Changing Your Mind is Hard

It’s hard for people – any of us – to admit being wrong. The more stridently you take a position in public, the harder it is to recant. Science is one field where changing your mind when the evidence requires it is applauded.

As Carl Sagan once said:
“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”

A few significant changes have occurred in my lifetime: plate tectonics replaced continental drift, an asteroid impact was accepted as finishing off most dinosaurs while birds were accepted as the last of the “avian dinosaurs”, and the Big Bang theory of cosmology replaced Steady State. There are many other examples.

It’s hard enough to admit to error in front of like-minded colleagues, so when you tackle a topic that is highly emotional, changing your mind may lose you a lot of friends. Because of this I want to commend Mark Lynas.

Lynas is a British author whose current focus is climate change. But in the 1990s he helped start the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement. In 2008, he was still “penning screeds” (his words) attacking the use of GMOs.

In 2013, he addressed the Oxford Farming Conference with a change of mind:
“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.” See the full text of his talk here where he details why he changed his mind. (Updated url: I wonder why it changed?)

Lynas has a new book out and many older titles still on Amazon, so a cynic might say controversy sells books. But – unless I find evidence to the contrary – I say, congratulations Mark Lynas. I hope that someday when I need it (and no doubt I will) I find in myself the integrity you’ve shown.

This blog has more posts about GMOs.

New French Fries Won’t Cause As Much Cancer As Before

Mr-potato.svgGMOs (genetically modified organisms) are back in the news with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent approval of Simplot’s new potato – the Innate. Simplot has inserted additional fragments of the potato’s own DNA – nothing from bacteria or other organisms. You’d think this would reduce the “ick factor” that bedevils other GMOs. The new potato offers advantages to the consumer, not just to farmers and seed companies, so perhaps it has a better chance of being accepted that other GMOs.

Simplot began selling precut frozen French fries and hashbrowns to fast-food chains back in the 1950s, but they want to create a new consumer product: the fresh pre-cut potato. Unlike most potatoes that turn brown quickly, the Innate stays fresh and white much longer. Whether consumers will embrace this new convenience, and pay a bit more for it, will determine if Innate succeeds.

Another happy outcome is that Innate produces less acrylamide. Acrylamide has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in lab rats and mice, but studies in humans so far have not shown a clear increase in cancer risk in humans. One of Simplot’s biggest customers will not take advantage of the change:

“‘McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice,’ a company spokesperson” said.

The Mother Jones article rings true:

“When you think about it, that cautious attitude makes perfect sense. McDonald’s has been beset by declining sales and questions about the quality of its food. Its customers don’t care about the Innate’s anti-browning quality because they buy their fries cooked. The only potential sales pitch would involve the lower dose of acrylamides. But saying ‘Our new fries might be less carcinogenic than the ones we’ve been selling you for 50 years’ doesn’t have much of a ring to it.”

I also ran across some commercial information on a website supported, in part, by the European Union. Innate isn’t mentioned, but French fries are not the potato’s biggest market:

“Only one in four potatoes grown in Europe actually gets eaten by people. Almost half end up being fed to livestock. The remaining one quarter are used as raw material in the production of alcohol and starch.”

It seems “sticky starch” is used as paste, glue, or lubricant. Currently, the different forms of starch found in a potato must be separated, so plant breeders are working to develop potatoes that produce only one type. More GMO potatoes are doubtless on their way.

Reducing a chemical (a natural chemical found in all potatoes) that may-or-may-not cause cancer seems like a small gain. And, personally, I don’t find cutting my own potatoes a big imposition. But on this blog, we’ve offered cautious support for GMOs and I don’t see Innate as changing that position. We’ll keep watching.

Read more on GMOs here:

GMO labeling 2

GMO labeling 1

GMOs Food Safety and Golden Rice

GMOs Science and Morality

GMOs vs Hybrids

Update on Colorado Proposition to Label GMOs

The commentary posted last week stated that I intended to vote no on Colorado Proposition 105. Two readers made comments supporting the decision and one wrote a long dissention complete with links to back up the reasons for the disagreement. You can read the full comment, but I was struck by the statement that you can’t trust “…the FDA (or EPA) to protect your health, just as you could not count on DOE to protect the workers at Rocky Flats.” The last part of that is certainly complicated. Those who have read my book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths debunked” (free at the book link at the bottom of the home page on this site) know that I was critical of DOE about their response to allegations of environmental crimes at the plant. However, today I attended a meeting of Rocky Flats retirees, some are aging more gracefully than others, but we are all aging. Many Rocky Flats retirees have lived well into their eighties and beyond despite the fact many of us worked with plutonium, which the press enjoyed calling “the most deadly substance known to man.”

I don’t intend to get into the “Rocky Flats health debate” in this commentary, but I did feel I needed to at least acknowledge the statement. I do understand it is easy to distrust government, but I’m not swayed that I should distrust the FDA and EPA because “…high ranking FDA and EPA staffers came from Monsanto…” I don’t have to be told GMO opponents emotionally believe Monsanto and all of the current and past employees are evil. Monsanto has indeed done some things that I also dislike, to include that they have sued farmers for patent infringement after their crops were inadvertently pollinated due to winds blowing pollen from a neighboring farm. Hatred of Monsanto inspires emotional responses, but I tend to try to sort through emotions and look for facts to make decisions. Continue reading

Colorado Proposition to Label GMOs

Colorado voters will determine whether to “mandate labeling of genetically modified food products that are sold in the state.” Those who favor the proposition believe it is needed to protect consumers. As one advocate wrote in a letter to the editors of the Denver Post, “Because GMOs are not natural, we simply don’t know what the long-term health consequences might be, and therefore consumers should have the right to know where their food comes from, so that they can decide whether they want to accept those risks.” Another supporter writes, “The GMO debate boils down to freedom—the freedom to chose what I eat. That freedom simply does not exist if food producers are allowed to deny me the information I need to make my choices.”

Those opinions are in opposition to an editorial by Don Ament, former Commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. He writes that approval of the proposal would “…give Colorado consumers inaccurate, unreliable and misleading information.” What sways my opinion so far is his further statements that “Consumers already have reliable options to choose foods made without GE (Genetically Engineered) ingredients. They can select from thousands of food products labeled ‘organic’ or ‘non-GMO’ under existing federal labeling standards.” Continue reading

GMOs, Food Safety, and Golden Rice

We have written about the positives and negatives of Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs), and the debate continues. An article titled “Eating Dangerously” by Jennifer Brown and Michael Booth in the March 12, 2014 Denver Post describes “…how 50 million Americans will get food poisoning this year…More than 100,000 will go to the hospital; 3,000 will die.” Federal authorities do not ban the sale of chicken contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella. They instead rely on consumers to cook the chicken to at least 165 degrees, which would kill the bacteria. However, there was a “Foster Farms chicken scare (in) 2013” that involved chicken contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella that wasn’t killed by cooking to 165 degrees. Dozens of consumers were hospitalized.

The article focuses on the Colorado case of salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes that killed 33 people in 2011. Federal inspectors had never visited the farm that was the source of the cantaloupes prior to the outbreak. Continue reading

Avoiding Genetically Modified Organisms

I intend this to be the final commentary about Generically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Of course I reserve the right to do more if I feel new information warrants.

Activists who want GMOs to be excluded from human foods are quite upset that the US Department of Agriculture has approved them for human consumption and are protesting and campaigning in several states to require foods derived from GMOs to be clearly labeled. In the interim, people can take the simple step of buying foods labeled as organic. The US and Canadian governments do not allow manufacturers to label something 100% organic if it has been genetically modified or is from an animal that has been fed genetically modified feeds. There is a web site that provides a discussion about the foods most likely to be GMOs. It also says that foods labeled with a four digit PLU number are conventionally produced, those with five digits beginning with 8 are GMOs, and those with a five digit number beginning with 9 are organic. Continue reading

GMOs, Science, and Morality

RF_alum has written an informative string of postings on GMOs.  Here’s my two cents.

The GMOs that cause controversy are foods.  No one seems to want to stop producing insulin or vaccines using GMOs, or to ban oil-eating bacteria used to clean up spills in the environment.  Furthermore, I read negative opinions mostly about food crops farmed on an industrial scale, (especially corn, wheat, and soy beans), GMOs that resist Roundup or incorporate biocides, and anything produced by Monsanto.

Since we all agree that healthy food and sustainable production are good things and starvation and high prices are bad things, what causes the public policy controversy?

Many people hold moral and spiritual objections to GMO foods.  They draw on one of humanity’s six moral foundations (see book reviewed here):

Sanctity: People know that some things are noble and pure while others are degrading and base. These sacred values bind groups together.

People also show a practical skepticism about any new or unfamiliar risk.  Both views are important to the debate.  Public policies must consider moral values, and no one should get away with lying about the science. Continue reading