Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Finding the Fertile, Sane Middle Ground on GMO Foods…Maybe

By Bob Ferris
An ID from one of the many colleges I attended in the early 1970s.
When I started college in 1970 advocacy by scientists was not considered completely cricket.  It certainly happened but it was generally frowned upon as scientists were supposed to be detached, independent and a little tweedy.  When I returned to school in the 1980s after stints in the for-profit sector, the act of advocacy by scientists was becoming much, much more acceptable.  By the time of my departure from my PhD program in the early 1990s it seemed almost commonplace, if not encouraged.

I think of this trajectory now as I ponder the whole issue of GMOs and food catalyzed by the posting of the above graphic on a Facebook page by a person identifying herself as “Vegetablarian Vicki PhD, BS, WTF (Comedian).”  At least I think the poster is a woman, but the individual’s personal page was deleted because it was an alias and everything in the posted biography seems to be pretty much nonsense (see below).

The above is a good introduction to the conflict and the silliness, because when we discuss this topic or other complicated issues such as pesticide use, omnivory versus vegetarianism, or climate change we immediately find ourselves hip-deep in passion and promotion needing to quickly find the high ground of reason before being sucked below by emotion, deception or both.  Taking the above comparison graphic at face value, we are led to think that we should not trust the greedy, foreign woman in a field and rush to embrace the saintly, sandwich-eating scientist in his lab.  The imagery is offensive on a lot of different levels and really lives more in the land of half-truths and innuendos than it does in somewhere more constructive.

Dr. Kevin Folta speaking on a panel at the Cato Institute originally founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974. 
In point of fact both exemplars in the graphic are scientists and both have received enough criticism for those exercising prudency in this debate to look for multiple sources before forming opinions based solely on their claims.  One cannot, for example, bust on Dr. Shiva for speaking fees and possibly letting her passions get the better of her without also considering Dr. Folta’s association with the Genetic Literacy Project headed by Jon Entine (1,2,3), funded in part by industry and associated with—through fiscal agency and co-location—the Statistical Assessment Service (SAS)/Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) complex that was constructed by S. Robert Lichter—a former paid commentator for Fox News.  (Sorry for the complicated sentence.)

Lobbying expenses by groups opposed to GMO labeling.  For more details visit Environmental Working Group site.
Complicated issues create complicated landscapes particularly when there is big money at stake and checks are being written promiscuously (see above).   It should also be noted that there is a great and eerie correspondence between the funders of SAS/CMPA and those funding the climate denial machine which makes this landscape not only complicated, but purposely slippery as well.  The core message here is that this “landscape” needs to be walked through carefully with every step fully considered and evaluated individually.

When I look at the GMO issues that I have worked directly on such as engineered salmon and Bt corn there are and remain legitimate concerns over how these organisms or their genetic material might or do interact with the surrounding environment and local economies.  As an ecologist I know of simply too many instances when introduced species brought in with the best of intentions and what was considered foresight proved to be disastrous.  And while it might be hard for some to make the connection between cane toads (see above video clip from Cane Toads: An Unnatural History) or mongooses and super-salmon or pesticide enhanced corn these cautionary tales should act as compelling flashing yellow lights to those engaged in considering these options.

I also think about Shakespeare’s line in Henry IV, Part 2 about not shooting the messenger delivering bad news, because with GMOs it is sometimes the messenger or messengers themselves that are the bad news.  The so-called golden rice situation is a prime example of this.  If you know that you might run into resistance getting approval for something because it is in part associated with a controversial company like Syngenta with a reputation for mischief, why-oh-why would you put or allow someone like Patrick Moore with all of his nuclear and climate contrarianism and corporate-linked baggage anywhere near the promotion of this product?  (Hint: When Heartland Institute and CFACT have to jump to your defense or provide you a platform, you have to understand that your good ship "Credibility" is sinking fast and on the way to the bottom. For more on this see here.)

Photo on CFACT website promoting Patrick Moore's Golden Rice campaign and continuing the myth that Moore (on left) is a  "founder" of Greenpeace Canada.
Moreover, why would you think it smart to set Dr. Moore on someone of David Suzuki’s repute?   How exactly is attacking the scientist who introduced many of us to the field of genetics though a text book called Introduction to Genetic Analysis going to attract those same scientists to a cause involving genetics?  And why would you use spokespeople who mainly have well-documented histories of pushing for de-regulation?  Or why too would you conduct trials without getting buy-in from some leading scientists or approval first?

My sense is that the claims of the golden rice proponents are overblown, naïve and perhaps a little desperate (1,2,3,4).  As someone who looks at complicated systems frequently and tries to figure them out, I find it unlikely that a single solution focusing on a single factor is suddenly going to solve the whole equation.  But we might never know because these very “smart” people though ignorance, arrogance and more than a little public relations bullying from conservative think tanks and their allies have constructed a strategy that seems to resemble in many ways a skyscraper built on quicksand.

I have friends on both sides of this difficult, complex debate—many of whom seem a little too anxious to shoot first and ask questions later when a little caution and a lot of diligence should be exercised.  To them I would say that we should not extol the promise of GMOs without giving equal examination to the associated peril.  In addition, folks who properly and prudently exercise caution should not be characterized as wanting the world to starve just as those looking for solutions are not automatically monsters.  We have a long way to go on this path but I suspect progress will not be made if that journey starts on an anonymous Facebook page compiled by a comedian with dubious "credentials" or other ill-advised locales.

1 comment:

  1. The issue of GMO's is not close to my heart, but to believe the various skeptic pages, the debate is over, all GMO's are completely safe. I don't know if GMO's are safe or not, but these folks say there is a lot of compelling scientific evidence that this is the case, and they mock any dissenting opinion. They often lump an issue that is of concern to me, organics, with GMO, probably because both raise questions about food safety and environmental stewardship. As an advocate of organics, with the understanding that we don't have all the evidence regarding best practices, I'm lumped in with the anti-GMO and treated as one of the unenlightened. I've asked questions, I've looked at articles on Scientific American and Nature, and I have not discovered a clear scientific consensus, like the one that exists regarding climate change. It's frustrating, but I'm glad to discover at least one trained ecologist claim that it is a complicated question. Thank you for that.