The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia

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Will Saletan linked this just-published analysis by Razib Khan. Razib has been researching and thinking carefully about the sources of anti-GMO sentiments.

…GMO has not become culturally polarizing. Yet. Most peoples’ opinions are inchoate and instinctive. I believe they derive from folk biological intuitions about essences. Ultimately it’s about the fact that people don’t understand genes in any prosaic sense, but they think that they’re somehow magically involved in the nexus of who we are in a deep and fundamental sense. That’s why the translocation of fish genes into tomato is so uncomfortable for people; they imagine that the essence of the fish is somehow being mixed with the essence of the tomato, and that just feels wrong. Genophobia of this sort is comprehensible in a cognitive anthropological framework. Just as we are likely wired for Creationism, I think we’re wired for being very skeptical of the concept of GMO, because of the implicit connotations of muddling categories which we view was fundamental. And, just like Creationism, we can overcome these deep intuitions. Much of natural science in the modern world consists of overcoming and updating of deep intuitions.

(…snip…)

I am mildly optimistic that this will not happen with GMO, and that is because scientists are anti-anti-GMO, and, politically liberal. It seems very likely that a GMO food labeling measure will pass in the near future. And I believe that this will galvanize a backlash among scientists on the whole. Something similar happens on the Right with Creationism. Whenever the movement actually scores a victory, elite Republicans, who invariably accept the science of evolutionary biology, become alarmed and roll back gains made by Creationists. Unlike evolution, GMO are not just abstractions in a laboratory. When GMO becomes pervasive enough, or at least the knowledge of how pervasive they are becomes more common, then the public will likely make peace with their reservations, just as they have with in vitro fertilization.

Source The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia

The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud

Saletan

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I nominate Will Saletan’s Slate article Unhealthy Fixation for Food Essay of the Year. Happily there are many other readers with an appreciation – as we can see in the left-pictured social feedback indicators (captured June 20th). Myself, I was alerted to Saletan’s Slate Plus publication by a Nuzzle notification that more than six of my curators had collectively voted Will’s essay best of the week.

On my iPad the Nuzzle curator icons stretched all the way across my screen. At the moment it looks like this, but this is only of four Nuzzle picks of the same article (I don’t know why Nuzzle shows separate entries for the same article).

Nuzzle curators

In fact I’ve never actually seen so much enthusiasm for a just-published article. Since then my available reading minutes have been absorbed reading the various discussions that have erupted from the original.

So why is Saletan’s essay so unusual? Why don’t journalists routinely deconstruct the daily volume of pseudoscience attack on the genetic engineering process?

  • Editors don’t like long, complicated articles.
  • Especially articles that question the received wisdom of the NGO elites such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • Writers have to pay the rent – Will says “I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence.” Gathering, analyzing and verifying this much evidence would have been a job of many, many hundreds of hours. At some point Will persuaded Slate to assign interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman to assist with the research.
  • Reputation return to the writer? I asked Nathanael Johnson, author of the very valuable Grist series Panic-free GMOs, about the value proposition for a writer “If I rebut every activist claim there’s no time for…insert priority.” Nathanael replied “Also, more risk less reward in cultural capital in doing that kind of rear guard policing”.

I thought I would write a tweet or two quoting from Will’s article. Hmm… this is so tightly written that every other sentence is quotable. But the value of every sentence is built from the fabric of the analysis and argument. Clearly the best time value for you, dear Reader, is to focus your attention on the original essay which is subtitled “The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food is Safe. The Rhetoric is Dangerous”. And if you have time to listen before you read, I recommend listening to Will read his essay – you’ll enjoy the 65 minute podcast.

The bottom line, I think, is that it’s very risky to do what Will Saletan has undertaken. Let’s try to improve the odds that Will’s rewards justify the risks he took. Buy the Book! And for sure follow Will Saletan on Twitter. Enjoy Will’s engagement with the critics:-)

The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

In Why the ‘Prius Driving, Composting’ Set Fears Vaccines Greg Miller interviews author Seth Mnookin on his new book. Here’s a fragment of the Q&A:

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Q: There’s a perception that vaccine refusal is especially common among affluent, well-educated, politically liberal parents—is there any truth to that?

S.M.: It’s dangerous to make broad generalizations about a group, but anecdotally and from the overall data that’s been collected it seems to be people who are very actively involved in every possible decision regarding their children’s lives. I think it relates to a desire to take u ncertainty out of the equation. And autism represents such an unknown. We still don’t know what causes it and we still don’t have good answers for how to treat it. So I think that fear really resonates.

Also I think there’s a fair amount of entitlement. Not vaccinating your child is basically saying I deserve to rely on the herd immunity that exists in a population. At the most basic level it’s saying I believe vaccines are potentially harmful, and I want other people to vaccinate so I don’t have to. And for people to hide under this and say, “Oh, it’s just a personal decision,” it’s being dishonest. It’s a personal decision in the way drunk driving is a personal decision. It has the potential to affect everyone around you.

Q: But why liberals?

S.M.: I think it taps into the organic natural movement in a lot of ways.

I talked to a public health official and asked him what’s the best way to anticipate where there might be higher than normal rates of vaccine noncompliance, and he said take a map and put a pin wherever there’s a Whole Foods. I sort of laughed, and he said, “No, really, I’m not joking.” It’s those communities with the Prius driving, composting, organic food-eating people.

 

Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.

 

Jennie Schmidt: The Costs of GMO Labeling

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Jennie Schmidt is the proprietor of TheFoodieFarmer “Blogging about how your food gets from field to fork”. Jennie is very different from your typical Whole Foods customer, who has never set foot on a farm – she knows farming in depth. In particular she understands the supply chain – which is why she is especially qualified to write the captioned essay on what “right to know” really costs. This is the real deal, carefully researched, first-hand explanations of what is involved in establishing traceability of every ingredient that goes into food on your supermarket shelf. Read Jennie for the particulars. She closes with this summary:

Those who say GMO labeling won’t add to the consumer’s grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math.

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

Its likely that as a nation, we’d never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter – this isn’t about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer’s right to know, it is about banning the technology.

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.

I liked Jennie’s essay so much that I posted the following comment:

Jennie – thanks heaps for taking the time to document some of the true costs that the “right to know” lobby wants to impose on consumers. I’m happy to see you already have a well-deserved pat on the back from Prof. Kevin Folta.

When we see such a “movement” promoting regulations that don’t make sense – that’s a good time to ask “who benefits?” If we follow the incentives we find there are a number of special-interests who are funding this campaign. David Tribe framed the smelly bedfellows as Big Quacka and Big Organic.

A concept from Public Choice economics that helps us understand how these hidden interests operate is called “Bootleggers and Baptists”. In your GMO labeling case the Bootleggers include Whole Foods and trial lawyers. Back in the CA Prop 37 fight I wrote a few posts on this concept, such as How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor and Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated.

The key idea is that the Bootleggers have learned that the best media reception is obtained by fronting the Baptists, preferably worried-looking moms holding their beautiful babies.

The Bottom Line: if you want to know about food and farming – talk to farmers, not to Greenpeace.

Bitter Harvest — How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Robert Zeigler, is head of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), one of the key groups who are carrying forward Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution. Yes, the Golden Rice people. His essay for COSMOS makes me both sad and angry at the same time.

As an intellectual direct descendent of the architects of the Green Revolution, like Norman Borlaug (pictured above), it is truly heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor. From Norm Borlaug to Peter Jennings, all these greats had something in common: a fire in the belly to try and make a mockery of the doomsday predictions of Ehrlich and the Paddocks brothers. The role of science was precisely to make the future different from the past. Sadly, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash.

…(snip)…

Our understanding of genetics and the ability to proactively manipulate how plants behaved and responded to the environment was becoming a reality. Many of us saw this as a way to reverse the negatives of the Green Revolution and open the way for, in the words of Sir Gordon Conway, a “doubly green revolution.”

It was foreseeable that we could engineer into crops resistance to insect pests and pathogens that would eliminate the need for spraying toxic chemicals that sickened every organism they touched. Even better, we could now help the people left behind because they lived on lands plagued by droughts or floods that wouldn’t support modern crop varieties. I have seen this dream validated. India’s untouchable communities often farm on marginal flood-prone land. IRRI’s flood-tolerant rice is most useful to these farmers and promises to transform the lives of millions.

In short we saw modern biology as a driver for transforming agriculture into a tool for protecting the environment, meeting food needs, and reversing millennia of injustices that condemned certain segments of the population to the worst land.

Sadly, while we were working to make our dreams reality, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash. The extreme regulations for GMO crops demanded by self-proclaimed protectors of the environment, had the perverse result that only the largest multinationals could afford to develop such crops. Predictably, this resulted in the same camp denouncing the growing domination of agriculture by multinationals.

As costs for developing crop varieties escalated, the few seed companies that could afford the work focused only on areas with large markets. The marginal farmers were once again excluded.

This time, though, who is to blame?

Please see also Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”. In the Easterbrook interview Borlaug said

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

A Thirst For Technology To Mitigate California’s Drought

Henry Miller looks at the clash between ideologies and the non-PC technologies that can contribute to solutions:

Reservoir levels are dropping, the snow pack is almost nonexistent, and many communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage. In the city of Santa Cruz, for example, restaurants can no longer serve drinking water unless diners specifically request it; Marin County residents have been asked not to clean their cars or to do so only at “eco-friendly” car washes; and there are limitations on watering lawns in towns in Mendocino County.

But it is the state’s premier industry– farming – that will feel the pinch most. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water used by people and businesses, according to the Department of Water Resources.

During a January 19 press conference at which he declared a water emergency, Governor Jerry Brown said of the drought, “This is not a partisan adversary. This is Mother Nature. We have to get on nature’s side and not abuse the resources that we have.”

Drought may not be partisan, but it does raise critical issues of governance, public policy and how best to use the state’s natural resources. It also offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: Ironically, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Marin counties — all of which boast politically correct, far-left politics — are among the local jurisdictions that have banned a key technology that could conserve huge amounts of water.

The technology is genetic engineering performed with modern molecular techniques, sometimes referred to as genetic modification (GM) or gene-splicing, which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do spectacular new things, including conserve water. In the United States and about 30 other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.

 

Vandana Shiva and the GMO Suicide Myth

“Every 30 minutes an Indian farmer commits suicide as a result of Monsanto’s GM crops. In the last decade more than 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves because of Monsanto’s costly seeds and pesticides.”

Shiva lies, lies, lies,...

Keith Kloor wrote a carefully-researched exposé of this zombie-myth. I say zombie-myth because it appears to be unkillable by evidence-based logic. The myth was manufactured from thin air by anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva, beginning with her 2009 op-ed in the Huffington Post.

I knew the suicide story was an activist fabrication. What I did not know was how successful Shiva has been at establishing the myth as received wisdom. Believers include Prince Charles, Bill Moyers and Stanford’s “Population Bomb” Paul Erlich, and of course  Greenpeace, which favors issues that aid their fund-raising.

It is the perfect story for uncritical media: emotional and truly tragic. If India is to reduce these tragedies they need to work on the real causes – not Shiva’s fiction. As you might expect, the explanation for the suicides is complex:

a 2012 paper in The Lancet that surveyed India’s suicide mortality rate noted: “Studies from south India have shown that the most common contributors to suicide are a combination of social problems, such as interpersonal and family problems and financial difficulties, and pre-existing mental illness.”

Researchers such as Cornell’s Ronald Herring are finding at least one factor that helps account for the increases in suicides from the early 1990’s. That is the unanticipated consequence of banking reforms which led to increasing penetration by “foreign and new generation private banks … [that has] led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable”. In other words, where institutional credit became unavailable to small-holder farmers, the void was filled by money-lenders.  This helps explain why suicides have been concentrated in five of India’s 28 states:

Banking practices vary across India … states with the highest incidence of farmer suicides were those that offered the least institutional credit to farmers. This forced small farmers into the hands of private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 45%). In those states where farmers had better access to institutional credit and farm insurance, there were markedly fewer suicides. Indian banks also offer credit to farmers with irrigated land, as this makes farming more viable. “Irrigation does drive bank lending,” Sadanadan said at the panel. “In states where there is greater irrigation, they [banks] lend money to the farmer.”

Central to Shiva’s myth is the claim that farmer suicides are caused by the complete failure of “Monsanto’s seeds”. But Shiva is never bothered by evidence that contradicts her preferred narrative:

Bt cotton has been all the rage in India since it was officially approved in 2002. The technology has been adopted by over 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. (Similar findings attest to the same in China, where Bt cotton accounts for 80% of its crop.) India’s agricultural minister said in 2012 that the country “has harvested an average of 5.1 million tons of cotton per year, which is well above the highest production of 3 million tons before the introduction of Bt cotton. ” India is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, behind China. Apparently, Indian farmers have come to overwhelmingly embrace genetically modified cotton.

Yet there is an enduring belief that Bt cotton has failed in India, with tragic consequences. This failure, the story goes, has resulted in burdensome debt and caused more than a quarter-million Indian farmers to take their own lives. Ronald Herring, a political scientist at Cornell University, has studied the seeming paradox and written on it extensively. As he observed in one paper, “It is hard to imagine farmers spreading a technology that is literally killing them”.

…when India approved Bt cotton (thus far the only GMO crop permitted in the country), it quickly became a surrogate cause in the larger ideological battle. In this battle, the Bt cotton-Indian farmer suicide narrative that Shiva helped to craft proved to be powerfully seductive and immune to contradiction or correction. Not only does there seem to be no evidence that farmers using Bt cotton seed are more likely to commit suicide than others, but farmers that do use the seeds appear on the whole to be benefiting from them. A 2008 meta-review of data between 2002 and 2006 “suggests that Bt cotton has been quite successful in most states and years in India, contributing to an impressive leap in average cotton yields, as well as a decrease in pesticide use and  in farmer revenue. ” The authors of this paper, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, say that their analysis “is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. ”

These conclusions have since been corroborated by additional studies that found that Indian farmers using Bt crops spend less money on pesticides and earn more money from higher yields. In fact, a 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that in India “the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. ”

In 2013, after attending Shiva’s talk at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I asked her about the mounting evidence that contradicted her “suicide seed” claims. She dismissed them breezily and said, “Those are the Monsanto studies. ” But neither Monsanto nor the biotechnology industry funded any of the aforementioned studies. Never mind; that same week, she went on a news program in the United States and said: “Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter million. It’s a genocide. ”

Keith Kloor’s article puts a bright spotlight on what Shiva is doing.  It is obvious that Vandana Shiva will only stop this sham when it becomes unprofitable. So please help make it unprofitable for her to continue — direct your friends to the true history behind this destructive myth.

There’s No End In Sight For California’s Extreme Water Drought

stressedSage.pngHenry I. Miller addresses the irony of extreme drought in areas where the politically correct but ignorant voters enact bans on the technology that can help farmers produce more with less water:

Water is in increasingly short supply in many parts of the United States.  Here in California, where most of the state is experiencing “extreme” drought, 2013 was the driest year on record, and we have had no relief during what should be the height of the rainy season.  Moreover, there’s no end in sight: The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service forecasts that the drought will “persist or intensify” at least through April.

Reservoir levels are dropping, the snow pack is almost nonexistent, and many communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage.  In the city of Santa Cruz, for example, restaurants can no longer serve drinking water unless diners specifically request it; Marin County residents have been asked not to clean their cars or to do so only at “eco-friendly” car washes; and there are limitations on watering lawns in towns in Mendocino County.

(…snip…) Drought may not be partisan, but it does raise critical issues of governance, public policy and how best to use the state’s natural resources.  It also offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: Ironically, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Marin counties — all of which boast politically correct, far-left politics — are among the local jurisdictions that have banned a key technology that could conserve huge amounts of water.

The technology is genetic engineering performed with modern molecular techniques, sometimes referred to as genetic modification (GM) or gene-splicing, which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do spectacular new things, including conserve water.  In the United States and about 30 other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.

Even with R&D being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, genetically engineered crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world.  Cumulatively, over 3.7 billion acres of them have been cultivated by more than 17 million farmers in 30 countries during the past 15 years – without disrupting a single ecosystem or causing so much as a tummy ache in a consumer.

(…snip…) Incredibly, in spite of the intensive, safe and successful cultivation of genetically engineered plants for almost two decades, four California counties have banned them entirely, either via legislation or referendums.  These actions in Trinity, Mendocino, Marin and Santa Cruz counties represent political leadership and voter ignorance at their absolute worst.  The measures are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk: They permit the use of new varieties of plants and microorganisms that have been crafted with less precise and predictable techniques but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones.