In my skeptic blogger persona, I am OK with seeking an audience rather than having it come looking for me. I attend the annual Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair to engage clairvoyants, ghost hunters, and Shamanic healers. I have exchanged e-mails with the head of the Quad Cities Creation Science Association, though I’ve yet to elicit from him an explanation of how creationism works using the Scientific Method. Then there is the Facebook friend who presumably has never heard of Germ Theory and who thinks disease is the result of vaccines, not viruses. Not that diseases are any big deal, mind you, since honey-drenched lemons and a coconut water chaser will cure them all.
There have been some memorable conversations while trying to plant skeptic seeds. I had this online exchange with a 9/11 truther. While less profane, another truther insisted no evidence was needed that the government committed this evil deed because the government commits evil deeds, an especially literal example of circular reasoning.
While I have yet to score a full-blown convert, I plug away through the labyrinth of scientific stupidity, cognitive dissonance, and paranoia. Even in this arena, standing out as among the most unhinged is the anti-GMO throng. Extremists have burned testing fields, vandalized tractors, and attacked farmers. Mike Adams, the pinnacle of anti-science lunacy, even encouraged the murder of those expressing positive opinions about genetic modification.
In one of the more unfortunate cases, University of Florida professor Kevin Folta withdrew from public life because of unrelenting harassment. Folta had held regular podcasts and seminar presentations outlining the science of GMOs. This explication of biotechnology earned him the wrath of the anti-GMO militia, who hammered him with Freedom of Information requests for e-mails on his work computer. FOIA is valuable government accountability tool, but here the act was abused, and Folta was subject to it since he worked at a public university.
As anti-GMO activists had intended, Folta’s work was hampered him having to reply to the unending wave of requests. This was also a fishing expedition in which searchers were hoping to find evidence Folta was a biotechnology industry insider. One e-mail indicated that one of the seminars he spoke at was co-sponsored by Monsanto, although Folta was not paid by the company. This innocuous fact was absurdly presented as proof that he was being funded by Monsanto, he was called the company’s whore, and GMO Free USA is leading a campaign to have him fired.
Folta’s ordeal is unsurprising to me. In my dealings with anti-GMO types, I have never had one of them make an attempt at science. When pro-GMO activists point out that 1,783 studies suggest GMOs are safe, and that no studies reach the opposite conclusion, a common response is that the speaker is a Monsanto employee. Even if this were true, it would be an ad hominem that has nothing to do with the accuracy of the claim.
Opponents of biotechnology unknowingly making public proclamations of their ignorance when they dress as Crazy Corn Men, post memes of apples taking bites out of little boys, and carry signs with images of syringes being injected into wheat. Let’s take a closer look at the reality of genetically modified organisms, or as their opponents call them, Frankenfood.
Food has been modified and improved for millennium through artificial selection. GMO technology allows scientists and farmers to be more precise with these modifications and accomplish in a year what might have taken centuries. From Popular Science: “Scientists extract a bit of DNA from an organism, modify or make copies of it, and incorporate it into the genome of the same species or a different one. They repeat the experiment until they get a genome with the right information in the right place.”
This has yielded multiple benefits, including golden rice, which is infused with Vitamin A and could therefore help prevent blindness and infant mortality in the Third World. While it astounds me that anyone could be opposed a technology that prevents babies from going blind or dying, I know these people exist, so I searched them out and found Greenpeace. The organization wrote, “It is irresponsible to impose golden rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs and cultural heritage.”Greenpeace, however, cited no examples of Sri Lankan and Angolan preschoolers being force fed golden rice. Then there’s the matter of expressing more concern for a hypothetical cultural insensitivity than preventable toddler deaths.
I’m unsure how diabetic Greenpeace members square their position on genetic modification with their health condition, as insulin is a GMO. Another triumph of genetic modification was saving the Hawaiian papaya. Additionally, some GMOs have developed drought tolerance and this biotechnology can be used to remove allergens from food. Genetic modification may even someday allow those with peanut allergies to enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures, the PB and J sandwich.
Most anti-GMO types think they prefer natural foods. Yet the food we eat today is wonderfully unnatural, having been modified for millennium. For instance, the original banana was tiny, green, and full of large, hard seeds. Even nature has produced a GMO, as the sweet potato developed when soil bacteria entered the plant and modified it. All this was clearly unknown to one online poster, who was mortified to learn that there was a hybrid of two broccoli plants out there. She wrote, “No, no no. Real food, please.” At least she said please. But what she has in manners she lacks in agrarian history acumen. For broccoli is a consequence of the selective breeding of wild cabbage plants over the last 2,500 years. What’s more, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts were all bred from the same cabbage that is the great-grandpappy of today’s broccoli.
A frequent false claim is that GMOs, through the Round Up that is often sprayed on them, indirectly lead to super weeds. But this cannot be blamed on GMOs. Weeds do attempt, and succeed, at becoming resistant to Round Up and all other herbicides because that’s what weeds do. If not, there would be no more weeds.
Yet another fabrication is that Europe has banned GMOs. This is true in only two of 51 countries, and even if accurate, would be the ad populum fallacy that wouldn’t provide any evidence of GMO danger.
The anti-GMO crowd also confuses correlation and causation by saying that the increase in genetic modification is to blame for the increase in food allergies. But testing is required when genetic modification is attempted on foods known to cause allergies, primarily milk, eggs, nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Biotech developers work with the FDA to ensure that any new GMO foods do not produce new allergens. This highlights the key point that, not only is there GMO testing, but if there ever were a danger, it would be to a specific GMO, so demonizing the entire technology is unfounded.
Perhaps the most misinformed idea about genetic modification is thinking that almost everything about a GMO has been altered. This is why you get clowns driving around with tomato-fishes on their cars. In truth, only one to four genes are affected with genetic modification, while up to 300,000 genes are impacted when using traditional breeding.
It would be stating the obvious to note that there never has been a tomato fish. Less known is that there was never even a commercial tomato with fish genes inserted, and that this was another victory for GMO testing. Frost will inhibit tomato growth and one possible solution considered was to copy an antifreeze gene from flounder and transfer it to tomatoes. The resultant fruit was shown to be ineffective in trials and was never used since it would have been of no use to farmers. Nor would it be beneficial for farmers to grow, handle, and consume dangerous crops, poison their soil, and increase their use of carcinogenic herbicides and pesticides, all of which they would be doing if what anti-GMO types are saying was true.