Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Your Anti-GMO Argument is Big Tobacco

‘When the tobacco companies say they're eager to find out the truth, they want you to think the truth isn't known…. They want to be able to call it a controversy.’ - Unnamed American Cancer Society Official [1]
Anti-GMO activists like to try and compare Monsanto to the tobacco industry, claiming that they paid off scientists to hide harm from their products. The problem is that the tobacco industry did no such thing. They denied the evidence scientists were presenting, and demanded that more studies needed to be done. Big Tobacco sounds a lot more like Big Organic.
In the early 20th century, scientists and doctors had begun to notice a correlation between smoking and lung cancer. Franz Muller, in Germany, published the first population study examining the connection. His data showed that smokers were far more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers, and his studies were verified by several other German scientists in the 1940s. By 1950 five large studies had been completed in the United States and the United Kingdom, again, verifying a connection between lung cancer and smoking. Cohort studies were conducted by 1954 showing that regardless of sex, age, and ethnicity, smoking was causing people to get lung cancer. The American Cancer Society said it was “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Animal studies, cellular pathology studies, and chemical analysis of the smoke were all being completed at the same time giving undeniable evidence that smoking cigarettes was harmful. By the mid-1950s a scientific consensus was reached.[2] Even the tobacco industry’s own animal studies confirmed that cigarette smoke was causing tumours. [3] 
Big Tobacco began a public relations campaign to create controversy. It was decided to not deny the science, but to ask for more of it. The industry began encouraging the skepticism of science in order to create doubt about the consensus. The idea that there was always more to know, and that we could never be sure, was repeated over and over again. By repeatedly offering more money for research, while questioning the results, they were able to create a moral high ground. How could anyone argue with more research being done? A select few of the very vocal scientists already critical of the research, many of which were smokers themselves, were placed into the center of the stage to deny a consensus existed. These were not scientists that worked for the tobacco industry, but (like evolution and climate change) the natural result of always having a few critics. A loud minority was formed that was able to shout over the other 99%. Journalists like to report on controversy, and this small group of scientists provided the appearance of balance. Rather than try to show cigarettes were safe, they attempted to create rebuttals to research that showed harm and highlight economic benefits of the industry.[4]  Freedom of Information Act requests were even made to harrass scientists studying the effects of tobacco, even going so far to attack Professor Paul Fischer for researching tobacco advertisements and children.

Today, thousands of studies have been completed on the safety of genetically modified crops.[5] A scientific consensus has been reached among every major scientific organization in the world.[6] The organic industry sees the science of GMOs as a threat because it means less research is being conducted on organic seeds[7], the possibility of creating more nutritious seed that doesn’t qualify for organic[8], and the extremely small potential for contamination of organic fields[9]. Most of the organic industry’s anti-GMO campaign involves casting doubt on scientists conducting research.[10] Rather than attempting to argue the science behind the studies, the funding and characteristics of the scientists are called in to question.[11] A select group of vocally critical scientists were selected to engage the public and talk to the press creating the appearance of a lack of consensus.[12]  Rather than attempting to show genetic engineering as inherently dangerous, they call into question cherry picked ways in which it is used such as pest control[13]. Loaded questions are asked like tobacco companies asking “where is the harm in just doing more research”? Asking about the harm in just labeling it, and the use of the precautionary principle have become the new mantra. The FOIA system is being abused to target professors speaking out in favor of science. Grassroots organizations were even set up to create the appearance of charity, much like Big Tobacco’s Scientific Advisory Board.[14]
Big Organic is in danger. The days of DDT are over. Scientists are now able to merge technology with the natural to benefit the environment and human health better than organic could ever hope to. Much like the tobacco industry, the organic industry is in panic mode. Just like creating a controversy helped the tobacco industry actually boost sales and profits regardless of the evidence of harm, creating a controversy about GM crops has boosted sales and profits of organic food.
American Cancer Society 1954 - ‘the presently available evidence indicates an association between smoking, particularly cigarette smoking, and lung cancer’[15]
American Cancer Society 2015 - ‘There is no proof at this time that the genetically modified foods that are now on the market are harmful to human health.’[16]
RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company 1954 - ‘There still isn’t a single shred of substantial evidence to link cigarette smoking and lung cancer directly.’[17]
Gary Ruskin 2012 - ‘...decide for ourselves whether we want to gamble with our health by eating GMO foods that have not been adequately studied and have not been proven safe.’[18]

[1] Lelyveld J. Cigarette makers prosper despite debate on hazards. New York Times. November 29, 1963:59

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Is Nicholas Taleb lying or deluded?

Nicky still appears to be trying to throw misinformation at the wall to see what sticks. It appears that he is in the process of writing a new paper about the precautionary principle being applied to biotech crops, and recently posted a summary sheet on his Facebook page. With a complete lack of citations it is fairly easy to debunk the lies and misinformation within the document.
Stephan Neidenbach -

Nicky fails to actually mention any of the major scientific organizations that all agree biotech crops currently on the market are safe. He uses the ad hominem fallacy to allude to some vast conspiracy of Monsanto paid scientists and journalists, relying completely on one New York Times piece announcing Monsanto gave a grant to a university to help cover travel expenses for an outreach program. He tries to prevent anyone from calling out the organic industry for giving money to scientists because of how much more biotechnology companies spend. Again, his whole argument relies on a logical fallacy, and he is just trying to attack the people rather than the facts. There really is a scientific consensus that biotech crops currently on the market are safe. 

He then backpedals and states that even if there is a consensus, any potential risk is enough to warrant not using biotech crops. This is the genetic fallacy. He is speaking of demonizing an entire technology, regardless of how it is used. He doesn't mention which traits he perceives as having the potential for risk, he just alludes to all biotech crops having the same risk. How could herbicide tolerant corn and disease resistant papaya possibly carry the same risk? He proceeds to call for large scale studies at "organismal and ecological scales". Why would this be performed for one type of breeding process but not another? Novel traits are created through many different methods, and artificial selection has actually proven dangerous with toxins being produced and the introduction of invasive species which have actually severely damaged entire ecosystems. 

Nicky continues to ramble on about how we don't "need" biotech crops to feed the world. This isn't even a claim that biotech companies or scientists make. The technology is one of many tools that can aid in the process and potentially help deal with "black swans" we haven't even considered yet. He is correct that there is currently enough food being produced to feed the world, and that distribution is a major problem. Unfortunately this urban elitist view is about giving a man a fish rather than teaching him to fish. The transportation costs to ship food into the developing world for this cause would be astronomical, and would also make the developing country dependent on the developed world. How very colonial of him. It almost makes me wonder how much Big Shipping is paying him to write this nonsense. Yields in developing countries have actually been proven to increase more so than developed ones with the introduction of biotech crops, allowing these countries to produce food on their own. Investing in agriculture to help reduce post harvest losses in the developing world would return $13 to those countries for every $1 spent.

Calling for the use of supplements or alternative crops to combat malnutrition is yet another first world view only someone so far removed from reality as Nicky could have. He complains about novel crops replacing local varieties, and then says they should replace local varieties with alternative crops and supplements. Crops like golden rice being investigated would allow cultures to maintain their staple diets while making money by growing their own nutrition rather than relying on expensive supplements.

Reading his claim that biotech crops are based on pseudo-science because of "snake-oil" lobbying, and that science is based on skepticism and dissent actually made me throw up in my mouth a little. This is the same coward that has told his "cult" to refuse to engage anyone pro-biotechnology, and to call them all "shills", refusing to listen to any skepticism or dissent in regards to his own faith based views. The whole passage reeks of cult brainwashing, even holding himself up as some divine authority on risk. I actually agree with him that being anti biotech-crop does not make someone anti-biotechnology in medicine. It is a shame that he can differentiate between traits in this regard, but not for individual crops. 

Nicky then proceeds to explain how in popular debate "GMOs" refer to transgenic crops specifically. This, and calling biotech crops a "top-down" intervention, are more examples of his cult like behavior. Loading the language is an example of thought reform where vocabulary and meanings are invented to make people conform to his way of thinking. Top-down and bottom-up design has simply never been used to describe the breeding of crops. He is just attempting to use a phrase in a new way that the outside world does not understand. He claims that biotech crops some how require a different risk assessment than mutagenesis or artificial selection, but fails to explain why. The truth is there is not a single risk that can be applied to biotech crops that cannot also be applied to other breeding methods. 

Nicky appears to think that because the current most prevalent biotech crop traits relate to pesticides, that they are intrinsically linked. Again, using the genetic fallacy in this way completely ignores disease resistance (which solves a problem with mono-cropping that artificial selection created), and traits designed to reduce food waste (something that contradicts his idea about having enough food being a reason not to use biotech crops). The fact is mutagenesis and artificial selection have both brought us herbicide tolerant crops, and we even have glyphosate tolerant flax due out in 2019 that qualifies for the NONGMO verification seal.

While claiming that pesticide use has increased with the introduction of biotech crops, without providing evidence, this couldn't be further from the truth. An independent meta-analyis from Germany (where there is no biotech crop cultivation) shows how insecticide use has been drastically reduced due to biotech crops. While glyphosate use has gone up, chemical inputs over all have remained steady even while production has sky rocketed in the United States. There is an anti-biotech assumption that increased biotech crops have increased pesticide usage because glyphosate usage has gone up, but they choose to ignore that glyphosate simply replaced other herbicides. One almost wonders if BASF is paying him to post such things, as their imazamox herbicide has been seeing a resurgence since the primitive food movement went crazy over biotech crops a few years back. 

Nicky finishes his document with the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" argument. Fine, then that would apply to all breeding methods equally. There is not one single risk that applies to biotech crops but not to other crops. It is pure hypocrisy to complain about a generalization that all biotech crops are dangerous, and then say all biotech crops are inherently risky. Saying all biotech crops are inherently risky because you don't like herbicide tolerance would be like saying all medicine is risky because you don't like Vioxx.

I challenge anyone to give me a risk that applies to biotech crops on the market now that does not apply to other breeding methods. Creative Commons License
This work by Stephan Neidenbach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.