In Search of Settled Science

The media coverage of last weekend’s March du Jour, this one supposedly a celebration of Science (capitalization mine), portrayed the event as just that – celebratory.  But when Progressives get together carrying signs it almost always means a demonstration, and this gathering was as much a vehicle for the Left to chide conservatives about their refusal to accept the “settled science” of human-caused climate change as it was a paen to Science itself.

Watching the festivities unfold, I thought of a recent commentary by Vincent Carrol in the Denver Post.  He reported that Boulder County Commissioners had just voted to ban the growing of all genetically modified (GMO) crops on land owned by the county.  This edict will be problematic for farmers who have been raising GMO corn and sugar beets for many years on this leased land because, according to Carroll, there no longer are any non-GMO strains of sugar beet.  The farmers will have from three to five years to eliminate GMOs from their rotations. Case closed.

Here’s the Science rub.  There is no scientific evidence – none – that genetically modified crops are harmful to humans, insects or anything living.  The decision to flatly ban them flies in the face of all the research that has been done on the subject, and will do nothing but cause harm and hardship to the affected farmers, many of whom have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment used to grow and harvest a crop which they can no longer plant.

The GMO ban was met with loud approval by liberal Boulderites, many of whom no doubt paraded last week in unwavering support of Science. In fact, Boulder liberals show the same disregard for GMO research that conservatives hold for the study of man-caused climate change.   Clearly science denial knows no political affiliation.

Why this distrust of science cutting across the political spectrum?  Science is supposed to be provable, reliable, the epitome of fact.  Remember junior high science class, where we learned the basics of the Scientific Method?  Start with a theory – what do you think is happening and why.  Then try to dream up an experiment that proves your theory, or disproves someone else’s.  Compile your results.  Then the most important step; submit your findings to others who will try to duplicate them, using your methodology.  If your experiment can be repeated by others, your “peers”, then and only then are your conclusions scientifically valid.  That’s how science works.  Or used to.

Peer review has been the backbone of scientific investigation since Isaac Newton lounged beneath his apple tree, and the science it produced seemed for the most part apolitical.  These days science methodology is becoming bastardized, thanks in large measure to our newfound reliance on computers and algorithms instead of beakers and Bunsen burners.  For example, our seemingly unlimited capability to gather and analyze massive quantities of data has led to the proliferation of often agenda-driven studies that arrive at their conclusions by asking a large number of subjects a long series of questions under the assumption that a small but publishable number of queries will yield a positive result (i.e., the result the authors wish to see).  This statistical alchemy was used in a study released last year which pointed to an increased incidence of certain types of cancer in communities located downwind from good old Rocky Flats.  More traditional studies have found no such link.  More recently, another megadata study found an increase in dementia and strokes in people who drink diet soda.  The researchers relied on data from massive numbers of soda sippers (full disclosure: I drink two or three cans a day) but somehow failed to correct for obesity and several other possible variables.  Another junior high science lesson: Correlation does not automatically equal causation.

Each of these studies was ostensibly peer reviewed.  But that most vital step in the process, according to many in the scientific community, has become sloppy and incestuous, bowing to political pressures and the “publish or perish” dictum so pervasive in academia.  The problem has become so epidemic, according to a study published last year in Nature, that researchers attempting to replicate other scientists’ experiments were failing to get the same results more than 70% of the time.  More than half the time the results could not even be duplicated by the original researchers.  When the supposedly peer reviewed (and widely publicized) study that claimed to find a link between vaccinations and autism was debunked, the British Journal of Medicine in which it was featured took nearly 10 years to publish a retraction.  That study triggered a public health crisis in Britain and the author was eventually tried and found guilty of gross ethical misconduct and fraud.   In spite of the criminal misapplication of science involved, thousands of American parents continue to cite the study when refusing to have their children vaccinated.  Most of these doting parents are well-educated (and liberal).  So much for the robustness of peer review.

Stories like these invite skeptics of all political lineages to dispute the results of what may be credible, critical studies, and contribute to the ideological fog that is threatening to smother the legitimate, rigorous methodology behind the bulk of science research.  They also infer that there are both liberals and conservatives (and evidently some scientists) willing to bend science to their ideology.  So forgive those misguided wretches who choose to take the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of global warming with a grain or two of salt.

We all want and need Science to be worthy of celebration, but clearly the science establishment has some housecleaning to do.  To regain our confidence those who do science right and proper have to be willing to call out the ones who distort its process for their own ends.  The rest of us, meanwhile, need to improve our science literacy so we can recognize questionable science when we see it, even if it means looking past our ideology.  Best that we reach consensus on climate change, among other headline issues, before the research findings become moot.

Events will eventually settle the scientific disputes that bedevil us.  Hopefully we will survive the proof.

Good GMO News

The headline might be misleading, because the three types of potatoes genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine contain only potato genes that are resistant to the blight and not are not actually GMOs. According to an article by Keith Ridler of the Associate Press, the potatoes come “…from an Argentine variety of potato that naturally produced a defense.” There is controversy despite the fact the potatoes aren’t GMO modified. “McDonald’s declines to use Simplot’s genetically engineered potatoes for its French fries.” This is despite the fact the U.S. Department of Agriculture has determined that they “…have the same taste and texture and nutritional qualities as conventional potatoes” while containing no DNA from an unrelated organism.

There are several advantages to the potatoes, to include that they have reduced bruising and black spots. They also have improved storage capacity and “…a lower amount of a chemical that’s a potential carcinogen created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.” They also require half the fungicides in their growth.

Those advantages would seem to be eagerly endorsed by almost everyone. Not so! The Non-GMO Project opposes the potatoes as “…claiming that new types of genetic engineering…are not actually genetic engineering.” There has been resistince to new technology throughout the ages, and that hasn’t ended despite the advantages provided by that technology.

GMO Labeling

There is a new bill establishing national requirements for labeling foods with GMO content that is expected to be signed by President Obama. A Denver Post editorial supports the bill, but the anti-GMO advocates aren’t happy. Perhaps all that would have made them happy would have been a complete ban on GMOs. That ban would have taken almost all of the corn, soybean, canola, and sugar beet products off the market. Those ardently opposed to GMOs would probably respond that reducing the amount of available food is preferable to allowing what they call “Franken foods” to be grown and sold. I assure you I would eagerly eat Franken foods if the choice was not eating.

The new law would allow companies to label their GMO products with an actual label or a QR code. The small QR codes that smart phones can read will tell consumers the GMO content of the food. There is a realistic alternative for small companies who can still be able to comply by providing a web address or phone number.

Many food producers and processors continue to resent the fact that labeling is going to be mandated. They point out that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMO foods are safe, which means there is no scientific basis for the need of labels. However, they will probably be mollified by the knowledge that a federal law, regardless of whether it provides any actual improvement to food safety, will stop individual states from passing laws such as the one approved by Vermont voters.

National Academy of Sciences Reports Genetically Modified Food is Safe

The report concludes that “Genetically engineered crops appear to be safe to eat and do not harm the environment…” However, it is certain the report does not end the controversies. An organization of companies selling genetically modified seeds observes the report demonstrates “…that agricultural biotechnology has demonstrated benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment.” However, Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union “…pointed to the lack of a significant increase in yield.” Several carefully worded statements in the report leave the door open to critics of GMOs. For example, it says “…foods made from such crops do not appear to pose health risks, based on chemical analysis of the foods and on animal feeding studies…” Critics will focus on the “do not appear” part of the statement and will add that the report also “…says many animal studies are too small to provide firm conclusions.” Those kind of criticisms are certain to continue despite the fact that “…several other regulatory, scientific, and health organizations have previously also concluded the foods are safe.”

The report does address the myth that GMOs have harmed the environment, to include monarch butterflies. It says there is “…no conclusive evidence of a cause-and effect relationship between G.E. crops and environmental problems. It says it has not been proved that the increased planting of such crops is indirectly responsible for the decline of the monarch butterfly.” I’ll warn that no one will go back and delete Internet stories that GMOs are killing butterflies.

My favorite part of the article is a quote from a professor who is a proponent of biotechnology. “The inescapable conclusion, after reading the report, is the G.E. crops are pretty much just crops. They are not the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim.”

Another Attack on GMOs

A Denver Post editorial describes how Boulder County, Colorado commissioners have bowed to “…a coalition of anti-GMO activists and representatives of the organic and natural food industries…” They voted to phase out GMO crops on county-owned farmland despite “…overwhelming consensus among scientists and prestigious scientific bodies that the foodstuffs are safe.” The president of a group representing the farmers points out an important advantage of GMO crops. “I haven’t sprayed insecticide on my corn in six years.” Crop yields have increased significantly, and, “…in the case of sugar beets, dramatically so.” However, to meet the demand of the activists, the Boulder commissioners ordered its staff to draft a plan to phase out GMO crops on county-owned farmland.

The move apparently is designed to force organic farming, which is “…a risk-fraught option…” The county provides major financial incentives to would-be organic farmers, but “…19 of 24 organic farmers who took advantage of the country’s program have failed in the past five years.” The editorial closes with the comments, “It is one thing to incentivize organic farming to promote agricultural diversity. It is quite another to banish high-quality, high-yield crops because of anti-scientific fears. Boulder County struck the right balance years ago and shouldn’t reverse itself now.”

Opposing GMOs

This is our third successive commentary on GMOs, and we usually don’t obsess about any one subject. However, the Denver Post had an editorial that I just couldn’t pass it up. The editorial cleverly begins with the question, “If we could go back in time and avert the Irish potato famine, in which a million people died, who would possibly oppose it. The same blight remains destructive of potato crops today, but a GMO potato has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration that will resist it.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the Campbell Soup Company has announced three fourths of their products contain GMOs and that they will begin labeling their products as such in 12 to 18 months. “The company is betting on the good sense of consumers and their trust in scientific consensus. Let’s hope its faith is warranted.” Campbell supports a mandatory federal requirement for GMO labeling in order to avoid an impossible patchwork of state laws with different requirements. The Post is hopeful that the Campbell decision will “…demystify GMOs and lead to greater public understanding of their potential to battle malnutrition and reduce the use of pesticides.”

I can’t think of a better way to end this post other than to quote final sentences of the editorial. “The anti-GMO movement, fueled by the organic food industry and anti-corporate activists, has maintained for years that all it wants is to provide the public with more information. Campbell Soup is about to call their bluff.”

Okay, I can’t stop myself from adding a bit more. I’ve been a lifetime consumer of Campbell soups, but I now intend to look at their products first while food shopping. They deserve the first look for their approach to resolving a contentious issue. I’m certain they came to the announced approach after carefully considering impact on their bottom line. I intend to do my tiny bit to reward their decision.

GMO Labeling Update

The “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” has been reintroduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) that would prevent individual states from requiring GMO foods from being labeled. Pompeo explained, “GMOs are safe and have a number of important benefits for people and our planet.” “The bill would also tighten the standards companies must use to designate their food as GMO-free: Crops must not be planted with bioengineered seeds, and animals must not be fed bioengineered food.”

The evidence that GMO foods are safe continues to increase. The Journal of Animal Science describes a study that examined billions of animals fed with non-GMOs and compared the results to animals fed at least 90 percent GMOs. “The study found GMOs completely safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMOs.”

The safety of GMO foods is being reinforced by continuing studies, but some GMO advocates worry about unintended consequences of Pompeo’s bill. It would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to establish national standards and regulations for GMOs and give the Department of Agriculture full discretion over how to implement the law. That would give anti-GMO activists in the government the power to impose restrictions and unjustified regulatory hurdles.