Episode 60: “Frankenfoods”

Episode 60: “Frankenfoods”

In the second part of Life, the Universe & Everything Else‘s two-part series examining organic farming and genetically engineered foods, Mark Forkheim, Leslie Saunders, Gem Newman, and Laura Creek Newman discuss the science of genetic engineering and some of the very real problems with Monsanto.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Background Information: Genetically Modified Organism | Genetically Modified Food | Genetically Modified Food Controversies | Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser | WHO: 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

Scientific Papers: Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review | Zambia and Genetically Modified Food Aid | A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health | Impact of GM Crops on Biodiversity

News Articles: Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce | Corporate Control Main Problem with GMOs | Monsanto Wins U.S. Supreme Court Fight Over Genetically Engineered Soybeans

Health Effects of GE Food: Huffington Post: Monsanto’s GMO Corn Linked to Organ Failure | Forbes: Scientists Savage Study Purportedly Showing Health Dangers of Monsanto’s Genetically Modified Corn | New Scientist: Study Linking GM Crops and Cancer Questioned | Dot Earth: Single-Study Syndrome and the GMO Food Fight | Discovery News: GM Corn-Tumor Link Based on Poor Science | Respectful Insolence: Bad Science About GMOs: It Reminds Me of the Antivaccine Movement

Insects and Colony Collapse Disorder: Forbes: Science Collapse Disorder: The Real Story Behind Neonics and Mass Bee Deaths | Dr. Doug Yanega: Honey Bees, CCD, and the Elephant in the Room | Bug Girl: Bees, Pesticides, and CCD: What’s the Evidence? | Bug Girl: Bees and Pesticides (Again) | Genetic Literacy Project: Monsanto v. Monarch Butterflies

Other Links: Mark Lynas: Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference | Mark Lynas: Time to Call Out the Anti-GMO Conspiracy Theory | Skeptoid: Organic Food Myths | Skeptoid: Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture | Pharyngula: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad GMO? | Neurologica: Organic Food, Pesticides, and Cancer | Kevin Folta: More Frankenfood Paradox | Michael Eisen: The Anti-GMO Campaign’s Dangerous War on Science | Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat, by Emily Eaton | Seeds of Death | “Monsanto Protection Act” is Bullshit | Oxfam: There is Enough Food to Feed the World | Nature: Case Studies: A Hard Look at GM Crops | GreenBiz: Organic Food is Not the Answer | NPR’s The Salt: Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted | Skepchick: Babies and Bathwater: Monsanto

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Update (3 December 2013): Séralini et al.’s controversial study claiming to demonstrate that GE corn causes cancer in rats has been retracted. We discussed a few of the (many) problems with the study on this episode, but if you need a refresher, Steven Novella has more at Neurologica.

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Episode 59: Organic Agriculture

Episode 59: Organic Agriculture

In the first part of Life, the Universe & Everything Else‘s two-part series examining organic farming and genetically engineered foods, Mark Forkheim, Leslie Saunders, Gem Newman, and Laura Creek Newman discuss the science, politics, and ideology of organic agriculture.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Background Information: Organic | Organic Compound | Organic Model | Organic Farming | Organic Food | Green Revolution | Groundwater | Aquifer | Topsoil | Haber-Bosch Process

Scientific Papers: Glenlea Long-Term Crop Rotation: Historical Research Results | Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review

News Articles: Pesticides Found in Canadian Organic Produce | Battling Foreign Farm Subsidies | Canada’s Organic Food Certification ‘Little More Than an Extortion Racket’ | Less Fertile Crescent: The Waters of Babylon Are Running Dry | Land Rush Leaves Liberia’s Farmers in the Dust | Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce

Other Links: Mark Lynas: Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference | Mark Lynas: Time to Call Out the Anti-GMO Conspiracy Theory | Skeptoid: Organic Food Myths | Skeptoid: Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture | Worldwatch: Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? | Health Canada: Pesticides and Food | We Love Chemicals | 2013 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics | Neurologica: Organic Food, Pesticides, and Cancer | Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond | Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat, by Emily Eaton | Food, Inc.

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Mark Lynas Examines Junk GMO Anti-science

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

While you wait with breath bated for this weekend’s Life, the Universe & Everything Else episode on Organic Agriculture, I’d recommend giving this article a read.

Here, Mark Lynas (who has rapidly become my favourite environmentalist) takes aim at a junk science paper out of Australia claiming that a diet consisting of only “genetically modified” grain vastly increases the risk of severe stomach inflammation in pigs. Really, it shows nothing of the kind.

15% of non-GM fed pigs had heart abnormalities, while only 6% of GM-fed pigs did so. Similarly, twice as many non-GM pigs as GM ones had liver problems. Why no headlines here? “Pigs fed non-GMO feed 100% more likely to develop heart and liver problems, study finds” – I can just see it in the Daily Mail. But of course negative results were not what Carman et al were looking for.

Table 3 actually shows that many more pigs fed non-GMO feed had stomach inflammations than those with GMO feed. So 31 non-GM pigs had “mild” inflammation, while only 23 GM pigs had it. For “moderate” inflammation, a GMO diet again seemed to be beneficial: 29 non-GM pigs had moderate inflammation of the stomach, while 18 had it. So that’s 40% vs 25%. Do Carman et al perform a test for statistical significance to see if GMO feed has a protective effect on pigs stomachs? Of course not – that’s not the result they are after. These findings are ignored.

Instead, it is the next line of data that they play up: for “severe” inflammation 9 non-GM pigs were determined to have it, while 23 GM-fed pigs had it. Shock, horror. You can immediately see how the data is all over the place from the previous results, which also rule out any causal mechanism with GMO feed – if GMO feed is causing the severe inflammation, why is the non-GMO feed causing far more mild to moderate inflammation? It’s clearly just chance, and all the pigs are not doing well and suffering stomach problems: about 60% of both sets had stomach erosion.

Previously: Mark Lynas apologises for his past anti-GE activism and calls out the conspiracy-driven thinking that plagues the environmental movement.

Episode 33: News Update

Episode 33: News Update

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn Noble is joined by Brendan Curran-Johnson, Mark Forkheim, and Gem Newman to discuss local and international news of interest to skeptics, including teaching kids to program, women banned from Iranian university programs, Amish hate crimes, the Ig Nobel awards, and more!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Back to School Request: Teach Kids to Code | The Mechanical Turk | Anger as Iran Bans Women from Universities | Organic Food No More Nutritious Than Conventional Food (Winnipeg Free Press, The Guardian, The Atlantic) | Amish Guilty of Hate Crimes in Ohio Beard-cuttings | Ig Nobel Awards (Improbable Research, Wikipedia)

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A Brief Summary of my Thoughts on the Subject of Organic Agriculture and Its More Conventional Alternative

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

We’ve been trying to get an episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else on the subject of Organic Agriculture together for quite a while. But, as this is a very complicated topic, and I am very busy, we haven’t recorded it yet.

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Bluemoose via Wikipedia

My friend Ali (who you may remember from the LUEE episodes Leaving Faith Behind and Justice and Hate Crimes) asked for my thoughts on the subject, specifically focusing on the question, “Is organic agriculture more environmentally friendly?” And so, here are my thoughts. I’ve tried to keep them brief. But I’m not very good at that. I also tried to stay on topic. But I’m not very good at that, either.

Is “organic” better for the environment? The answer to that seems to be: it depends. Probably, but it’s very complicated.

There have been several large studies that seem to show that the production of organic foodstuffs is no more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture (and may in some cases be more harmful). See this recent study, for example.

These summaries of the evidence, by Brian Dunning, are pretty good in my opinion:

Organic Food Myths
Is it a revolution in health and the environment, or a counterproductive fad?

Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture
Is organic agriculture truly safer or better for the environment than modern farming?

Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick also did a pretty good job with this Q&A: Ask Surly Amy: Genetically Modified Plants.

My provisional view on the matter is that when it comes to safety or health, there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between organic and conventional agriculture. When it comes to environmental concerns, I tend to lean more toward conventional agriculture, as I am persuaded by the argument that centralized distribution is more efficient, and by the argument that while yields may not be substantially bigger with conventional crops, they tend to be hardier and require fewer “inputs” (fertilizer, etc.). My concerns come in when you have large and aggressively litigious agribusiness companies controlling large swathes of the food supply (which we now do), who have patented certain organisms and who force farmers to be completely dependent on them for seeds year-by-year. This is bad, for a plethora of reasons, most of which should be obvious.

I’ll conclude with a few stray observations about “organic” foodstuffs.

Turning to safety, there was recently a completely terrible study published claiming that GE corn resulted in cancer in rats. For a lengthy discussion (and takedown) from a skeptical oncologist, I recommend reading this. Additionally, a large meta-analysis was recently published, finding no significant nutritional benefits from organic produce.

I am annoyed by the “organic” label, because the term “organic” has a very rigorous and well-defined meaning in chemistry, but not so much when it comes to agriculture. But that’s mostly just me being a linguistic prescriptivist, and I recognise that this position is untenable. (On a side note, the French term, “biologique”, translates as “biological”, which is even worse.)

I am supportive of the “free range” movement. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell “free range” isn’t a regulated term, so there’s no guarantee that the animals involved are actually better treated.

I am concerned that use of antibiotics in livestock may be excessive, and are in some cases used to “enhance productivity” instead of to “target an identified pathogen”. The issue is complicated, however. (This whitepaper has some fairly good summaries, in terms of antibiotic use in agriculture; it does disclose that the conference that generated it was partially funded by Pfizer, etc.)

Also, I advise against using terms like “GMOs” (Genetically Modified Organisms), because every agricultural product is genetically “modified” in some way, via hybridization and/or artificial selection (either intentional or unintential). Instead, I prefer to speak about “GE” foodstuffs (Genetically Engineered).

So, in my mind, there may be good reasons to avoid the products of big agribusiness companies like Monsanto: but these criticisms tend to have more to do with big business and less to do with science.

There remains, of course, much more to be said (about the various things that “organic agriculture” can mean, for example, or the several disparate ideologies that may motivate some people to choose organic), but that incomplete (and probably flawed) analysis of this complex topic will have to stand. For now.