Rollin Richmond: Education and knowledge, not fearful ideology, are key to understanding GMOs

The recent article, “What the GMO Four aren’t Telling you about biotech food,” by Dr. John Schaefer in the Aug. 26  Mad River Union is a classic example of the “fear factor” that unfortunately often affects people who are forced to deal with a new scientific discovery or technical tool and have not been adequately educated about its basis and use.

Scientists often do not do a good job of helping laypeople to understand their work and its implications for our species. One wonderful exception to this is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who not only is an excellent scientist but does a first-class job of educating people about a range of scientific issues on several good television programs.

Tyson recently made a YouTube video about GMO foods in which he cites the “fear factor” that is raised in many of us by any change but certainly those we do not understand and have not studied at all.

Tyson points out that all of our food has been genetically modified using artificial selection techniques that we no longer question but do many of the same things that GM technology can now do but much more efficiently.

Rollin badgeGM technology is going to be critical for our species as our numbers expand from about seven billion people now to about 10 billion by the end of the century. Not only will GM technology allow us to produce more food, it will allow us to do it with the agricultural land now in use, and thus help us to preserve many of the natural biological species that continue to contribute to human welfare in so many important ways.

The “fear factor” response to GMOs reminds me sadly of the fact that Humboldt County has one of the lowest vaccination rates for children in California because of gossip about the speculated connection between vaccines and autism (lostcoastoutpost.com/2014/may/16/vaccine-paranoia-rise-humboldt/). Not only are parents’ own children endangered by this practice, but their children have the potential to pass diseases along to others. This is clearly not ethical, and is yet again and example of the role of the “fear factor.”

One of the best analyses of the potential and concerns about GMO foods was published last year in Scientific American magazine. This article does an excellent job of summarizing the negative and positive arguments for GMO foods and is a good read for a layperson. Here are two quotes from this article:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have all unreservedly backed GM crops. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with its counterparts in several other countries, has repeatedly reviewed large bodies of research and concluded that GM crops pose no unique health threats. Dozens of review studies carried out by academic researchers have backed that view...

Some scientists say the objections to GM food stem from politics rather than science—that they are motivated by an objection to large multinational corporations having enormous influence over the food supply; invoking risks from genetic modification just provides a convenient way of whipping up the masses against industrial agriculture. “This has nothing to do with science,” Goldberg says. “It’s about ideology.” Former anti-GM activist Lynas agrees. He recently went as far as labeling the anti-GM crowd “explicitly an antiscience movement.

The last sentence in this quote worries me a great deal. Science has been under attack in our cultures for a very long time. Remember what Galileo had to endure when he questioned the accepted religious perspective that the earth was at the center of the solar system?

GMO foods may not be quite as important as Galileo’s science, but we must be able to use, control and benefit from important scientific discoveries that can and often do make a big difference for humanity and beyond. However, I and others are concerned with the political power that is now enjoyed by large corporations in this and other countries. Our politics concerning the regulation of industry in this country needs to change and is one of the reasons that it is so important for us all to vote.

The Scientific American article ends by suggesting a way forward from the contentious and unproductive debate over the future of GMO foods. Author David H. Freedman argues as follows:

There is a middle ground in this debate. Many moderate voices call for continuing the distribution of GM foods while maintaining or even stepping up safety testing on new GM crops. They advocate keeping a close eye on the health and environmental impact of existing ones. But they do not single out GM crops for special scrutiny, the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Jaffe notes: all crops could use more testing. “We should be doing a better job with food oversight altogether,” he says.

One of the most distinguished scientific journals in the world is published in this country by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is called Science. The Sept. 20 2013 issue had an editorial titled, “Standing Up for GMOs.”.

This editorial was signed by some of the world’s most distinguished scientists including two Nobel laureates. Here is their last paragraph:

New technologies often evoke rumors of hazard. These generally fade with time when, as in this case, no real hazards emerge. But the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations. We, and the thousands of other scientists who have signed the statement of protest, stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances such as Golden Rice that have the potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.

When Measure P that would “prohibit the propagation, cultivation, raising, or growing of genetically modified organisms in Humboldt County” is on the ballot, vote against it. Instead let’s all agree to promote the way forward suggested above by ensuring that all our foods will be more carefully tested.

A vote against Measure P is also a vote to support the role of science in our world. Nothing is or will be more important for the future of humanity than strong science.

As an evolutionary geneticist who spent 25 years teaching genetics and doing research using fruit flies, Drosophila, and making use of developing DNA technologies, I firmly believe we need to embrace the new technologies that science brings us. But at the same time, we need to ensure that the use of these technologies is controlled by our governments in ways that will maximize their benefits to our and other species and minimize their potential for damage.

Evolutionary biologist Rollin R. Richmond is the former president of Humboldt State University. He has no ties, financial or otherwise, to any agricultural biotechnology company.

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20 Comments

  1. humboldtrick said:

    Gish Gallop? Now THAT’s bullshit. I raised one concern — the increased application of toxic, man-made chemicals — not spewing a lot of bullshit, although that is certainly what YOU are doing here. Seems like the typical Hoover reply, adding made-up, pseudo intellectual Hoovershit to the mix to confuse the issue.

  2. humboldtrick said:

    it is just common sense, something you seem to lack, that informs me that putting more man-made toxic chemicals on the planet is wrong. Also, it is knowledge of human nature, another thing seemingly lacking in your arsenal, that tells me that you shouldn’t put the wolf in charge of the hen house (or people from the nuclear industry to regulate their own industry).

    (And I see where you stole the “tribal mythologies” quip, obviously from the Mark Wilson article. How original!)

  3. humboldtrick said:

    Just the most snooty, asshole-ish way to say that you can’t point out any logical fallacies or non-falsifiable claims.

  4. Ian Ray said:

    I’m surprised they haven’t changed the logo from honeybees to a red X over a picture of Kevin Hoover as that seems to have become an issue as well.

  5. Kevin Hoover said:

    It’s a solution without a problem. That’s a good point about there being no economic study to support this elimination of farmers’ rights. It’s all based on folkloric presumptions.

    And the shifting sands of sophistry. Monsanto has never sued an organic farmer for accidental pollen drift, but that is still invoked as a big threat. Remember when GMOFH had bees in their logo? Oh, and don’t forget the Indian farmer suicides, which predate GMO introduction and span all of Indian society. Now we’re “coating the earth in RoundUp,” except that we’re doing nothing of the sort.

    If it sounds scary, go for it. Frankenfood and Monsatan memes satisfy Facebook Science Academy, and that’s all the science you really need.

  6. Ian Ray said:

    Maybe Humboldt can approve a symbolic measure requiring a transition period between being a government official…

    Oh, right, irrelevant. Irrelevance would be another thing that is confusing about the debate of this issue. The big 3 irrelevant topics of:

    1. Herbicide use: this measure does zero to herbicide use, yet it is somehow an issue.

    2. Organic agriculture promotion: discussions keep going to how organic crops are supposedly more valuable without any analysis as to how a crop ban will result in positive cash flow.

    3. Intellectual property law: a county regulation cannot overrule Federal IP laws, yet a fair amount of discussion revolves around them.

    Really, the only relevant issues are cross-pollination and making technology illegal. Yet, very little is coming from proponents about these two issues. From my perspective, this is tacitly admitting that cross-pollination “risk” isn’t really a thing and nobody wants to talk about how this measure will ban all future uses of a type of emerging technology. It would be appreciated if the various complaints people have about how things are in the world could be decoupled from what this measure actually does in the county.

  7. Kevin Hoover said:

    The revolving door between industry and government is quite vexing. You want regulators with experience in the industry, but who aren’t so cozy with it that they don’t serve it rather than the public. What’s the solution? A buffer period before outgoing regulators can accept an industry job might help.

  8. Ian Ray said:

    I think the discussion on Humboldt Skeptics concerned the professional career paths of people who end up in government regulation. I’m pretty sure it was just my opinion, not some kind of indisputable statement.

    There are fewer available people who have purely been involved in academia or non-industry-related work who are also qualified to regulate industry. At some point in those people’s careers—even if not the majority of their career—they were in the industry in some capacity. Really, good luck finding the competent nuclear power regulatory official who has never been involved with the industry.

    Anyway, that was the point: it’s just how it usually is, not that that is the only way it can or needs to be. Of course, personally, I’d rather have someone who worked with nuclear power regulating nuclear power than some person who studied it their entire life but somehow never got involved with actual nuclear
    power and suddenly decided to get involved with industry politics.

    Another point is the reason industry meddles with the government regulation of industry is because it directly affects them. People complain that the organic labeling board making decisions about what ingredients can be called organic is comprised of all organic food company people… so, who do they want, a bunch of random people who have nothing to do with it? Granted, that is just regulating marketing and not anything safety related, but the same principle applies.

    In any case, is the contention is that the sort of pro-science/pro-evidence view Rollin Richmond brings forth here is corrupt while some feel-good county regulation banning an entire crop technology is not corrupt? I would argue the entire premise of this measure is corrupt.

  9. humboldtrick said:

    So now you are a fucking mind reader? My conclusions are not built on premises derived from the “GMO fear-world.” I’ve believed that we shouldn’t pump more poisons on our planet decades before lab-made GMOs existed. Kevin, sometimes you are a pompous ass.

  10. humboldtrick said:

    Blah blah blah. What’s the very, very good answer? I haven’t seen anything that convinces me that putting more poisons on the planet is somehow good for the planet or its inhabitants. Are you arguing that RoundUp is not a poison?

  11. Kevin Hoover said:

    Rick, I have no more time to spend on addressing that trainwreck than I do fact-checking a Dr. Seuss story. The conclusions are all built on premises derived exclusively from GMO fear-world, and facts are all but useless in deflating fixed, faith-based beliefs.

  12. Kevin Hoover said:

    There’s a very, very good and specific answer to that. Something I didn’t know about until I went to the biology lecture the other night.
    It is in the realm of evidence and data though, not fear and rhetoric about “coating the planet” with RoundUp.
    It’s the kind of thing one learns on leaving the comfort of the echo chamber. That is something we all have to do for ourselves.

  13. humboldtrick said:

    What sort of logic and reason supports the increased application of RoundUp on the planet?

  14. humboldtrick said:

    I’m not following “popular opinion” or my “tribal alphas” (whoever the fuck you think they might be, although I don’t have any). I follow logic and reason, along with observation and consideration of past history and human nature, and I just don’t see how applying more toxic chemicals on the planet can good. (I would strive to understand how more RoundUp coating the planet could be good, but I haven’t seen that issue addressed in a scientific study.) I haven’t seen any justification for the increased application. You equate my concern with Facebook graphics of green babies (haven’t seen that one) or oranges with syringes in them (haven’t seen that one, either). That certainly is some sort of bullshit obfuscation of the issue; a propaganda tool. Besides, we’re not talking basic science here, we are talking technology. And where there’s technology, there’s money to be made. Where there’s money to be made, influence and corruption easily follows. You are treating technology as if it were basic science, an error on your part.

    Please point out the logical fallacies and non-falsifiable claims.

  15. Kevin Hoover said:

    Rick, your response is so laden with logical fallacies and non-falsifiable claims, there’s no point in addressing it. It’s another Gish Gallop, a waste of your time as much as anyone else’s.

    Speaking only for myself, when new data comes along – not Facebook pictures of green babies or oranges with syringes in them, but actual evidence – I’m going to strive to understand what it is telling me, regardless of what my assumptions were, what the the popular opinion of the day might be or what the alphas in my tribe like to hear.

    That’s harder sometimes, but it’s also kind of defining – whether one goes with facts and evidence and having one’s beliefs challenged, or resorts to the entire universe to synch up with a peer group’s politics, superstitions and fear.

  16. humboldtrick said:

    Conspiracy mongering? Really? Where? Your reply is full of your canned name-calling responses without addressing the stated concerns. Kevin, do you think it is a good idea to coat our planet in RoundUp? You are way too willing to ignore the human factor (but only when it applies to science). Your assessment that science is infallible is elevating science to religion, which it is not. And you are elevating scientists to something more than human, something without prejudice or corruption. Do you believe in the ridiculous, moronic position stated on Humboldt Skeptics that the only people who should regulate GMOs (or nuclear energy, tracking, etc.) are the people running the industry, because they are the only ones who truly understand the industry? Do you believe that scientists are somehow superhuman and oblivious to corruption? Is poisoning the planet with endless streams of toxic chemicals a tribal myth? You keep dismissing me while saying that GMOs are safe to eat. You must not be reading my arguments, because I don’t say that GMOs are not safe to eat. My issue is with the increased herbicide/pesticide load that these GMO crops can tolerate, and the increased spraying that is done to these crops. Sometimes your stubborn stupidity is amazing.

  17. Kevin Hoover said:

    Another “Science, but…” rejoinder full of partial information, misdirection and conspiracy mongering, carefully nurtured in the fear-filled anti-GMO echo chamber. Apparently this is all the anti side has.

    Fortunately, science cares nothing for our tribal mythologies.

    “If a majority of real scientists (not random food and diet bloggers with a degree from Google U) were to find that genetically modifying our foods was indeed harmful, then I would accept those results – but that hasn’t happened.”

    http://www.forwardprogressives.com/why-are-liberals-denying-science-when-it-comes-to-gmos/

  18. humboldtrick said:

    There is a huge qualitative difference between cross-pollinating different plants and inserting genes from another Kingdom’s species in the lab. You have to admit that that’s true. You will never get a fly to breed with a radish.

    And why should the FDA’s approval mean anything? They don’t do testing themselves; they just review the tests done by the corporate producer and accept their conclusions. The FDA has done very little to protect the public for the last 30+ years. They have just been a rubber-stamp for industry. (As are the AMA.) The other orgs mentioned — the NAS and the AAAS are not research organizations, they are just professional “clubs” with political and funding goals with can override the truth. Remember, they all operate in this money-controlled world.

    These propaganda articles always use scare tactics like “children will die without GMOs!!!!” because Golden Rice might be banned, yet rarely address the issue of increased use toxic chemicals (you claim that this is false, yet Monsanto themselves promote their “RoundUp-ready” crops as crops that you can spray MORE RoundUp on without killing the plants). Some folks keep telling me how absolutely safe RoundUp is. Sorry, I just don’t believe that. They used to say the same about DDT.

    I do rely on science. It is the best method we have to ferret out reality. On the other hand, science is a product if imperfect people, and is subject to the prejudices and corruption of people, politics and society. I will give science credit for all the knowledge it has brought (and will bring to) humans and it will always command my respect and belief, but I won’t give it blind faith because corruptible people and organizations are involved.

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