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Sep 03 2013

Beth Hoffman – Science doesn’t work that way

Beth Hoffman writes for Forbes and she’s mainly about changing the food system. Recently she wrote a piece on Genetic Modification and why Golden Rice is not a good thing.

I was stunned by such a statement but before I could respond “Drama Happened” and distracted me, so consider this trying to get back on track.

Warning!

Contains Medical Images

Recently the debate over genetically modified (GMO) foods has heated up again.  In just the past few weeks, articles about GMOs have appeared in Slate, the New York Times, and Grist.  And over the weekend New York Times writer Amy Harmon wrote again of the saving graces of genetically engineered foods, this time citing “Golden Rice” as a clear example of the life saving abilities of GMOs.

Let’s get this clear.

Golden Rice is a really good idea. It’s the genetic modification of rice to produce carotene and an excellent and cheap way to improve supplementation of Vitamin A. This would effectively halt the spread of xeropthalmia which is one of the biggest preventable causes of blindness and mainly affects children.

The rice is a charity development. It will be sold at cost and without regulation allowing farmers to crossbreed the plant with standard rices to produce local hybrids if people want to do that.

Yes, even Monsanto helped make it and did so out of “Charity”.

Yet journalists on both sides of the argument seem to have forgotten there are many ways aside from “ science” to describe the world around us, and that there are other highly effective tools out there to solve hunger and malnutrition besides genetic engineering.

I don’t know what Hoffman thinks powered the green revolution but it certainly wasn’t Professor Sprout and her herbology classes.

Hoffman falls down a trap in thinking that farming is not highly scientific. The entire farming industry is heavily entrenched in science be it the physics of irrigation or the usage of astronomy to decide seasons of planting or the utilisation of meteorology to predict rainfall or chemistry to make fertiliser or biology to understand everything from cross breeding to treatment of disease and control of pests.

Farmers aren’t going at it “randomly” and haven’t been going at it randomly for quite some time. They may not have understood the principle but early farmers quickly realised through simple observations some ideas about farming that held true for decades. When we actually understood those principles we harnessed them in a much more effective way.

Which is what we call the Green Revolution or the sudden spike in food production making us live in a bubble of artificial excess.

Let me be clear – I am not “afraid of science,” a claim that someone invariably writes at the end of an article like this one to try and discredit its argument.  I, like millions of people around the world, am against genetic engineering, but not because of the proven or refuted science behind it.

No. But Hoffman certainly claimed that science doesn’t have the answer and doesn’t quite understand what agricultural sciences entail. She may not be scared of science but that’s because she has made a statement that’s indicative that she doesn’t understand science or has a very specific view of what she thinks since involves. And something tells me that view involves a lot of old white men in coats poking at test tubes.

If we are to make fun of her that’s like me suggesting that pre-Green Revolution farming practices can be gleaned from the Wickerman

This is not scientific farming practice. Although it is funny.

So the question is why?  Why am I part of a huge, and growing, group not willing to believe the “facts” (according to its proponents) about the benefits of genetic modification?  Why am I against the creation of Golden Rice, even if it may stop millions of children from going blind?

The basic answer is simple: trust.

Wait what? You believe the scientific knowledge that vitamin A deficiency causes xeropthalmia which is a terrible terrible disease but wish to stop people gaining access to the preventative measure?

Xeropthalmia is a progressive disease that is reversible during it’s early stages. Basically? It’s the degeneration of vision starting with night blindness, moving on to corneal abrasions and finally the formation of scar tissue over the eye. It’s a permanent loss of vision but at the early stages is reversable.

In addition? Vitamin A deficiency is linked to malnutrition and unfavourable outcomes on common childhood diseases.

I find this hypocritical that one can trust all the science that came up with these answers but not “Genetic Modification”.

I bet Hoffman knows atleast one person on Insulin. Made by a Genetically Engineerd Organism.

Science has a credibility problem.  It has for too long been used to distort food and twist the natural into long lasting Twinkies and nutritionally void Lunchables.  Tobacco was good for us, we were told, and DDT was fine to spray on our fields.  Food dyes are all still considered safe for our kids to eat, and “natural” foods, we are made to believe, are made of naturally occurring ingredients.

Unlike magic, voodoo and prayer?

Science doesn’t have a credibility problem, people NOT understanding science has a credibility problem. Oh for the love of god? Who the hell thought Twinkies and Lunchables were healthy? That’s not a failing of science, that’s a failing of education.

We need to teach our kids about bloody food. Our kids are happy to be eating processed meat and sinew in their chicken nuggets but won’t touch real chicken. We feed our kids caffeine and sugar then complain that they are hyperactive. We feed them fried potato mash but not show them how to mash and make their own.

In short? It’s not science that created kids eating nonsensical food it was adults who bought the damn stuff despite the information being written on the packaging.

At no point did scientists say Tobacco was good for you. In fact for most of the past 100 years science has been staunchly ANTI-Tobacco. DDT was a godsend and most Americans don’t realise why.

The shipping off Africans as slaves to the USA brought along an African disease. Yellow Fever. Every year yellow fever outbreaks in the USA would kill thousands sometimes even tens of thousands of people. Aedes Egyptii and Yellow Fever both made their way to the USA and the south’s swamps made for ideal breeding grounds. Mosquitos are pretty mobile critters.

The usage of DDT eliminated Yellow Fever as a threat in the USA. There are no native monkeys for the disease to form a reservoir. DDT saved hundreds of thousands of lives. You have to weight the scales. Would you rather hundreds of thousands of people died or we damage the environment? At the time it was a sensible call. With the depletion of Yellow Fever’s reservoir we didn’t need to spray any more. Still think it was a bad idea?

And as I said. You are the one who feeds your kids. If you buy garbage they will eat garbage. If you inculcate a habit of eating “Real” food then they too will eat real food.

And you cannot compare Lunchables to Golden Rice, one’s pretty real in nutritive value and the other is weird food.

In all cases we have been misled, and today it is not “false fears” that has bred skeptical consumers, it is experience.

No. No it hasn’t. I bet that Greenpeace has some Type 1 diabetics who dose themselves up with Humalin then go out to yell about genetic modification being bad without any sense of hypocrisy.

And many of the scares about science are false fears or hyperbole.

Equally suspect is the ridiculous notion that anything in the world – be it love, or windmills, or children, or genetically engineered rice – can be all good.  Regardless of what “scientists,” Bill and Melinda Gates or anyone else involved with creating genetically engineered foods might say, and I am willing to bet the farm there will be unforeseen consequences, just as there are in every other aspect of our lives.  11,000 farmers in the southern United States found this out the hard way when they lost an estimated $150 million in rice sales in 2006 because of a contamination by a genetically modified strain, even though, claims Harmon, “science” says cross pollination will be “extremely limited.”

Because they wanted to sell their crops as organic at high mark ups. The agriculture “bullshit” industry is quite well known. Free Range is different from Organic and Organic may be worse than Free Range and the classifications are just tick boxes to be fulfilled.

Not because the crops produced human legs instead of rice.

And what about the assertion that we should all get over our hangups and embrace genetic engineering for the lives it can save?

Tell that to my dad. Man’s addicted to Insulin like his life’s dependant on it.

Gerard Barry of the International Rice Research Institute is quoted in Harmon’s article as saying that “critics who suggest encouraging poor families to simply eat fruits and vegetables that contain beta carotene [instead of Golden Rice] disregard the expense and logistical difficulties that would thwart such efforts.”

No, Gerard Barry is kind of right.

This is the most audacious claim made by those who believe genetic engineering is the way to go.  Namely the insistence that genetic engineering is somehow better, and in the long run, cheaper than other more natural ways of eating and that the logistical complexities of getting fruits and veggies to malnourished human beings are too large to overcome.

Do you know what Hoffman is saying? They have no bread so let them eat cake. This is the bit where I have some experience.

My ties to the Middle East were because I lived there. I have been all over both as a kid and as a medic. But as a kid one of my experiences was that of a refugee during the first Gulf War. And I “Starved”. I was on a starvation diet. I ate anything put in front of me. Mostly what you ate was rice and pulses. Carbs and Proteins.

The problem with fruits and vegetables is that on a starvation diet they are expensive and since what people are suffering from is protein energy malnourishment they spend all their money on rice and a pulse of some sort. Basics. High Energy Food To Get Them Moving.

Hoffman doesn’t understand two things. That the ground that grows rice doesn’t grow other vegetables all that well. It’s clay soil and holds water and rice can survive waterlogging. Carrots? Less so. They will die. The right soil for the right crop is important. It’s the reason why Scotland and Wales raise sheep. It’s because the land is unsuitable for growing crops and sheep will eat most green things. Hoffman’s ideas simply would not take hold and worse.

If she tried her experiment in a third world nation all that would happen is the crop of vegetables and fruits would fail and the crop of rice would be lower resulting in greater starvation.

No clearly something better needs to be done. Fruits and vegetables may require infrastructure that will be easier to provide if farms got bigger by falling populations but at the moment bar simply giving them a ration it’s hard to get people eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

You see this in the USA and the UK too. Poorer people are less likely to indulge in healthier food because it’s cheaper to eat badly.

Baloney.

There once was a teacher in Asia. Who thought like Hoffman. He knew better than the farmers. IF a stupid farmer could grow crops with barely any education and the inability to write, then imagine what a city man with all the luxuries of education could do?

His name was Pol Pot. And the ensuing famine killed millions. Because farming issues are not as easy as you waggling your hands and demanding people eat carrots.

The amount of money it has cost to concoct a product like Golden Rice is enormous.  Scientists first got initial funding for Golden Rice from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1984 and have now been supported (with monies to cover lab expenses, legal fees, teaching assistants, salaries, long patent processes, etc) for more than 30 years.

Because developing it was a landmark event and even then once a single batch had rolled out you in effect eliminated all Vitamin A deficiency and didn’t need to keep spending money on supplements.

The problem with Golden Rice is fear mongering has kept people from adopting it. It could have been rolled out 10 years ago even. People demanded testing and refused to use it because of scaremongering and all the while people died and were blinded.

Meanwhile, again and again, simple low-cost, low-tech solutions like “kitchen gardening,” improved agricultural methods, and cover cropping have been found to give outstanding nutritional and economic results quickly to farmers.  If people can grow a carrot or yam for far less expense and trouble than developing a strange looking rice (it is bright yellow – and we think getting people to eat brown rice has been hard!) – why aren’t carrots or yams the first stop for solving the problem?

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation teach comprehensive scientific agriculture. Places which can grow mixed crops do so. As for Kitchen Gardening? Really? You think the poorest people of India have TIME to faff around with Kitchen Gardens? Or do you think they have land to garden in? Tell me what plants in your garden grow in sandy soil using salt water? Coconuts perhaps?

This is the argument of someone who has never seen a rice paddy field if you think you can grow Yams in it.

Why are we pouring money into lab salaries, field trials and professional conferences instead of ensuring that people around the world have nutritious – and tasty (do you want to eat only rice?) – food to eat every day?

There is no other word for it but privilege.

People don’t eat monodiets because they enjoy it but because they need to survive. They eat to live, we live to eat.

25% of the world’s starvation is in India. Roungly 60% of people are functionally malnourished and roughly 50% of people have had to face PEM (Protein-Energy Malrnourishment). These are big big big numbers of people and many of these people don’t have farms or gardens to grow carrots on or have land that doesn’t grow carrots.

Golden Rice would be a godsend because you can use it as a staple and reduce the need for Vitamin A supplementation. India has the biggest Vit A supplementation scheme in the world! Golden rice would save a lot of money and increase farmer independence.

I believe the real question which needs to be asked is not “why is the public so reluctant to embrace the “science” behind genetic engineering?” but “why are scientists intent on solving problems in the most costly and complex way imaginable?”  Why has feeding the hungry become a self-serving competition for lab funding when viable solutions to the problem (and the organizations to carry them out) are available now?

The estimated cost of Golden Rice is between 80 to 120 million dollars from what I can find. Let’s take it at a round $100 million.

India spends $32 million a year on Vit A supplementation and still has cases of Xeropthalmia as the network isn’t perfect.

This would have better penetration and costs the same as just 4 years of supplementation scheme to come up with.

And this is without one off the most global uses of Golden Rice.

It’s a starvation food ideal for famine conditions and natural disasters because when shipping starvation food you need maximum diversity minimum space.

I am afraid the problem is Hoffman thinks a $100 Million project is a lot of money when compared to the hundreds of millions we throw down the drain every year trying to fight Vit A deficiency.

Why are we spending millions (billions?) of dollars reinventing the wheel when we already have several that work?

Because you think we can use a wooden cart wheel on a 18 Wheel truck.

Because Hoffman has a very very simplistic view off starvation economics.

Just because science can improve nutrition by genetically engineering food, doesn’t mean we have to.

Your right. We should engineer Carrots to Grow Under Water.

These Are Carrots

This is rice.

Arguing against the fight against Xeropthalmia is just madness.

This is a disease that robs sight to the poorest and people who need it the most. It turns healthy children into people who’s only future is begging.

Keratomalacia and Xeropthalmia are an eliminatable scourge of mankind and the simple utilisation of Golden Rice can save millions of eyes.

Keratomalacia

Xeropthalmia

This is a thankful rarity in Tamil Nadu, but you see these in the rural parts of the North in places like Bihar.

These people cannot be saved after it gets to this stage. But you can stop more from happening by the adoption of the rice.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Totally agree with you 100% on this. Well said!

    (but as an aside, Professor Sprout-who-teaches-Herbology is a woman)

  2. 2
    smrnda

    I notice that her entire piece is nothing but her ‘gut instincts’ going against the idea that genetically modified crops have any benefit; she presents alternate solutions without any sort of cost-benefit analysis indicating they’d work better.

    On people who think ‘science’ has been wrong on food and human nutrition, these people are confusing corporate marketing with science. Corporations have argued that their products aren’t harmful (or good for you) when the science clearly disagrees. (Alt med does the same thing.) Science never said twinkies were good for you.

  3. 3
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Her piece is a lengthy exercise in the naturalistic fallacy mixed with base snobbery.

    *spits*

  4. 4
    ekwhite

    Well said. There are plenty of good reasons to distrust Monsanto, but that is not the issue here. As long as golden rice is not patentrd and no one is suing farmers for saving seeds or if the rice cross-pollinates with other varieties, I am all for it. Unfortunately, the bad practices of Monsanto and a few other commercial firms have made genetic engineering a bad word.

    Just as a disclaimer, I work for a biopharmaceutcal company.

  5. 5
    Mike Haubrich

    I agree that the conflation of genetic modification/engineering with big agro-companies is a problem, and feeds distrust all around. I have having this argument with a great number of people who will not trust GE/GMO EVER because of Monsanto.

    There is a great deal of good independent research being done on ways that GMO can be used to improve the environment. My favorite example is the study completed by the University of Georgia (USA) which bred trees that soak up pollutants and were used to clean up hazardous waste sites.

  6. 6
    hoary puccoon

    I wonder, reading things like this, whether some of this nonsense comes from creationists. Not that Beth Hoffman herself is necessarily a creationist– but the idea that science is only a matter of opinion and her opinion is just as good as a biologist’s or agronomist’s is what creationism sells.

    That and the Western hubris she radiates. Gee, of course there would be no hunger in India if those silly people would just behave like back-to-the-land suburbanites in Greenwich, Connecticut or Marin County, California,vb and plant kitchen gardens!

  7. 7
    Avicenna

    People in the USA have to eat such diets too! It’s just that they have more luxuries to rely on.

  8. 8
    BecomingJulie

    All foodstuffs we eat today are genetically modified. For instance cabbage, brussels sprouts, swede and oil seed rape are all genetically-modified variants originally descended from Brassica sativa

    Admittedly, most of that genetic modification has been done the slow way, by waiting for a mutation to occur by chance and then selectively breeding to reinforce it; and most of the direct genetic modification we have done so far is going to look as though someone tried to solder 0603 parts to a PCB with an Antex 25-watter while wearing boxing gloves by the time we have refined the process. But that’s all by the by. The viability of a mutation is still determined by Nature alone; and if given long enough, any “artificial” mutation we might make is likely to crop up randomly.

  9. 9
    Beth

    I think Ms. Hoffman is right is when she says “The basic answer is simple: trust.”

    I think that is the basic answer behind a lot of anti-science attitudes from eschewing vaccinations to genetically modified foods.

    While I may agree with your assessment of the science, the science is not all that must be assessed before a person makes up their mind about something. In many cases, it may not be a part of their judgement at all. Understanding the science is difficult and frequently requires a high level of education as well as a non-trivial amount of effort to do so. Reading the actual scientific peer-reviewed papers and coming to one’s own conclusions could easily be a full-time job for any given issue, whether vaccines, climate change or genetically modified foods.

    Most people, whether they actually examine the science behind such issues as presented for non-specialists, must make their conclusions and subsequent actions based on their level of trust regarding those who are giving out the information. If they don’t trust the source of the information, they may well decide they don’t believe the recommendations regardless of how well documented the science behind them is.

    Thus, I agree with Ms. Hoffman that trust is a basic issue.

  10. 10
    Madeleine Love

    I got to the second paragraph – found there was too much to correct.
    I’ll just make this statement to get through the anti-science rhetoric.
    I have a Bachelor of Science (Maths/Human Movement Studies), Diploma of Education in Maths/Physics/Science, post grad studies in actuarial science.
    From the moment I heard about the GM issue I went to the science databases to see what was going on. From science I went to the invention reality of the Monsanto etal in-house testing. I read through the ‘advocacy science’ they handed to our regulators. It’s a mess. Sometimes they couldn’t even identify the novel GM proteins they were meant to be testing. Instead they self-created what they thought they were making, and tested those instead.
    You sound like you’re writing in a dream of belief, far detached from the reality of GM and in particular the reality of Golden Rice.

  11. 11
    Avicenna

    There is no GM issue. Nearly Every Type 1 diabetic using Insulin is living on Humalin made by a GM organism. Not one person is calling the waahmbulance out on that. We don’t care about this because the people who need this are very poor and die in distressingly large numbers far far away so as to not bother us about our outrage about Miley Cyrus doing a stupid sexy dance.

    The scientific consensus from every reputable source states that GMO are safe for consumption. Nearly every scaremongerer out there often makes rather bizarre claims that we don’t test our seeds. Want to know something scary?

    There is ABSOLUTELY no testing for standard crop modification. Your cross bred rice is an uncontrolled genetic modification. GMOs are among the most tested products we have.

    Sanofi may have made Golden Rice but nearly every company donated FREE of charge to assist the project. The reason why they want in house testing to be reduced because they can up profit margins on a product that is highly safe. It’s like claiming that McDonalds should test their burgers everytime they want to introduce a new one.

    The most important thing about golden rice is that you showed no grasp to the level of modification.

    The total modification to golden rice is LESS than the modification done to standard rice from it’s wild version.

    Protein Detection? Do you know how easy that is? We have everything from antibody tests to PCR to recognise novel protein and genetic strands. I used to do chromatography in high school.

    If doctors can measure using simple lab equipment specific protein levels in your blood, what makes you think plant biologists cannot?

    There are just 3 novel genes in the entire genome of golden rice and these genes are found in other plants that we regularly eat. Are you honestly suggesting that rice somehow will react to these normal genes and become toxic? Really? On what basis do you make the claim that these proteins are deadly in the concentrations found in Golden Rice?

    And I repeat. Most countries are offering the seeds without license. It’s like the polio vaccine. It’s creators spent a lot of money on it and then said “you know what? The world needs this” and gave it away. There is no profit except for the farmers and there is no patent. None of the “evils” of Monsanto are attached to this.

    I am afraid the anti-GMO brigade are just wrong about this.

  12. 12
    Robert Macgregor

    I think the cost estimate of $100M is too high since it shouldn’t include all the unnecessary cost of jumping through regulatory hoops for over 10 years. Further, whatever the cost, what is the value of preventing hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of cases of blindness and reducing mortality from vit A defficiency mediated illnesses?
    Finally, this is one of the first times I’ve seen Monsanto linked to Golden Rice. Although I’d be willing to bet that some of the patents that were waived to make golden rice freely available to poor farmers are owned by Monsanto, Syngenta is the company name more often associated with its development (since they developed GR2 after Potrykus and Beyer did GR1). Was Monsanto brought in to the discussion just to stir the pot and push some hot buttons/evoke knee-jerk responses?

  13. 13
    Avicenna

    Actually it was to point out that even Monsanto is helping out for FREE.

    It’s a genuine project to improve the world.

    I pointed out the HIGHEST cost of the entire project to scale with how much India alone would benefit from the product.

    Every year, I be the world spends around about that sum of money dealing with Vitamin A deficiency and the morbidity and mortality associated with it.

  14. 14
    mutt

    tried reading this and it seems the author is just ranting. he goes on about trust and science…yadda yadda yadda…but i feel he misses the point entirely….its not the science people are skeptical about, but the corporations and profit motive behind this. the author seems to be a old man screaming about nothing, because for every point he makes several counterpoints can also be made against his views….the funny thing is that this saw publication…..

  15. 15
    memsomerville

    I was just thinking about this and the excruciatingly sad denial of the actual evidence by some of the opponents of the rice. And then I read this: Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math.

    It is obvious that no amount of data will make a difference if you intend to misrepresent it to fit your bias. Coupled with crap sources of information like the anti-GMO team has, there’s probably no way out of their own morass for them.

    But I think more people (and luckily most science media) are catching on and starting to write them off. But Beth will have her own blog and she can persist just like the Monty Python Black Knight, for every limb she has, I guess.

    That said, I think the last couple of weeks have made it clear that you have to be pretty delusional to want to stop this rice, if even Michael Pollan admitted that the trial should proceed.

  16. 16
    transenigma32

    Then how about making them, Mutt?

    Two can play at your game:

    “tried reading this and it seems the author is just ranting. he goes on about trust and science…yadda yadda yadda…but i feel he misses the point entirely….its not the environmental science people are skeptical about, but the environmentalist and liberal motives behind this. the author seems to be a old man screaming about nothing, because for every point he makes several counterpoints can also be made against his views….the funny thing is that this saw publication…..”

    Or

    “tried reading this and it seems the author is just ranting. he goes on about trust and science…yadda yadda yadda…but i feel he misses the point entirely….its not the micro-evolutionary science people are skeptical about, but the atheistic macro-evolutionary motive behind this. the author seems to be a old man screaming about nothing, because for every point he makes several counterpoints can also be made against his views….the funny thing is that this saw publication…..”

  17. 17
    elpayaso

    Avi, i gotta disagree with just one thing: your assessment of Monsanto’s motives. this sort of corporate largesse is not due to nobility or the desire to imrpove humanity’s lot. it’s more in the nature of the ads BP has taken out telleing us how much they care for the environment: a (likely deductible, so the average taxpayer is helping pay for it) public relations investment. which is not to deny the empirical benefit regardless of the motivations. but don’t kid yourself about corporate nobility. i suspect nowhere in Mondsano’s corporate charter is one of the purposes listed as improving the lot of poor people.

  18. 18
    Avicenna

    Actually it was a technological transfer. Monsanto are the owners of the Terminator Sequence. Some countries GM laws demand it’s usage in all GM Crops to prevent uncontrolled spread of GM sequences (it produces a generation of sterile seeds).

    They didn’t really sing and shout about it. It’s just that it’s a known thing that you can get Golden Rice with the technology and Monsanto wasn’t paid for it.

    And considering how little the GM companies are singing and dancing about it, it may genuinely be trying to help.

  19. 19
    Janie Tarazon

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