GMOs and the skeptic movement

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are a hot topic of controversy in the public arena, just like vaccines, or climate change. Public defenders of science, what are often referred to as “skeptics” (among whom I count myself), have taken sides on all these issues, trying to do their best to bring some sanity and evidence-based clarity to bear upon them. The problem is that while it is beyond doubt that vaccines do not, in fact, cause autism; and it is also pretty darn clear that human beings do, at the least in part, cause global warming; the thing about GMOs is slightly more complex. Make that a lot more complex.

The New York Times gets into the fray

The latest round got started with an in-depth article published by the New York Times and penned by Danny Hakim. It begins by acknowledging that to date there is no evidence at all that GMO technology is directly dangerous to human health, contra the standard — entirely unsubstantiated — position of many environmentalists. What, then, is the problem? Hakim suggests that there is another, hitherto largely ignored, issue: contra to industry hype, the use of genetically modified organisms has brought neither a substantial increase in yield, nor a significant reduction in the use of pesticides.

Well, that ought to be a matter pretty easy to settle empirically, yes? Not exactly. It is difficult to make sensible comparisons, because there haven’t been large scale controlled experiments set up to do so (other than the small trials conducted by the industry itself). So Hakim hit on an interesting idea: noting that the US and Canada opted for GMO technology while Europe rejected it, and noting also that the two blocks are both large, Western, advanced technological societies, why not compare them in terms of GMO and non-GMO yield and pesticide use? While far from perfect (again, it’s not a controlled experiment, more like a “natural” one, made possible by circumstances, not planning), such a comparison could prove informative.

The New York Times piece presents the results separately for the two issues: yield and pesticide use. Beginning then with the former, three graphs published in the article summarize the findings for rapeseed, corn, and sugar beet. In both the cases of rapeseed and corn, the lines plotting increased yield in North America vs Western Europe are exactly parallel, with no inflection upwards of the North American data after the introduction of GMOs, as it would be expected. For sugar beet, European (non-GMO) yield has actually grown faster than its North American counterpart.

Hakim also mentions independent reports bearing on the same issue: “[a] National Academy of Sciences report found that ‘there was little evidence’ that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains.”

What about pesticides? Here the NYT article compares the US with France, the latter being Europe’s largest producer. France’s use of pesticides has fallen significantly in all categories, while the situation in the US is, again, more complicated: according to data from the US Geological Survey, the use of chemicals aimed at fungi and insects has fallen (like in France), but that of herbicides has increased by about 21% (unlike what happened in France).

Why is this a problem? Well, because pesticides enter our food chain, and are known to be highly deleterious to human health. The NYT piece reports a comment by David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, “whose research has attributed the loss of nearly 17 million I.Q. points among American children 5 years old and under to one class of insecticides.” (I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to cumulate I.Q. points within a population, but the figure would be troublesome even if more properly expressed as average loss per child.)

Hakim — who did get an entirely perfunctory and obviously unconvincing response from Monsanto — went on to point out a possible nefarious background: “The industry is winning on both ends — because the same companies make and sell both the genetically modified plants and the poisons. Driven by these sales, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto, the largest seed company, and Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide giant, have grown more than sixfold in the last decade and a half. The two companies are separately involved in merger agreements that would lift their new combined values to more than $100 billion each.” (Bear this detail in mind, it will be challenged below.)

The NYT is careful to remind its readers that Monsanto did, in fact, promise a reduction in herbicides as a result of adopting its technology, back in 1994, as reported then by the Los Angeles Times. What happened instead was predictable, says the article: “The whole point of engineering bug-resistant plants ‘was to reduce insecticide use, and it did,’ said Joseph Kovach, a retired Ohio State University researcher who studied the environmental risks of pesticides. But the goal of herbicide-resistant seeds was to ‘sell more product,’ he said — more herbicide.”

Another predictable outcome — from a straightforward evolutionary biological perspective — is that weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, the main herbicide liberally sprinkled on GMO crops that can withstand the poison. Monsanto is developing an alternative, which hasn’t been approved for commercial use yet, though that hasn’t stopped the company from beginning to sell to farmers seeds that are resistant to it.

Hakim continues his article by directly comparing the case stories of two farmers, Bo Stone in North Carolina, and Arnaud Rousseau in France. The first one uses GMOs, the second one doesn’t. The two plant identically looking corn seeds, but Stone spends $153 per 50,000-seed bag, while Rousseau spends only $85. Why does Stone continue to use GMO seeds, then? Because once you bought into the system it isn’t  easy to do without, as genetic modifications cannot be purchased a la carte, but only in whatever combination the biotech companies sell them. Interestingly, Rousseau would like to have access to the same technology that Stone can use, because he has the feeling that his work would be easier (both farmers have seen increases in their yield over the years).

The issue of yield, however, does not concern just the profits of individuals farmers. As the NYT says: “With the world’s population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, Monsanto has long held out its products as a way ‘to help meet the food demands of these added billions,’ as it said in a 1995 statement. That remains an industry mantra.” (This is a second point to keep in mind before we turn to the critical analysis.) Indeed, the NYT comparison of US regional data with those from seven European nations (including the two largest producers, France and Germany) shows no broad yield advantage of GMO crops. Jack Heinemann, from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, who has used UN data to make the comparison, is quoted as saying “Western Europe hasn’t been penalized in any way for not making genetic engineering one of its biotechnology choices.”

Steve Novella responds

My friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella immediately published a response to the New York Time article, blasting it as “a hack piece with a biased narrative.” I knew that Steve had written before in defense of GMO technology, though I thought his defense was aimed at the sort of unfounded fears about food safety that the NYT begins its article dismissing. I also know Steve as a highly informed, seasoned skeptic, who is not prone to outbursts, so I was curious to dig more deeply into his unusually worded response. In this case, and with all due respect to Steve (I do respect him, a lot), I was disappointed.

The very first sentence of Steve’s piece is a handbook example of poisoning the well (a logical fallacy): “It is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative.” I wonder how he knows this, since he presumably does not have access to Hakim’s mind and intentions, nor does the NYT have a history of anti-GMO crusading.

Steve’s first actual target is Hakim’s claim that GMO technology has failed to deliver on two of its crucial promises: increased yield and lower use of herbicides. “Wrong. This is a very common anti-GMO trope. Genetic modification is a tool, and is not inherently tied in any way to the two currently most common applications, herbicide resistance and pest resistance.” This makes little sense in light of the fact — as clearly substantiated in the NYT article — that GMO companies made precisely those promises, very clearly, and very early on, presumably in order to gain both public support and regulatory approval. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to ask where we stand on both counts about twenty years after the introduction of such technologies.

Steve continues: “The promise of genetic modification, rather, is that it provides a tool for agricultural scientists to make more rapid and more specific changes to crop cultivars. The technology has completely fulfilled that promise. The technology works, it is safe with no demonstrable inherent risks.” Again, this is a rather strange way to put it. No, the promise of GMOs is not just to provide agricultural scientists with faster ways to change crops, it is to make life better for the farmers and the public at large. And yes, the technology works when “works” is narrowly defined, but whether it has delivered on its broader, and most important, promises, is very much at issue. (Keep in mind once again, that we are not talking about food safety here, since Hakim, Novella and I all agree that, so far, there is no issue there.)

Steve’s criticism gains more traction a bit later on, when he mentions that the NYT has used UN data (and other sources, actually, including the US Geological Survey) to make its own comparisons. The NYT article, Steve correctly says, is not a peer reviewed piece. Well, yes, but investigative journalism means just that: to gather evidence and analyze it critically. One can quibble with the specific methods used, but it is a questionable move to reject some conclusions on the only  ground that a newspaper article is not a peer reviewed technical paper.

At any rate, Steve immediately provides his readers with two actual peer reviewed papers to counter the NYT claims. The first one, a meta-analysis of a large number of studies, published in PLOS One, found that “on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.” These conclusions do seem in direct contradiction of the NYT ones, but of course we need to remember that they are actually about different things, since the NYT comparison was only for the semi-controlled “experiment” provided by North America and Western Europe, while the PLOS One paper mixes developed and developing countries.

[As a side note, even the paper cited by Steve agrees that yield gains have been far lower for developed countries. This may mean, for instance, that it makes more sense for developing rather than for developed countries to switch to GMOs, given the other environmental and labor practice issues involved. But this sort of middle-of-the-road approach wouldn’t satisfy either supporters or critics of the technology, of course.]

Moreover, a superficial analysis of the PLOS One paper reveals a few problems of its own. (I told you: it’s complicated!) If you read the Materials and Methods section, you discover that the majority of the sources on which the meta-analysis was carried out are not peer reviewed. This is a big problem by Steve’s own standards, and indeed a rather unusual modus operandi on the part of the authors. Their justification for this unorthodox move isn’t particularly convincing: they claim that, first, it is actually difficult to separate peer reviewed papers from much of the “grey” literature, like non-peer reviewed contributions to conferences, governmental and non-governmental reports, and the like. Second, they say that “studies without peer review also influence the public and policy debate on GM crops; ignoring them completely would be short-sighted.”

The first reason is news to me. It is actually very clear what the difference is between peer and non-peer reviewed publications, it just takes a bit more effort to double check individual entries. But it is the second purported reason that is truly astonishing: sure, non-peer reviewed sources probably do have more sway on public opinion than technical papers, but the goal of the meta-review was not to assess influences on public opinion, it was to uncover empirical data concerning research questions. None of the above invalidates the PLOS One study, but it does mean that one ought to proceed with caution.

The second peer reviewed article cited by Steve appeared in GM Crops & Food, and concludes that there have been significant gains for farmers in the adoption of GMOs, mostly as a result of increased yield. Again, though, this isn’t really comparable to the NYT data, because of the issue mentioned above: the latter is a somewhat controlled comparison of similar economies that have and have not adopted GMOs, while the former is based on data from a mix of countries with very different economic and political situations.

Moreover, a bit of digging around reveals a few potential anomalies in this second paper as well. First off, the journal itself publishes a mix of research and policy papers, which is somewhat odd for a scientific publication. It looks more like an advocacy journal than a standard academic one. Second, the specific paper cited by Steve was funded by, you guessed it!, Monsanto. This in and of itself doesn’t disqualify it as a source, of course, but it is a pretty well established fact that industry-funded studies (for instance, in the pharmaceutical field) tend to find about one third more results positive for the industry that shelled the money, when compared to government-funded studies. Given the huge public controversy, and the large profits, involved in the GMO debate, one might, once more, want to be cautious.

Next, somewhat puzzlingly, Steve claims that “Hakim reproduces a common anti-GMO trope to combine Bt crops with herbicide resistant crops — two completely different applications.” But in fact Hakim does no such thing. The NYT article very clearly distinguishes the two, acknowledges that the use of insecticides has gone down in post-GMO USA, and then focuses on herbicides.

About the latter, Steve writes: “Hakim fails to point out that while glyphosate use has increased, it has replaced applications of much more toxic herbicides. If you measure only tons of herbicide you miss the point that overall herbicide toxicity has dramatically decreased, because glyphosate (despite claims of anti-GMO activists) is a very benign chemical.” Well, again, not exactly. The NYT article actually presents a very clear graph where the different kinds of herbicides are distinguished. Moreover, glyphosate may very well be “very benign,” but it is also by far the smallest contributor to the total in the graph.

Steve goes on accusing Hakim of a rather important imprecision: “Monsanto” is actually two companies, he says, one dealing with the chemicals, the other with the seeds, thus implying that the conflict of interest highlighted by Hakim is unfounded. But if you go on Monsanto’s own web site you will find a different, and more complicated (once more!) story, distinguishing between an “original” and a “new” Monsanto. The original Monsanto merged with Pharmacia back in 2000, and in the same year the new Monsanto was incorporated as a stand-alone company, which, however, is actually a subsidiary of the chemical one. So, it doesn’t look to me like the two Monsantos are really that distinct from each other, the maneuver probably having been carried out for tax benefits, shareholders short term profits, or both, as it is standard (and legal) for multinational corporations.

The last part of Steve’s critique of Hakim’s article begins thus: “I also reject the entire deeper premise of the article, that we should judge a technology by its current and early applications.” Well, much depends, of course, on what “early” means. Is twenty years not enough, especially when many billions of dollars and people’s livelihood are at stake?

Steve uses a couple of analogies to make his point, both flawed, I think. The first one concerns the human genome project, which he points out hasn’t cured any major human disease, contra to the hype that helped promote the original effort. Right, but the human genome project was largely an exercise in basic science, and it was funded as such, not because it promised to cure cancer (the National Science Foundation, for instance, clearly separates the actual immediate scientific merits that justify funding a given project from the possible “broader impact” of the same project). Similarly, Steve is right when he says that GMO technology per se has been successful as basic science, i.e., as a technique for experimental use. But that’s not what the controversy is about. The discussion concerns the use that the industry has made of that technology, therefore judgment very much needs to include a consideration of whether what the industry promised has been delivered or not.

The second example brought up by Steve is that of personal computers: “One might have argued (and many people did) even into the 1990s that computers did not improve productivity. They did not reduce use of paper (remember that one – the paperless office).” No, they didn’t, but I adopted personal computers at around the time Steve did, and they delivered immediately exactly what they promised: they helped me run some nice statistical analyses for my thesis, to produce graphics to accompany the same thesis, and to write the thesis to begin with. Oh, and video games, lots of video games. Even allowing for the failure of the paperless office, it is a stretch to argue that we had to wait more than two decades for personal computing to deliver. But that’s the relevant timeframe for GMOs.

The broader point made by Steve is that “How we implement [GMO] technology is an entirely separate question [from whether it allows us to develop new cultivars quickly and precisely], as separate as hardware and software.” No, it isn’t. Again, the promise of the technology lies in the broad scale human applications, not just in making scientists’ job easier. Let us not pretend otherwise.

So, what do I think of the entire controversy? I don’t know. I spent hours researching this single blog post, and the more one digs into the literature the more confusing things become. And I’m a professional biologist. Who worked on plants. For a couple of years I even worked on agricultural species, and for much of my career on invasive weeds, so I know first hand about herbicides, pesticides and all the rest. One thing, however, I am fairly confident of: the NYT article was not a “hack piece with a biased narrative.” If it needs to be criticized, by all means let’s do it, but we need to have good arguments and carefully laid out evidence, and Steve’s piece simply does not provide enough of either.

_____

P.S.: There were several other rebuttals to Hakim’s piece, perhaps the most prominent of which was published by Andrew Kniss on his blog. I read that too, as well as a technical paper by the same author that is linked there. Kniss is a legitimate researcher in the field, and his arguments are complex and well worth considering. However, the technical paper he refers to is actually non-peer reviewed, and his own sources of funding (which are not reported on the paper itself, but are found under the “additional information” section of the web site) include the following: Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. That is, a who’s who of the GMO industry. Please realize that to note this isn’t an example of the genetic fallacy, it is a simple cautionary application of common sense. I noticed before that skeptics’ quick reach for the list of so called informal fallacies to throw at their critics is misguided and intellectually lazy; such “fallacies” often turn out to be reasonable heuristics to arrive at a first assessment of a complex situation. (See this paper that I co-authored with Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri.)

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Categories: Epistemology, Philosophy of Science

55 replies

  1. In other words, Novella is a Skeptic(TM) caught engaging in motivated reasoning and this, Massimo, is another example of why you’ve distanced yourself more from that movement?

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  2. I think part of what’s at issue is that Skeptics(TM) think that because some people question the food safety of GMOs, they think every aspect of GMOs must therefore get a blanket defense. It’s motivated reasoning, and beyond that, it’s tribalism.

    Hey, I think John Horgan mentioned some of this, too!

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    In both the cases of rapeseed and corn, the lines plotting increased yield in North America vs Western Europe are exactly parallel, …

    In percentage terms (the revelent thing) that is not true for rapeseed. The graph shows an 80% increase in yield in Canada compared to a 30% increase in yield in Europe, over the same time period.

    Why is this a problem? Well, because herbicides enter our food chain, and are known to be highly deleterious to human health. The NYT piece reports a comment by David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, “whose research has attributed the loss of nearly 17 million I.Q. points among American children 5 years old and under to one class of insecticides.”

    I have added the bolding. This paragraph moves from one to the other. No, herbicides are not “highly deleterious”. At the very least, the following point about one class of insecticides does not support it. Further, to quote from later:

    The NYT article very clearly distinguishes the two, acknowledges that the use of insecticides has gone down in post-GMO USA, and then focuses on herbicides.

    Thus, the thing that Bellinger says is problematic has gone down in post-GMO America. It is the dousing with herbicide (RoundUp) that has gone up. Unless one reads the NYT piece, and indeed your piece, alert to this distinction, one could easily get misled.

    By the way, the “17 million I.Q. points” reduction is for a population size of 25 million, so is 0.7 IQ points per child. But, again, use of this class of pesticide is reduced in typical GMO agriculture according to what Hakim says.

    Hakim — who did get an entirely perfunctory and obviously unconvincing response from Monsanto — went on to …

    How do you know that? How do you know how much of what Monsanto said Hakim has chosen to pass on?

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  4. I’ve been troubled by CfI’s apparent advocacy for GMOs. Two instances struck me: 1) the calling out of Bernie Sanders as “anti-science” for supporting the labeling of GMOs as such 2) the calling out of Green Peace for questioning the economic impact of GMOs. There is a little voice (my daemon?) within me saying “What is Monsanto to the CfI or the Cfi to Monsanto, that it should be such an outspoken advocate?”

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  5. Your conflations of herbicide and pesticide are really incorrect, as Coel notes. And you have made a number of other failures to understand the herbicide issues.

    Further, the reason Kniss cites all of his funding is because he’s trying to be as transparent as possible about his funding, and has tried to explain this in the past. And it’s now being used to dismiss everything he writes. It’s a real shame. He’s the straightest shooter in this discussion, and unlike most of the people discussing it has stayed in his lane on this. The yield and herbicide claims in the NYT piece are from a guy (Jack Heineman) out of his lane, who misused the yield start dates to confuse people. It worked. It’s the same guy whose report claimed GMO wheat will kill your babies. You should look into his story a bit more.

    This does highlight one of the fascinating fractures in the skeptic arena, though, I totally agree. People are not following the science because the fog of Monsanto’s name. You have fallen for it as well.

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  6. mem-somerville, is that a pseudonym for Andrew Kniss – otherwise how do you know his inner mind?

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  7. Massimo,

    Excellent analysis.

    A few things that amazed me about Novella’s post (and there where a lot more):

    As you mentioned he tries to criticizes Hakim’s article with “This is not a peer-reviewed study” while at the same time criticizing him for not taking into account the 2014 meta-analysis which includes a lot of non peer-reviewed material.

    And his claim that GMOs are about new cultivars, “The actual promise of the technology is to increase the speed and specificity of developing new cultivars”, and not about yields which is “nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed” … and all the while bio-tech companies are claiming yield is a big thing, “At Syngenta, we aim to contribute to food security and sustainability in agriculture by helping farmers improve yields …”

    http://www3.syngenta.com/country/ca/en/corporate-responsibility/Pages/SustainableAgriculture.aspx

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  8. I happen to think that the emphasis on whether something is “peer reviewed” can be over done (though it has some importance), but:

    As you mentioned [Novella] tries to criticizes Hakim’s article with “This is not a peer-reviewed study” while at the same time criticizing him for not taking into account the 2014 meta-analysis which includes a lot of non peer-reviewed material.

    It is ok for a properly done meta-analysis to include non-peer-reviewed material, because any properly done meta-analysis would essentially be doing the peer review of the material. And, in order for the meta-review to get past peer-review itself, it would have to demonstrate that it had properly reviewed all the material used within it (rather than just taken it credulously).

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  9. @michaelfugate WTF? You think it’s some kind of conspiracy or something? You can find my handle and my Google scholar list in about two clicks. But yeah, jumping to accusations of sockpuppetry are a good skeptic strategy.

    No, I know Andrew’s writing. Because he’s written extensively about it. I don’t know if links would wind up in comment purgatory so I didn’t link on my first comment. But you can find it all on his blog in other posts, such as:

    http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2015/08/who-funds-my-weed-science-program/

    and

    http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2015/08/i-am-biased-and-so-are-you-thoughts-on-funding-and-influence-in-science/

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  10. Mem, he’s no straighter a shooter than Eric Lipton, on the “other side,” IMO, using data from the Organic Consumers Association to bash GMOs.

    Kniss doesn’t have to take money from anybody.

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  11. Marc, thanks. I just Tweeted that link to Novella. I earlier Tweeted the link to this post by Massimo to John Horgan. 🙂

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  12. Mem, yes, we’re all biased, but per Napoleon in Animal Farm, some of us may be more biased than others.

    And, per Skeptic’s Dictionary author Robert Carroll, meta-analysis often needs to be taken with at least one grain of salt.

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  13. So let’s say we have evidence of farmers who get increased yield and use less chemistry. Also, let’s we have evidence that they make farmers’ lives easier. (And we do. Farmers are not the rubes that these kinds of pieces imply that they are.)

    What do we conclude from that? Should they still be using the tools that accomplish this for them? Of course. So what exactly is the drama? What do you think should be the outcome of this, Massimo?

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  14. This is going to be predictably controversial, and possibly generate a lot of comments. I will therefore intervene only from time to time. Steve has written a response that he promised to share with me for publication both here and at Neurologica. Meanwhile:

    Socratic,

    Yes, I do think that there is a bit of groupthink within the skeptic movement. Steve is one of the best, but we all have our blind spots (yes, yes, including yours truly). In this case, the attitude seems to be that any criticism of GMOs, no matter how qualified and circumscribed, is an “attack” that helps those irrational bozos who want to reject the technology.

    Coel,

    We have already had a lengthy discussion about those graphs in the previous post, I think we’ve both said all there was to say.

    The herbicides/pesticides thing was so obviously a typo, if you read both what precedes it and what follows it, that it is remarkable that you chose the least charitable interpretation to go with.

    Yes, the use of insecticides has gone down in the US, but is far higher than in Europe. And no, herbicides aren’t exactly good for your health either.

    Meta-analyses do the equivalent of a peer review on non-peer reviewed papers? Absolutely and decidedly not. Moreover, meta-analyses are very well known to be extremely prone to the GIGO (garbage-in-garbage-out) problem, and this particular one suffers very much from it, given the number of non-peer reviewed sources cited.

    Mem,

    Same issue with you about the herbicides/pesticides thing. It was so transparently not a “conflation” of anything, but simply a typo. But it does say a lot about your and Coel’s attitude toward reading the post.

    I have not accused Kniss of any malpractice. As far as I can tell, he is a good and conscientious researcher. But the issue of funding is a valid point to bring up, because one can be as transparent as one wishes and yet still be (unconsciously) biased. I’m not making this up, there is tons of research on biased outcomes of drug trials when the research is funded by the industry, as mentioned in the OP. You can look it up on your own.

    I suggest that whenever the topic is so politically and socially hot a researcher should do his best to avoid biased funding, period. Believe me, I know first hand how difficult it is to get funding from NSF, USDA, and so forth, but in this case — as unfair as it may be — it would be a much better strategy.

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  15. Re the PLOS One meta-analysis paper. It says this:

    “Finally, we examined whether the type of publication matters. Controlling for other factors, the regression coefficient for journal publications in column (1) of Table 3 implies that studies published in peer-reviewed journals show 12 percentage points higher yield gains than studies published elsewhere. Indeed, when only including observations from studies that were published in journals, the mean effect size is larger than if all observations are included (Figure S2).”

    In other words, if they restrict only to the refereed-journal papers then they get a higher increase in yield from GMOs.

    On this:

    The first reason is news to me. It is actually very clear what the difference is between peer and non-peer reviewed publications, it just takes a bit more effort to double check individual entries.

    That’s not true in all fields. Conference papers can genuinely be a grey area, with it being unclear whether the paper was peer-reviewed at all, or with a big range of quality of peer reviewing being applied.

    In my field, for example, some of the second-rank journals (not the first-rank ones) will, in addition to normal journal papers, also publish conference papers where the degree of peer review is left up to the conference organisers. Thus it can be anywhere from equivalent to normal papers to entirely perfunctory, with no way of knowing from the final paper.

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  16. Massimo, agreed. I used to worry some about the safety issue, though not a total “frankenfooder.” Grist’s “Panic-Free GMOs” led me to overcome my last worries, in part because of its background as a strong environment mag. So, I, when I see “frankenfooders,” first share that link, with the note about “it’s Grist, not right-wingers or whatever.” If ppl reject THAT, I write them off.

    So, per previous discussion on another post, it is possible to change one’s mind on fairly big issues.

    I tend to look for less tribalist skeptics, otherwise. (Jim Lippard just shared, on FB, my posting of your link; he’s a good example.) Maybe that’s a blind spot of mind, to see tribalism where it at times doesn’t exist. That said, I have a Groucho Marx take on most organized groups in general.

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  17. I’ll add that, in the case of presidential candidate Jill Stein, I’ve even seen alleged skeptics make one particular claim about her that Snopes refuted months ago. As an American who votes outside the two-party box, I’ve seen a lot of skeptical tribalism in the current presidential election.

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  18. @michaelfugate WTF? You think it’s some kind of conspiracy or something? You can find my handle and my Google scholar list in about two clicks. But yeah, jumping to accusations of sockpuppetry are a good skeptic strategy.

    Take yourself too seriously, much?

    Let me ask you Mary, since you claim to know so much, are there any negatives to GM crops?

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  19. Mary, Massimo already mentioned an outcome on Friday. GMOs should be labeled. I agree. That said, I’d like more labels elsewhere.

    Massimo, can we create subclasses within logical fallacies? Or hybrids? Like the strawman x red herring?

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  20. No, it wasn’t an obvious typo. Because that’s the way it’s typically used in these conversations–as a conflation, on purpose, to bucket herbicides and insecticides. It looked just like plenty of other misinformed skeptics conversations I’ve been involved in over the years.

    And also no to the funding. At land grant universities, the faculty are supposed to serve many stakeholdes. This includes farmers and industry in the case of agriculture. And Andrew has also worked with Rodale! It is their job.

    That said, I have avoided all biased funding. So now you all have to listen to me. I’ve never taken travel money, grants, writing support, or anything else from any Ag sources. Glad we cleared that up.

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  21. Glad you jumped in here out of nowhere to chastise Massimo and enlighten us all. How could I have lived before this.

    I’m sorry, Massimo told me Friday that’s now officially a philosophical no-no, to write what I did above. But Harvard still says it’s life extending.

    So, Massimo, I have to go with personal utilitarianism rather than the APA’s version of virtue ethics on this one, don’t I?

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  22. In other words, Novella is a Skeptic(TM) caught engaging in motivated reasoning …

    I just wonder whether Socratic used motivated reasoning in deciding whether Steve Novella or Massimo was nearer the mark. I’ll be interested in reading Novella’s reply.

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  23. I engaged in motivated reasoning to hear the crickets of motivated reasoning across the pond. Is that meta-motivated reasoning? And, I’m not interested in reading replies.

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  24. It looks like the facts of the matter are agreed upon. GMO’s have not directly increased yields in any broad sense. GMO’s have allowed some reduction in insecticide use while increasing herbicide use. Current GMO crops are intended to increase farmer convenience and profit; at which they have succeeded.

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  25. @SocraticGadfly: Labels have zero to do with this discussion. But moving the goalposts is a good plan for you at this point, since the science fundamentals are not working for you.

    The point of this discussion is GMOs and ag chemicals. It continues to be conflated here, up and down the piece and the comments. Farmers use these tools because they work. They do increase and protect yield. And they do make farming easier. Again, labels have no bearing on that–except that they might actually take away tools from these folks who work very hard under many threats to deliver food for the rest of us.

    But go ahead. Yearn to be France, where they traded disease resistance for yield and were found to have worse pesticide exposures than the US or Canada–according to the French: http://modernfarmer.com/2013/05/wine-with-a-side-of-pesticide/

    And you should definitely rely on Jack Heinemann’s claims over Andrew Kniss. http://www.infowars.com/gm-wheat-may-permanently-alter-human-genome-spark-early-death/

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  26. Jerome, and farmers admit that “convenience” part indeed. On that, Monsanto has said that resistant weeds will be lessened with good crop rotation (even with a wink and a nod that most farmers won’t do that). In fact, part of a “Frontline” on PBS episode on GMOs a couple of years ago talked about that. A non-GMO farmer said he practiced more crop rotation, and greater cover crop usage as well.

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  27. Socratic, I think you are wasting sarcasm on Mary – it goes over her head – too literal, that one. She actually took to twitter over my sarcastic response to her gushing encomium of Kniss’ work – and guess what Kniss replied! But she is completely objective, she keeps telling us over and over so it must be true.

    That said, GM is one tool and can solve problems and create others. Dumping genes into complicated systems is bound to have consequences. It can’t be all good and it can’t be all bad, but it will change things. Spraying huge amounts of herbicide, no matter how benign compared to other herbicides, has ecological consequences. One could contend that it is the best current solution, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other current options or that one shouldn’t look for more optimal ones. Certainly other issues are fossil fuel use and greenhouse emissions which hasn’t come up in this discussion.

    I guess one thing that worries me is the corporate-think that wants to change the local environment to match their preferred agricultural model rather than the other way round. I have many relatives who farm and realize their concerns with profitability. Unless we can develop more sustainable models, most will give up. Aquifers are drying up. Topsoil is washing away. Waterways are polluted. Prices are down. Towns are dying. Anyone think Monsanto cares?

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  28. Coel,

    Yes, I noted that strange effect of the non-peer sources. But, again, why include, them, regardless of the direction of bias? This is only one of the problems I have with that meta-analysis, which seems sloppy. And people have far too much faith in the magic of meta-analyses.

    Conference papers are a genuine grey area, but, again, why include them before peer review? Especially when the subject matter is so controversial. It just seems bad practice, and remember this was in the context of Steve Novella accusing the NYT of bad practice, while citing sources of his own that are far from being above reproach.

    Mem,

    Interesting, so you doubt my good faith that that was a typo? Why, I wonder? Just because I happen to disagree with your specific take on this?

    Also, I have worked for nine years at a land grant university, and while it is true that of course scientists are pressured to seek funding whenever they can get it, it is absolutely not true that they are required to serve the industry among their stakeholders.

    J,

    Yes, I do think the facts are agreed on, as you say, current GMOs mostly make farmers’ jobs easier (as mentioned by the French farmer interviewed by the NYT), though they may also make things more expensive or difficult to get out (as mentioned by the American farmer interviewed by the NYT). The question that concerns me, however, is whether making farmers’ life easier (and generating billions for multinational corporations) is worth the potential environmental and (indirect) health hazard, not to mention labor practices, which the NYT article didn’t comment on.

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  29. Hi Massimo,

    The NYT article actually presents a very clear graph where the different kinds of herbicides are distinguished. Moreover, glyphosate may very well be “very benign,” but it is also by far the smallest contributor to the total in the graph.

    ?? No it isn’t! It is the largest of the named herbicides, larger than Atrazine, Acetochlor or Metolachlor. The only category that is bigger is “others”.

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