Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why There's Nothing "Extraordinary" In Claims Of GMO/Pesticide harm

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

No shit, Sherlock?  This saying of Marcelo Truzzi has become a mantra for GMO advocates, to be used reflexively whenever anyone produces a substantive piece of empirical anti-GMO evidence.  And at first blush it sounds like a no-brainer.   OF COURSE extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!  And so far as I know, no-one has tried to deconstruct the adage.

Specifically, nobody seems to have pointed out the presupposition in the minor premise—that any claim of actual or potential damage from GMOs is of its very nature an extraordinary claim.  It is a presupposition devoid of any rational support.  Indeed ignoring this fact invokes another well-known adage: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The rationale for believing that claims of harm from GMOs are “extraordinary” lies in repeated statements by both government bodies and scientific organizations that GMOs are “safe”.  People apparently cannot remember that DDT, cigarette smoking, thalidomide, diethylstilbestrol and Agent Orange were all declared to be safe, often by the same organizations that have declared GMOs and the spraying of herbicide resistant plants to be safe--e.g. the FDA, which has consistently approved these, also approved thalidomide (1941) and diethylstilbestrol (1947).   The company that made Agent Orange, Monsanto, is the company that pioneered the use of glyphosate and that originally manufactured Agent Orange, whose supposedly less lethal component, 2, 4D, is now allowed to be used on pesticide-resistant crops produced by Dow AgroSciences.  And bear in mind that only two of the five cases noted (DDT, Agent Orange) involved substances that, like GMO pesticides, were actually intended to destroy living organisms.

I’ve had personal experiences with three of these cases, so I remember.  I smoked until I was forty, as a direct result of which I have severe emphysema, and several members of my wife’s family died from smoking-related conditions; they were all lifelong, heavy smokers.  I remember having a violent argument with an old friend, a well-known and highly respected geneticist, who swore by all that was holy that Agent Orange did no harm to humans; she, with all her credentials, was wrong, and I was right.  My beloved mother-in-law was killed in less than two years by doctors who, believing in the FDA’s assurance that diethylstilbestrol was appropriate for the treatment of menopausal symptoms, prescribed it and gave her cervical cancer.

If we look beyond the bland reassurances of industrial and government organizations, we see that the scientific work supposed to guarantee the safety of GMOs and pesticides is hopelessly out-of-date and unreliable.  The mantra on which such studies are based is, of course, “The dose makes the poison”, a doctrine originated by a sixteenth-century alchemist and astrologer.  How people who consider themselves scientists and regard their opponents as unscientific or actively anti-science can embrace a six-hundred-year old doctrine by a practitioner of two pseudo-sciences is a total mystery to me.  Do they also believe in Ptolemaic epicycles, the four humors, spontaneous generation?  That would be logical, since these equally formed part of cutting-edge sixteenth-century science.

The only reason for continuing to believe that “the dose makes the poison” is that this piece of pseudo-science supports the pro-GMO case and the real science doesn’t.  For what real scientists think, here’s the Endocrine Society’s take on it:

“Over the last two decades there has been burgeoning scientific evidence based on
field research in wildlife species, epidemiological data on humans, and laboratory
research with cell cultures and animal models that provides insights into
how EDCs cause biological changes, and how that may lead to disease. However,
endocrinologists now believe that a shift away from traditional toxicity
testing is needed. The prevailing dogma applied to chemical risk assessment is
that “the dose makes the poison.” These testing protocols are based on the idea
that there is always a simple, linear relationship between dose and toxicity, with
higher doses being more toxic, and lower doses less toxic. This strategy is used
to establish a dose below which a chemical is considered “safe,” and experiments
are conducted to determine that threshold for safety. Traditional testing involves
chemicals being tested one at a time on adult animals, and they are presumed
safe if they did not result in cancer or death.

“A paradigm shift away from this dogma is required in order to assess fully the
impact of EDCs and to protect human health. Like natural hormones, EDCs
exist in the body in combination due to prolonged or continual environmental
exposures. Also like natural hormones, EDCs have effects at extremely low doses
(typically in the part-per-trillion to part-per-billion range) to regulate bodily
functions. This concept is particularly important in considering that exposures
start in the womb and continue throughout the life cycle. A new type of testing is
needed in order to reflect that EDCs impact human health even at the low levels
encountered in everyday life."

And who or what is the Endocrine Society?  Some soft-on-science, anti-vaccine activist group, doubtless?  Well, as a matter of fact, no.

The Endocrine Society is a professional, international medical organization in the field of  endocrinology and metabolism founded in 1916 as The Association for the Study of Internal Secretions. The official name of the organization was changed to The Endocrine Society on January 1, 1952. It is a leading organization in the field and publishes four leading journals. It has more than 17,000 members from over 100 countries in medicine, molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry, physiology, genetics, immunology, education, industry and allied health. The Society's mission is: ‘to advance excellence in endocrinology and promote its essential and integrative role in scientific discovery, medical practice, and human health’.  It is said to be ‘the world's oldest, largest and most active organization devoted to research on hormones and the clinical practice of endocrinology.’”

So, to sum up: the GMO/pesticide nexus is just one of a series of cases within the last century where not only scientists but government agencies tasked with consumer protection have assured us certain products were safe until mounting death-tolls proved to everyone that they were wrong.  Now one of the world’s largest organizations in the relevant scientific fields has demonstrated that the grounds on which the “safety” of GMOs and their associated pesticide use are invalid.  Endocrine-disruptor doses “in the part-per-trillion to part-per-billion range” are unavoidable when “an estimated 85 percent of all food consumed in the United States now contains genetically modified organisms”.  For many pesticides used routinely on GMO crops, including what is by far the commonest, glyphosate, are endocrine disruptors.

Now can you please explain to me exactly how and why the claim that GMOs and pesticides may be damaging to our health is an extraordinary claim?

Because of course it is NOT an extraordinary claim.  In light of both the regulatory history of recent decades and the latest scientific findings in the most relevant field, it is, to the contrary, an extraordinarily ordinary claim.  And ordinary claims require only ordinary evidence—nothing more.  Like the kind of epidemiological evidence that blew the whistle on the smoking-lung cancer link.  Like the epidemiological evidence in Swanson et al., against which I am still waiting to hear a single substantive negative argument.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Betrayed By Your Favorite News Source--NPR LIED!



March 24, 2015 3:48 PM ET
By Dan Charles.

Glyphosate residues on food, however, are not of great concern. The chemical is typically used in the early stages of growing crops like soybeans, corn, and canola. Those crops, if they even reach human consumers at all, are heavily processed first, destroying any glyphosate residues.


Clarification of Pre-harvest uses of glyphosate: The advantages, best practices and residue monitoring.

In several north western European countries glyphosate can be applied before crop harvest for weed control, to enhance ripening on non-determinate crops to reduce crop losses, and to help manage determinate crops in wet seasons… Glyphosate is absorbed by the leaves and stems of plants and is translocated throughout the plant… Glyphosate is slower acting but tends to reduce pod shatter, while helping the crop stems dry out to help harvest... Pre-harvest use of glyphosate started in 1980 (O’Keeffe, 1980) and revolutionized perennial weed control.

FROM: Arregui, M. C., Lenardón, A., Sanchez, D., Maitre, M. I., Scotta, R., & Enrique, S. (2004). Monitoring glyphosate residues in transgenic glyphosateresistant soybean. Pest Management Science, 60(2), 163-166.

In soybean leaves and stems, glyphosate residues ranged from 1.9 to 4.4mgkg and from 0.1 to 1.8mgkg in grains.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Strongest Argument Yet for GMO labeling laws

So far, GMO supporters have managed to frame the GMO labeling controversy as a battle between pro-science and anti-science, and by and large they've been able to get away with it.  That’s been a key factor in the battles over labeling laws, most of which the anti-GMO side has lost.  Undecided voters may be unsure of science or even vaguely afraid of it, but they respect it and don’t want to be on the wrong side of it.

The only thing that will change this is showing them that scientific opinion is turning against GMOs and that all the dangers that have been pooh-poohed by GMO advocates are turning out to be real.  And now, thanks to two ground-breaking announcements that have come just in the last week or two, it’s possible to build a coherent argument that the GMO advocates won’t be able to answer.  The first is the decision by a WHO panel of experts that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. The second, and to my mind the more important, is the Endocrine Society’s statement that glyphosate is an endocrine-disrupting chemical, capable of causing far-reaching and long-lasting damage to hormones essential for health.   These findings should be spread as far and as wide as possible, especially in areas where labeling laws and other restrictions on GMOs/pesticides are being proposed and have not yet been defeated.  The argument goes along these lines:

  •       The plants used in many GMO foods are RoundUp-resistant, and therefore have been sprayed with, and absorbed, glyphosate, a herbicide in the next-to-worst category of toxic substances by EPA standards.
  •        Yet GMO advocates tell us that scientists (with few or no exceptions) agree that this process is perfectly safe.  But that’s no longer true—if it ever was.
  •        The Endocrine Society, a hundred-year-old organization of scientists with 17,000 members, has just issued a statement naming glyphosate as an endocrine-disrupting chemical—that is, a substance that can cause far-reaching and permanent damage to the production of hormones vital for human health. 
  •       Consequently, government has both a duty and a responsibility to provide consumers with the power to decide whether or not they will buy food that might do them serious harm.   

UPDATE (04/16/15)
Will this argument work?  Since posting this I've been testing it on the Biofortified blog, one of the top pro-GMO blogs--the post in question is "Should science be a democracy?" So far there's been no attempt to answer it.  Maybe they can’t answer it. Maybe they daren’t admit, even to themselves, that they’re losing the “We’re the pro-science side” argument.  Follow it, it's fun.