brother had a best friend in HS, Russell, graduated Livingston HS, 1976, now an MD in Ohio? His family was somehow related to the late Mayor Koch.

  27. No kidding Karl, but I think there was a mixup that maybe you or I didn’t notice. I was talking about Nikolai Braun, who wrote the article but expressed some thoughts that he didn’t fully understand GMOs. So I posted a reply which expressed the thought that gee if you don’t understand it, (he has a PhD in Molecular Biology) then how could a lay person, which would leave the thought, trust us we’re Monsanto”. Now that I look at Anastasia’s post I believe she was referring to the author of the book not Nikolai Braun even though her post looks like it came after mine. Actually her post is not correct either, I don’t believe, because the author, an attorney, is not claiming to understand genetics. He is claiming the FDA had doubts about the safety of GMOs, which were in the videos I posted, which apparently no one is interested in viewing, but only interested in attacking the percieved messenger, Mercola, because he is against GMOs. Is that how your organization operates? Anything negative is ignored? Or do you just put your spin on it?

  28. Would you bioengineer the entire ecosystem, including the genomes and genetic regulatory network or every organism on earth, and will you perform studies on every nutrient cycle, water cycle, macro and microclimates, symbiotic relationships and signaling between organisms, will we take into account longer range planetary and solar cycles, and will it be virtuous. Science without conscience or prescience is mere nescience pretending to be omniscience. What you are talking about is biased, money-tainted technology; certainly not science … you may want to look at the etymology of the word. Ironically, may shine a deserved negative light on this penny-ante science.

  29. I don’t think anyone is talking about bioengineering an entire ecosystem on this planet. I would join you in expressing doubts about the feasibility of that. But it seems that you are throwing up the infinite unknowables to raise doubts about what we do know from science, instead of talking about what seems to actually concern you – the interaction between the pursuit of knowledge and short-term vs long-term gains.
    I admire your alliterative argument, but there are other words that end in science that you left out, such as pseudoscience and antiscience. How do you know that your argument is not based on a stegosaurus or an apatosaurus rather than a thesaurus?

  30. I understood the comment thread. You were comparing Nikolai to Monsanto, Anastasia pointed out your willingness to trust a non-expert, and I criticized your comparison. I think if you expressed yourself more clearly with your claims you might avoid generating additional confusion.
    Mercola is well-known for manipulating and misrepresenting facts to sell dubious products. I knew this before I knew that he had any opinions about GMOs. His site is not a trusted source of information. While there could be something of value accidentally printed on his site, it does not remove a person’s responsibility to verify if the claims being made are indeed accurate.

  31. Again maybe it’s you who doesn’t grasp the simplicity of what I said. I won’t repeat it, I think most people can clearly understand the implications. It actually makes sense that you wouldn’t understand it after reading your explanation of Frank n Food.
    Mercola, like I have mentioned before writes thousands of articles on all types of health issues: fitness, sleep, medications, farming, vitamins, juicing, etc. Your gross generalization of him and his site just shows you actually never look at his site and when you do only look for things you don’t agree with, like supplements apparently. Like I’ve stated before, he usually presents experts in many of these fields to express their views. I find it interesting that everyone who is in your organization attacks Mercola when he is not the source of the video I linked to.

  32. Nikolai, yes, the whole thread has caused me become better at trying to notice my own degrees of confirmation biases and those perceived in others. That is a good thing to practice noticing as much as we can. Even very skilled experts in their fields are subject to Einstellung effects that can blind to noticing alternatively better turns in the path to follow toward a good solution. See: Why Good thoughts Block Better Ones: the mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) Effect. Merim Bilalic et. al. Cognition, Vol 108 No 3, pages 652-661, Sept. ’08… We all have to deal with this stuff on a personal and professional level, and can benefit from frequent reflection on our status and trends for confirmation bias reality. GMO research and introduction certainly has a LOT of room for introduction of confirmation biases to obstruct the science, especially the systemic nature of pesticide resistant GMOs.

  33. Where can we go to get the results of independent, peer-reviewed, replicable research on GMOs? Long term studies conducted on actual animals, half of which were fed GMOs and half controls. Whenever I have read an article stating that there have been hundreds of studies proving GMOs are safe, I use the contact information to ask this question. I have never received an answer. I avoid GMOs as much as possible because I simply do not know whether or not they are safe.

  34. Anne, exactly! Funding for such studies is very limited, and uncommon enough that if problems are suggested by one study, there turns out to be no money for followup studies adequate to the need for demonstrating peer-reviewed and replicated science… therefore the original studies get panned by the industry. The government agencies, with their revolving doors for administration CEOs interchangeable with industry positions, does very little to investigate adequately either. Sad status and trends for adequate accurate assurance of safety. Sad that this prevalent dynamic limits confidence in GE in general, to the point of total rejection of GMOs by some major segments of society. GE could hold a lot of promise if much more carefully done than in the current pesticide resistance paradigm.

  35. Thank you, Ewan R. I just went to GENERA and read the abstract of the first study listed: “The influence of genetically modified Bt maize MON 810 in feed mixtures on slaughter, haematological and biochemical indices of broiler chickens.” I clicked on “Link to full text” which claimed to be “open access, freely available”, but I couldn’t figure out how to access the full text. (I’m not tech savvy.)That would not have helped me anyway because the broiler chickens were slaughtered at 42 days, which does not qualify as long term. Owing to time constraints, I can’t read more today. I am looking forward to working my way through these studies. Thanks again.

  36. Anne, here are a couple of literature reviews from an independent scientist. The most recent isn’t included in GENERA (last time I looked) – and in fact the GENERA collection is a random selection of papers, articles, etc. with no comprehensive review, only labels that don’t accurately characterize each entry (they only serve as a way to make broad and often inaccurate statements about the literature that is included in GENERA)
    I would suggest starting with these papers and following up by reading the references if you wish. Likewise, there are some metastudies in GENERA that you could use as a starting place to see how different groups assess the literature. Yes, you have to be aware that in GENERA studies described as reflecting on “safety for consumption” may not really be applicable to safety for consumption but in a very superficial way (there are lots of broiler chickens in that category).
    A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants
    Jose Domingo
    Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature
    Jose Domingo

  37. Yep, GENERA is currently a random selection of a larger group of papers. Keep in mind that GENERA is in Beta until we are able to secure more funding so we can have people categorize more papers. This is all described in the about pages on GENERA. If you have specific concerns, how about you start a forum post?
    Call me crazy, but I don’t think a site that aims to stop GMOs is going to be even remotely unbiased.

  38. Thanks Anastasia. I’ve attempted, through e-mail and a forum post, to point out the problems with GENERA’s “categorization”. Biofortified hasn’t made any attempt to correct or justify the way it’s labeled the collection of studies with regard to the categories and characterizations it’s used. It’s unscientific and allows for extrapolated opinions which have nothing to do with the researchers’ conclusions, or even the purpose of the studies in many cases. There’s no hierarchy of relevance, or of validity, in GENERA’s interpretation of all the studies it’s included. And yet they’re all used equally to support the generalizations that biofortified is making about them. And the fact that the studies were randomly chosen makes it even more unlikely that anything the “charts” say about the literature is meaningful.
    I linked to a website that aims to “stop gmos” because that was the site that offered the full text of the Domingo paper. I’ve never read that site. You’re right that the name is a bit off-putting. But apparently for you the name of the site where a study is posted is more important than what the study says. Are you suggesting that Domingo’s research is biased? How is it biased? That would be a good topic to explore. I also included the more recent paper because it’s not on GENERA. I thought that in the interest of a more comprehensive discussion on GMO safety, I would link Anne to those papers.
    It’ll be great if you can hire someone who’s familiar with the kind of challenges GENERA presents as it hopes to be a legitimate source for information on GMOS. As of now, the very foundation of its categorization and charting methods is fatally flawed.

  39. The full explanation of the categories is here. It is based 100% on the researcher’s conclusions to avoid insertion of any bias by the reviewer.
    A random selection of a group is the way almost all observational science is done. One can rarely say they have a sample set that includes 100% of the things being studied.
    If you have an alternate strategy to suggest, please feel free to submit a new post.

  40. Perhaps I will try, at some point in the future, to again explain why simply linking people to the glossary doesn’t solve the problem of GENERA’s biased interpretation of the randomly selected literature when it comes to the equivalency and safety of GE crops. I don’t know whether there’s really a lack of understanding, or whether this is a purposeful commitment to the goal of product advocacy. But either way, I think it’s important that people know that GENERA’s characterizations of the individual studies isn’t scientific, and is instead an artificial construct which allows for things like “charts” to draw inaccurate conclusions about the research.
    But I won’t make any further comments on this here. Thank you.

  41. What I don’t understand is why more comments aren’t tied in to Virginia Tech Football and Frank Beamer. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Hokies are AWESOME, and everyone else sucks.

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